Source: Jason Vondersmith, Pamplin Media Group

The big, grand Bagdad Theater was built in 1927, the same year the movie “The Jazz Singer” became the first commercial talkie film, using sound-on-disc technology of the Vitaphone.

Now, past the 75-year mark of operation, the McMenamins-owned Bagdad is in the midst of another transformation. It’s going digital projection and away from film, following in the long line of movie theaters that change for the sake of keeping up with technology and competition.

Along with the conversion to digital and installation of a bigger screen, a gem of the McMenamins’ collection of establishments at 3710 S.E. Hawthorne Blvd. has been getting an inside makeover with new seats, carpet, decorative curtains, lighting, touch-up paint and audio system and a big cleaning and dusting job.

And, the Bagdad also will show first-run films, starting with “Hunger Games: Catching Fire” in mid-November. McMenamins Inc. will swing the doors open around Nov. 11, says Lars Raleigh, chief operating officer, and possibly show some old favorites to re-introduce the theater to fans, maybe “My Own Private Idaho” and “What The Bleep Do We Know?” — which enjoyed an astonishing 3 1/2-month run in 2004 — before going to the first-run movies of “Catching Fire” and then “The Hobbit.”

It was time, Raleigh says. The Bagdad needed updating. McMenamins bought the theater in 1991, and updated it right away. Previous owners had divided the theater into three screening rooms; McMenamins refurbished things, by first tearing down the walls. Another update took place about eight years ago. But, technology forced the recent change.

“Just with the things going the way of digital, you won’t even be able to get film in a few years,” Raleigh says. “Some studios are not even making film.”

Home theater time

McMenamins features six establishments that show movies, and they will stick with second-run movies, including Kennedy School in Northeast Portland. The Mission Theater on Northwest Glisan Street already has changed its format, going away from second-run movies to mostly focus on issue nights with screenings.

“There are certain rules you have to subscribe to in the first-run world; contractually you play things cleanly, can’t do things while playing a film” like on-site promotions and parties, Raleigh says. “It’s all about percentages of receipts. Our ticket pricing will change; we can’t charge $3, they wouldn’t even let us. But, our pricing is going to be on the lower end. We’re not going into double digits by any means.”

The eats and libations of McMenamins, clearly, will still be featured.

It’s suggested that revamping the Bagdad means keeping up with Cinetopia, which also offers food and brews but in a luxury movie setting. (The Mission was the first such movie pub in Oregon, and McMenamins has been a pioneer in the business).

“You see what other people are doing, but it’s never been part of the discussion,” Raleigh says.

“It’s part of the home-theater business raising expectations. People can sit at home and have fabulous sound and pictures — but not as big a screen — and, in some sense, you’re competing with that. We’re hopefully adding enough other things to get people off the couch. … We watch a little bit of what others are doing (such as Cinetopia), but we do the things that we think are fun.”

Improving look and feel

The Bagdad has a lot of charm, with its architecture, chandeliers and original paintings — as seen in scenes in “What The Bleep?”

Literally, since McMenamins bought the place in 1991, the high walls of the place haven’t been cleaned “and that’s just as long as we’ve owned it. We don’t know if it’s ever been cleaned,” Raleigh says. They have now been cleaned, including removal of efflorescence.

None of the charm will be taken away. Owner Mike McMenamin wouldn’t allow that, Raleigh says.

“Except for the curtains and carpets and seating, I don’t think (people) will even know,” he says. “It’s pretty dark anyway, but we’re adding some accent lighting to light up arches and other lighting to allow visitors to see things before movies and notice how grand it is. It’s going to be nice, with a big screen and an amazing sound system,” although concrete walls, floors and ceilings inhibit premier acoustic sound.

Meanwhile, McMenamins continues to expand, except not in Oregon, but in Washington. A new establishment in Tacoma, in an old four-story Elks Lodge, and in Bothell, at the site of several old school buildings, will be transformed into McMenamins, focused on lodging.