Words by Cate Strom
The Holly Theatre stands on the corner of Holly Street and Sixth Street in downtown Medford. Looking at her sad, dated façade, it’s hard to imagine she ever had any importance at all. Even harder to imagine is that there was a time Medford was considered to be the entertainment capital of Jackson County and Southern Oregon. Once lined with theatres, Main Street was proudly known as “Theatre Row.” Now only The Craterian and The Holly remain, the later having been left in limbo for years.
But as of this spring, The Jefferson Public Foundation (JPR) became the official and proud new custodian of the historic Holly Theatre, and change is in the air. In three to five years’ time, The Holly is anticipated to open and bring fresh energy to a community aching for revival.
With a backstory as steamy and volatile as any struggling screen siren could aspire to, the Holly Theatre has quite a past. Originally built as a vaudeville house, The Holly was also the first theatre in Medford to show “talkies.”
Construction began on Sixth Street and Holly Street in 1927 during a huge explosion of commercial activity spawned by the railroad. The plans for a Spanish Colonial Revival style theatre had only just been announced when the stock market crashed. By the time the Holly was almost complete, the Depression was well under way. It was a time of enormous turmoil. Medford became the seat of a rebellion called “The Good Government Congress,” a populist rebellion fueled by public anger and frustration based on the perceived manipulation of the stock market that had produced the Depression. In addition, the Holly’s contractor was sent to prison for killing a police officer on his porch when he tried to serve him a warrant.
Eventually state militia was sent in to gain control of the community. This was the fiery backdrop to which the Holly opened her doors on a hot summer night in 1930. After a couple of years in operation, she was bought by a competing company and promptly closed in the late 30s. During World War II, she was re-opened to accommodate all the servicemen stationed at Camp White, the former Military Training Facility in White City, only to be closed down again at the end of the war. Reopened again throughout the 1960s and 70s, The Holly showed her last movie in 1984.
Having endured estate disputes, war, the Depression and transition through a dozen different owners, the lady is a survivor if nothing else. But finally, the future looks bright for Holly.
Once restored and operational, the Holly will be the largest indoor venue for performing arts in Medford, boasting a brand new stage as well as all new auditorium seating.
There are plans to host international music events, live broadcasted high definition performances such as San Francisco Opera, film (art house, documentaries, special events, foreign) and of course live theatre. The Holly will also showcase smaller emerging artists consistent with JPR programming.
With no overhanging balconies to interfere with sound flow, acoustics will be top notch. The décor inside will be faithfully replicated, right down to the upholstery, light fixtures and sumptuous gold and red interior palette that glowed on opening night. Even an exact copy of the original 33 foot vertical neon marquee sign will proudly hang out front, signaling to all that Holly is back in business.
Current economic times provide challenges for modern radio. JPR’s need to diversify has led to such innovations as Jeffnet (one of the first internet service providers in the country set up by a radio station) and the restoration of the Cascade Theatre in nearby Redding. Reflecting on the afterglow of Cascade Theatre’s immense success, Ron Kramer, executive director of Jefferson Public Radio and The JPR Foundation, says,
“Bringing back to life a cool historic theatre building that is now productively contributing to the community again is one of the things I’m proudest for having done at JPR.”
That success fueled JPR’s initiative to tackle yet another forgotten community relic.
“We can and will be a very significant factor in helping Medford achieve its aspirations, and doing so in a historically authentic, sensitive, productive way is something really special,” asserts Kramer. “There’s a thing about historic theatres that sets them apart. They’re different. No commercial enterprise would do this because it just doesn’t pencil out. You can’t just swing open the doors. If you’re going to restore a historic theatre you’ve got to know what you’re doing. And we know how to do this.”
The potential for ripple effects that will lead the way to a new Golden Age for Medford is significant. The Holly promises to be a state of the art facility with 21st Century standards and contemporary expectations, contained within a retro-chic ambiance. Welcome back, Holly!
To learn more about the Holly Theatre Restoration Project, visit www.hollytheatre.org.