PENDLETON — Victor Kucera didn’t set out to write a book about the Rivoli Theatre.
It all started innocently enough at an anthropological conference in Washington six years ago when he noticed a seminar entitled “An analysis of candy wrappers from the historic Rivoli Theater.” Intrigued, Kucera signed up.
“Little did I know this moment marked the start of a multi-year book project,” he said later. “I should have run from the lobby. Instead, I took an early seat at the seminar.”
There he learned of findings by Eastern Oregon University students who spent a weekend earlier that year collecting debris from the Rivoli, an old movie house being renovated in Pendleton. They looked for old ticket stubs, vintage Milk Duds boxes and any other interesting detritus they could uncover.
The seminar sparked memories of Kucera’s boyhood in Pendleton, where he had spent plenty of Saturdays at the Rivoli with his junior high friends.
“It was a regular haunt,” said Kucera, now 75. “We would sit up underneath the projection booth and be cool. It was a big part of our lives.”
Kucera, who learned that the theater was being renovated by the Rivoli Restoration Coalition, began researching the Rivoli and the period in which it thrived.
“You just keep lifting up the next rock, going down the next rabbit hole and all of a sudden you have a pile of data,” he said.
The author of three other history books decided to write about the Rivoli and Pendleton’s other theaters and the coexistence between them and the city’s saloons, gambling halls, brothels and opium dens. He met Andrew Picken, president of the Rivoli Restoration Coalition, and surprised Picken by offering to write a book on the Rivoli, with all proceeds going to the restoration effort.
“Vic, from square one, told us that he was donating the book, including the copyright and all intellectual property, to the Rivoli Coalition,” Picken said.
Kucera, who now lives near Tucson, Arizona, spent several weeks inside the East Oregonian‘s archives poring over newspapers page by page. Mesmerized, he often only realized it was time to stop when the printing press roared to life for the evening run.
“He made many trips to Pendleton,” Picken said. “He did archival searches of every kind you can imagine. He went to various museums and collections and libraries, and got a lot of great oral history about the building and the town.”
The 502-page book is available at the Piece of Pendleton store on Main Street for $29.95. Out-of-town buyers can contact Pendleton Underground Tours Executive Director Brooke McKay regarding shipping at email@example.com or 541-379-1215.
Kucera said a history bug has lived inside him since he was a boy, but he didn’t thoroughly unleash it until after retiring from a 30-year career in corporate public relations, lobbying and consulting. In retirement, he and his wife Linda spent 13 years cruising Alaska and British Columbia in their boat. It was then that he started writing history books and articles, mostly about Japanese internment, the early fur trade, logging and Northwest archeology.
While researching “Rivoli,” he learned the theater was one of 28 theaters in Pendleton, including Milarkey Hall, the Alta Theater and the LaDow Opera House. The Rivoli’s 60-year run came to an end in 1981 as drive-in movies, cable television and other entertainment alternatives gained popularity. During its heyday, the Rivoli was a popular gathering spot with its classy red velvet curtains and first-run movies. In the early days, a Wurlitzer organ accompanied silent films.
“The Rivoli was clearly the top of the heap in Eastern Oregon in terms of its interior and the fact that when it opened it carried first-run movies,” Kucera said. “It was uptown stuff. It was such an enormous convening place, really a cultural change agent in a way.”
One chapter, titled “Protecting Pendleton’s Morals,” deals with censorship of movies. Early on, theater owners abided by the decisions of censorship boards. Censorship violations included such things as thugs placing a victim in front of a moving train, a woman poisoning her husband, drinking alcohol, train robberies and lynching.
“At that point, every little burg in the country had a censor board by very well-meaning people who didn’t want the minds of their youth polluted,” Kucera said. “Pendleton set up its own censor board.”
In 1952, the Supreme Court voted to bring films under free speech and free press provisions of the Constitution, and censorship ended.
The theater kept its prices low. In 1922, adults paid 35 cents and children got in for a dime. Over its 60-year run, Kucera said, the theater sold more than 10 million tickets.
Other chapters tell of Pendleton’s bawdy history and its connection to the town’s theaters. “Pendleton’s exuberant years,” Picken explained, “helped and hindered theater growth. Large increases in attendance didn’t happen until the first liquor prohibition laws in 1908. Detailing this, ‘Rivoli’ teems with stories and images that make the Wild West days come alive.”
The book also tells of George Hackathorn, a film actor who grew up in Pendleton, appeared in 59 films, and then slid from fame after he became ill and doctors ordered the removal of all his teeth. He refused, but died at age 44.
Kucera is a Hackathorn fan who visited the grave in the Hollywood Forever cemetery in Los Angeles where the actor is buried. While there, Kucera noticed the grave wasn’t marked by a headstone. He got permission to purchase one and it will likely be in place later this year.
It’s been a long and interesting journey for the “Rivoli” author. Kucera figured he would spend six months to a year writing the book. It took three years.
Profits from the book will help reboot the coalition’s efforts to renovate the Rivoli. The demolition process is complete and the 5,000-square-foot building has a new roof.
“For about the first six months of COVID, we hit the pause button,” Picken said. “We are working on a number of funding proposals that will be pursued in the first quarter of the year.”
Eventually, the theater will essentially be a building within a building with steel framing that supports the weight of the balcony, stairs, catwalk and everything else. The venue will function as a multipurpose entertainment center for the community.