Local man’s vision brings historic Foster Road theater back to life

The long-shuttered Bob White Theater still exudes character. But the real story here is the local character who has attracted hundreds of volunteers to help turn this abandoned theater into a community entertainment and culture center …

Many people who travel SE Foster Road have wondered what’s behind this theater’s gates – including the man who became the new owner.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
Thanks to the energetic enthusiasm of East Portland resident Nick Storie, the historic “Bob White Theater” may soon reopen its doors to the public as a movie and entertainment center.

The last films that longtime neighbors remember being projected at the theater, located at 6423 S.E. Foster Road, were X-rated Russ Meyers films.

After that, the doors closed; some thought forever.

Enjoying “working the crowd”, Bob Storie – the new owner of the Bob White Theater on SE Foster Road – listens to neighbors’ suggestions.

The 1924 cinema theater building includes housing and retail shops. The theater was turned into a pipe organ restoration shop in 1990 by the new owner, Dale Haskin. He also built a two-story, tilt-up concrete warehouse on the back side of the building.

When Haskin passed on, realtors showed the property to potential buyers for years without success. Because it was filled with pipe organ parts and shop equipment, the needed clean-up effort was daunting.

Here were some of the 200 people who visited in December, coming to learn more about plans for the Bob White Theater, meet the new owner, and look over preliminary plans.

Then, along came Nick Storie. “I’m not a west Portland developer. I live near SE 75th Avenue and Holgate Boulevard.”

Although he was raised on the East Coast, Storie said he came to Oregon to attend Oregon Tech in the 1960s, and liked Portland so much that he bought his first house at 1612 SE Spokane Street in Sellwood back in 1965, and bought a second house – the one next door – a year later.

“I’m told the fellow who repaired organs here was a bit of an eccentric,” Storie began. “He’d made his money, and had the time and resources to chase his passion, which was working on big theater organs.”

Bob Storie can’t help but smile, as he stands behind the snack bar of the theater he and his family is restoring on SE Foster Road.

Storie, now retired from his career in highway and marine construction – primarily as a heavy equipment operator – said that driving past the vacant building caused him to dream about what this property could be.

Recalling having to get up in front of an audience when he was in college, Storie told us, “I thought to myself that every kid deserves to have the humbling experience of being on stage. This space has too much upside potential to be let go.”

Storie then asked to see the property. “I remember walking through this place with my daughter and my two sons. Afterward, just out the door, my daughter asked, ‘Dad what you know about running a theater?’”

When most other people are at home having dinner, Bob Storie is still on the job, taking a call to help move forward the project, while standing in the theater building that was, only weeks ago, filled with pipe organ parts.

But, observing that the theater came with two other buildings in the package, he replied, “I know much about running a theater as you do. But I do know about warehouses and apartments. I’m pretty sure I can make this work.”

Now, months into the project, Storie says his family is “onboard” with the project. “This the first time my son has ever been interested in real estate! The kids’re pushing me to talk with the architect, work with others on the façades, and start talking with stage lighting people.”

Massive clean-out project begins
Standing on the main floor of the theater near the stage, Storie talked about the condition in which he found the place.

“The main theater had heaps of organ parts and pieces scattered across the 525 seats and in the aisles. Between the theater seats and the stage was a wood shop, and there was sawdust piled up nearly a foot deep throughout the theater. The clean-out task was monumental.”

With the help of a crew and volunteers, Storie has filled more than a half dozen drop boxes, like this one, with debris, as he cleans out the Foster Road theater building he bought.

On December 10, Storie had hoped to show off the building, but due to the massive amount of clutter inside, officials refused to allow visitors inside. Yet, out in the parking lot, 237 people signed in, expressing interest. “A number of them volunteered to help. Thanks to them, and our friends, we’ve already filled more than a half-dozen Portland Disposal & Recycling drop boxes.”

Storie’s eyes lit up as he looked around the theater, which is still in remarkably good condition – complete with massive chandeliers.

“The theater isn’t a huge hall, but large enough to make it interesting,” Storie enthused. “I am seeing this as a neighborhood theater. We’ll have a stage for a live performances, and music. Between the seats and the stage would be a dance floor. And, I can see us showing independent and foreign language films.”

He’s not trying to “horn in” on other facilities’ business, Storie insisted. “I’m trying to turn this theater back to the locals – to have a place where the young and the old, families and neighbors, will enjoy coming.”

Not named after quail
By the way, the Bob White Theater never was named after a bird, Storie confided.

“I was contacted by the granddaughter of the man who built the place. She said his name was Robert White! Old newspaper clippings clearly show it was called ‘Bob White’s Theater on Foster Road’.”

Looking down from the “Bob White Theater” balcony, one can see the potential that Storie envisions for this neighborhood theater.

Renovation efforts continue
As he toured the theater with us, Storie headed up to the balcony, pointing out the window-isolated “cry room” for noisy children – an idea many adults would like to see in modern theaters. The projection room featured a Christie Xenon projector with “sidewinder” reels, making it easier to show 35mm films.

“Our next big step is to get City of Portland permits and see what we need to do to get into compliance. We’ve got to work to do on the HVAC, the roof, and lighting.”

The hope, he concluded, is to have the doors open for limited activities by mid-summer. “It won’t be all that pretty, but we hope to get it underway then.”

We plan to follow his progress. You can check in at his Facebook site: CLICK HERE.

© 2012 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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