ATHENA — Athena’s Gem Theatre is now the first stop east of the Cascades on the Oregon Film Trail.
The historic theater, which began as a saloon and restaurant in 1901 before converting for film viewing and eventually closing in 1968, was given an official spot in the state’s storied film history Saturday, June 27. With a mural gracing the exterior of the theater’s western wall, a sign was unveiled in honor of the number of scenes shot in the nearby wheat fields of Thorn Hollow for F.W. Murnau’s 1930 silent film “City Girl.”
“The idea is to drive people out to these towns to recognize these filming locations and connect them to the history of filmmaking in the state,” said Tim Williams, executive director of Oregon Film. “But also to get them to experience the towns and everything around them.”
The movie was filmed in August 1928 starring Mary Duncan, whose image adorns the side of the building, and Charles Farrell. Its story follows the relationship of a farmer’s son (Farrell) and a waitress from the city (Duncan) as they fall in love and the challenges they face living together on a farm.
During their couple months of filming, the crew lived in Pendleton and Duncan was named the honorary queen of the 1928 Pendleton Round-Up. Local residents and livestock were used in the film for scenes of harvesting wheat.
Rob McIntrye has spent the last 16 years managing the community project of restoring the Gem Theatre with the help of local high school students, residents and funding from a variety of grants.
As the restoration project took shape and more research was done, McIntrye said they found references to the local filming and started to uncover more of its connection to the community. A local woman who lived in the area at the time, but has since died, even told McIntyre of her memories of the filming that included her husband assisting the crew.
Oregon Film has been in communication with McIntrye as the restoration project has progressed, and though there’s still thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours of labor still needed to complete it, the June 27 dedication at least crossed one item of the list.
“We had always said to Rob there were two things we really wanted to do,” Williams said. “Number one was this, put up a sign and recognize it, and two was when he’s ready to go, we want to screen ‘City Girl.’”
The film never actually played in Athena as the theater closed down during the Great Depression, but McIntrye is committed to it being the first film that will be shown when the renovated theater is fully operational.
“It would be incredible just to show it here almost a century later,” he said.
The dedication makes the Athena area as the 15th stop on the Oregon Film Trail, but the first in Eastern Oregon. Williams said future locations have already been identified, and locations are set to be dedicated in Baker City and the Wallowa Mountains.