As part of the America's Haunted Road Trip series, Ghosthunting Oregon takes readers along on a guided tour of some of the Beaver State's most haunted historic locations. Local author Donna Stewart researched each location thoroughly before visiting, digging up clues for the paranormal aspect of each site. Stewart takes readers to some of the spookiest haunts across the state, including Oaks Park in Portland, where visitors have reported a ghostly apparition of a child in a 1920s or 1930s style dress; the O'Kane Building in central Oregon, where people have reported seeing "ghostly smoke" and strange lights; and Pioneer Park in Pendleton, where some have reported apparitions and hearing voices. With a copy of Ghosthunting Oregon in hand, readers can visit some of the spookiest haunts across the state and compare their experiences.
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Aside from its ghosts, the Bagdad Theatre has other claims to fame. In 1975, Hollywood came to the Bagdad Theatre when Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher, and Michael Douglas attended the Oregon premiere of the now-classic film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. And in 1991 it hosted the Oregon premiere of My Own Private Idaho, which starred River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves, less than two years before the film world lost Phoenix.
Universal Studios funded construction of the Bagdad Theatre in 1927 for $100,000, spending $25,000 of that on a state-of-the-art organ. It wasn’t meant to be just another theater on a corner in the Hawthorne District of Portland but instead a centerpiece for an entire neighborhood and something to be admired. Taking up four city lots, the Bagdad rose five stories high and had the capacity to seat 1,500. In keeping with the “movie-star style” of Universal Studios, they held nothing back when it came to making the theater a sight to behold.
The Bagdad had no specific style but was a cross between Middle Eastern and Spanish styles and was proudly described as “an oasis of entertainment.” Most theaters in the area at that time leaned toward a Middle Eastern theme, and the Bagdad also played to that, dressing its ushers in Arab-style attire.
People in the Hawthorne neighborhood in Portland waited on the edges of their seats for the January 14, 1927, grand opening, and it certainly did not disappoint. On hand was Portland mayor George Baker, who was himself a former theater owner, as well as silent film star Marilyn Mills. During the grand opening, the only lights to be seen in the neighborhood were those of the Bagdad marquee and the search lights that played across the night sky. Although the theater was able to seat 1,500 attendees, hundreds were left outside to celebrate in the bitter rain.
Because of its partnership with Universal Studios, the Bagdad was the only theater besides the larger downtown theaters that was allowed to show first-run films. It brought a small bit of Hollywood to the Hawthorne neighborhood. Even orchestra director Leon Strashun was a star in his own right, having studied with Peter Tchaikovsky and played lead violin at the Metropolitan Orchestra in New York.
Opening two years before the talkies debuted, the Bagdad also hosted live stage shows, live orchestra performances, and vaudeville acts. And when there were no acts scheduled, people were happy to simply wander the theater and admire the decor, the fountain, the murals, and the female ushers dressed as “Arabians.” The Bagdad made its way into the hearts of many Portlandians.
The Bagdad changed successfully with the times, from silent films to talkies, always offering a wide variety of movies and entertainment. During the Prohibition era it is rumored that the theater included a speakeasy, and in the 1970s it was home to an art house and a hippie hangout. Everyone was welcome at the Bagdad.
Not long after the premiere of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, it became apparent that the Bagdad was in need of some cosmetic repair. At that time, brothers Mike and Brian McMenamin bought the theater, restored it, added a pub, and opened the doors once again to enthusiastic movie lovers as the Bagdad Movie House and Pub. They hosted the premiere of My Own Private Idaho and Michael Moore’s The Big One.
The McMenamins are well known in the Portland area for buying and restoring old theaters, ballrooms, hotels, and pubs and turning them all into thriving businesses. Most of the locations they buy and restore have a strong haunted history. The Bagdad Theatre is no differentit has a long record of paranormal activity. People seem to know who the ghosts of the Bagdad areat least most of them.
There is speculation that those who die in theaters, whether by suicide, murder, or accident, often remain there because of an emotional attachment to the site, because they loved to act, or because they enjoyed the job they held there. Maybe some of them just continue on with what they did in life or keep an eye on how others now perform their jobs.
One story claims that a former stagehanda young man who wanted to be on the stage instead of behind itcommitted suicide in the Bagdad’s backstage area and can now often be seen crossing in front of the screen and heard whispering behind it. So perhaps in death, he has achieved his dream of being a performer.
Another ghost seems concerned about the work done by employees. Papers are often shifted, cleaning supplies are moved or removed from a room altogether, and many workers have reported hearing footsteps following them during the night as they performed their duties. This is especially common in the kitchen, the swinging doors to which are often seen moving with no explanation, as if someone were leaning against them on the other side.
“Nothing bad,” one young woman told me. “It just feels like a mom or a grandma making sure I am doing it the right way. So I try to do it the right way.”
A more discomforting type of ghost is often seen, heard, and felt in the downstairs restroom. Many claim to have heard someone walk in while they were in the restroom. They smelled men’s cologne, and they had the strong feeling that someone was watching them from over the top of the stall. And while no one has claimed to feel threatened, they do say it is an awkward sensation. The last place anyone would want to feel spied on is in a bathroom stall.
“All that came to mind was that old men’s cologne called Hai Karate; it was that tacky and pungent,” one woman who said she had had a similar experience and heard footsteps in the restroom told me with a laugh. “Did I feel like I was being watched? Not really. I mean, I couldn’t get over the bad cologne! And, seriously, if a dead guy wants to peek over a bathroom stall at me, all the more power to him. Who says ghosts can’t be playful now and then?”
I agreed. And I loved her attitude toward ghosts and the paranormal.
Other random activities could be attributed to the paranormal but do not seem to be affiliated with any specific ghost. It could be that many spirits linger at the Bagdad.
People claim to have seen a young female sitting in different seats in the theater, for example, never making a noise and only visible for a few seconds before fading away. There have even been reports of children playing in the aisles. But when people notice and mention the sounds, they cease immediately.
One thing is for certainthe history of the Bagdad is alive within the restored walls. It is still quite the sight to behold in Portland.
The Bagdad is now a first-run theater with a screen that is 50% larger than in most theaters. It boasts a 20,000-watt surround-sound system, a K Prime digital projector, and lush rocker seating. Everything is state-of-the-art at the Bagdad, including closed captioning and other options for the hearing impaired.
Like the theater itself, the concession stand has grown up and into the 21st century as well. Tried-and-true treats like popcorn, sodas, and candy remain, but visitors can also enjoy an expanded menu that includes items like fresh-baked pizza, a selection of tap beers, and an ever-growing menu of delicacies. The theater also has gluten-free selections, vegetarian selections, and a host of burgers and sandwiches. And you don’t need to wait in long lines because your food can be delivered right to your theater seat.
You will still get a grand glimpse of the Bagdad’s heyday as soon as you enter the theater, with its balconies, vintage lighting and decor, and massively high ceilings. It is a combination of luxury and history that will not disappoint. Enjoy a movie in comfort, have a microbrew or two if you are so inclined, and meet the ghosts that might be seated right next to you.
Table of ContentsAcknowledgments
Welcome to America’s Haunted Road Trip
GREATER PORTLAND AREA
1: Bagdad Theatre, Portland
2: Benson Hotel, Portland
3: Cathedral Park, Portland
4: ComedySportz, Portland
5: Heathman Hotel, Portland
6: Hollywood Theatre, Portland
7: Lone Fir Pioneer Cemetery, Portland
8: Oaks Park, Portland
9: Shanghai Tunnels, Portland
10: Stark Street, Portland
11: White Eagle Saloon, Portland
12: Witch’s Castle, Portland
13: Bush House Museum, Salem
14: Elsinore Theatre, Salem
15: Heceta Head Lighthouse, Florence
16: Marshfield Pioneer Cemetery, Coos Bay
17: Old Wheeler Hotel, Wheeler
18: World War II Lookout Bunker, Charleston
19: Yaquina Bay Lighthouse, Newport
20: Darkwing Manor and Morguetorium, Medford
21: Lithia Park, Ashland
22: Oregon Vortex, Gold Hill
23: Schmidt House, Grants Pass
24: McCann House, Bend
25: O’Kane Building, Bend
26: Old St. Francis School, Bend
27: Redmond Hotel, Redmond
Mount Hood–The Gorge
28: Columbia Gorge Hotel, Hood River
29: Edgefield, Troutdale
30: Malheur Butte, Ontario
31: Pioneer Park, Pendleton
32: Ye Olde Castle Restaurant, Burns
Oregon Haunted Road Trip Travel Guide
Visiting Haunted Sites
Additional Haunted Sites
About the Author