The Fourth of Three Wishes: Portland’s Aladdin Theatre
If it’s lucky, a place gets three wishes. The Aladdin Theatre, built in 1927, located in Portland’s now-gentrifying southeast quadrant, got four wishes and hasn’t needed a djinni since.
People know The Aladdin today as a concert and comedy venue, capacity 620, with its few surviving touches of vintage décor and its reputation for intimate shows, all barely hinting at its colorful (and sordid?) past.
The word, intimate, is the giveaway. The Aladdin’s third wish was for a pornographic film theatre, a wish which ran its course for over 30 years, debuting such films as the 1972 golden-age classic, “Deep Throat.” Yet theatre is the true keyword, historically: The Aladdin showed talkies for nearly 40 years after being restyled under its existing name in 1934, after a failed run at vaudeville as Geller’s Theatre and a 1927 Christmas opening which should certainly count for some theatricality. Its second and first wishes, cinema and theatre before it, dying and recast, showed The Aladdin’s penchant for changing its tune from the first time the djinni left the bottle.
During my 4 years in Portland, I saw two shows there—both of them amazing in their own ways. And this is coming from a guy who, truth be told, doesn’t even like capital-m music. Not that much.
Music is just, frankly, not my thing. My tastes don’t update: I still listen to the Joan Baez and Harry Chapin CD’s my parents played in the car on childhood road trips. Nor am I plugged into the scene, culturally or historically. When my first college writing professor asked us to name off favorite poets, I was not one of the students who said Bob Dylan. (In fact, at the time, I objected to the very suggestion—though in a Backwords piece two years ago, reformed, I made the argument in favor.) When I go to a gay club for some dancing with friends, they know all the remixes, and I bounce dumbly along. You’d have to introduce me to an artist, if I should know about them: I’ll never go looking on my own. With poetry or photography, you can trust I’ll do some recommending. But not with music: I really am clueless about it.
This lack isn’t due to my surrounding influences. My dad’s an audiophile. One of my best friends at work, Ian, is an obsessive record collector—he used to link me music nerd message boards or send me Soundcloud tracks to distract me through data entry. Jason, my first boyfriend, works on Broadway for Christ’s sake!
It’s fitting, then, that I saw these two shows at The Aladdin Theatre of all places: a washed-up vaudeville house turned cinema turned porn bijou turned concert venue. Music wasn’t even its third choice!
The shows were the British folk and pop artist, Patrick Wolf, and bubble-gum pop singer, Mika; in September 2012 and March 2013 respectively, and general admission to not-quite-packed houses for under $30 apiece. Like with Joanna Newsom, Patrick Wolf was the fault of an ex-lover, Sam; he introduced me to Wolf’s manifold stylistic range and instrumental breadth while I was in college in Utah. I’d loved Wolf’s album, The Magic Position, released in 2007, since Sam’s introducing it to me. And I was super-excited to hear “House” (from Wolf’s 4th album, Lupercalia) played live in its first tour. Strangely, I’d walk by Bimbo’s 365 Club in North Beach, San Francisco, the year before Wolf’s show at The Aladdin: in San Francisco, I’d missed Patrick by literally a day, before Bimbo’s had had time to change the signage on their marquee.
Mika came to me much in the same way—through friends at university—when I turned down tickets to one of his concerts in Salt Lake, because an acquaintance begged me to let him take a new boyfriend instead. I liked Mika, but not enough to resist the acquaintance. And I still couldn’t tell you which songs belong to which album.
So what makes me enjoy a concert, you’re probably asking? Intimacy, quite honestly. Being with friends. And probably, if I may venture an additional guess, coming at music sideways…
Like The Aladdin itself, something is gained by the strangeness of a sideways journey and a few failed wishes. Mika’s show was literally titled, “An Intimate Evening,” which resonates more like candlelit anniversary dinner followed by an opera than glittery gyrating queer-boys (a good chunk of Mika’s fan base). More to the point, neither Mika nor Wolf show up on my radar much anymore—dim as it is. So far as I know, they’re both still making music: I just don’t hear about it nowadays. And Wolf, who civilly-married his boyfriend in 2011, has thoroughly accepted domestic bliss and mostly disappeared from the touring schedules. (He’s still active on social media…)
And like capital-m music, The Aladdin thankfully isn’t going anywhere. Despite Portland’s new round of gentrification, quickly sweeping through SE, the venue keeps a busy schedule and stays successful. It is intimate, too. Some shows are 21+, allowing for a small but impressive range of local beer and wine to be served to guests. Plus, you can always see what’s going on on-stage, as, according to one Google reviewer, “no matter where you sit you are getting a good seat.” I took a date to one show; and the other, drinks and snacks in our hands, I enjoyed with close friends.
The Aladdin won’t need another wish for a long time yet. It’s doing fine, with the wherewithal to sway even this non-ascribant for an evening or two. Perhaps I’ll be granted another wish instead—and I’ll see another show there soon.
Matthew D. Kulisch
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