“Rocky pays the rent.”
That’s what the Clinton Street Theater’s previous owner told Lani Jo Leigh as he left the decrepit building, formerly a neighborhood historical landmark, in a state of disrepair.
“He burned all his bridges with distributors and left the place a really, really big mess” by the time Lani became the owner of the Portland theater in 2012, she explained.
Yelp reviews from the years before Lani took over write about how “you could pee in the theater and no one would know because everybody does it,” and that “frostbite was inevitable” during cold winter days inside the theater.
“Everything was dirty, everything was true,” Lani explained. “And there was a big rip in the screen. I only had one working speaker. There was a hole in the bathroom floor that was just covered by duct tape.”
With a Kiva loan, Lani was able to bring the theater back to its majestic state and revive its legendary status as the oldest continuously operating movie house in the entire Pacific Northwest. That’s 112 years of detective stories, foreign indies, plenty of X-rated films in the ’60s and ’70s, grindhouse movies, political documentaries, and of course, weekly Rocky Horror Picture Shows.
With a home equity line of credit and a Kiva loan for support, Lani and her husband Roger bought the theater off a Craigslist ad. From there, the work began -- but the loan made it all just a bit easier.
With the loan, Lani was able to get a custom concession counter -- not stuffed to the gills with trash, like she found the old counter upon purchase of the theater. Additionally, Lani bought new custom doors, cleaned the walls and the bathroom, hired 3 employees and acquired new seats without stained fabric from the ‘70s.
Lani is passionate about the theater and the people who are part of it. Watching The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a Saturday night tradition for many theater geeks and film nerds in the neighborhood, so Lani and her husband ran it for the first 4 ½ years all by themselves. Now, thanks to a second Kiva loan, Lani has employees to help her out.
Lani praises the volunteers she works with as well, like a woman named Violet. Lani has known her since Violet was a young transitioning 15-year-old, and now Violet puts on her own monthly drag shows at the theater.
“She was in the cast of Rocky when I met her, and then she wanted to start volunteering,” Lani said. “For 7 years I've known her, and now she's just this amazing young woman that is producing all kinds of great arts. The show is really creative; they're real artists and performers.”
One of Lani’s favorite parts of running the theater is how much they’re able to support local nonprofit organizations. After the 2016 election, Lani sensed that people were frustrated with the state of the world and politics.
“People are getting so tired of protesting and everything, or just feeling so crazed all the time. So what can we do?” Lani said. “So we said, why not have a community movie night every Monday? We’ll make it completely free then take donations for a different nonprofit every week.”
Since the theater began supporting nonprofits with Monday night community movies, they’ve raised almost $40,000. Neighborhood businesses like People’s Co-Op and Bluebird Realty pay for movies to be shown for free in support of nonprofits like Ride Connection, the Burnside Bridge Project and Sisters of the Road.
That’s what the Clinton Theater is all about for Lani: celebrating the neighborhood and the passionate people of Portland while doing good. Between the Rocky Horror Picture Show every Saturday and community movie nights on Mondays, Lani believes the Clinton Theater is essential to the neighborhood’s spirit.
“The theater has never stopped running,” Lani said. “And that’s amazing.”