The Old Portola Movie Theater Was A Gateway To Good Times

A friend of mine who is fluent in Italian says the name "Portola" translates into "The Portal."

But now that I have put this down, doubts set in. Maybe my friend isn't fluent in Italian at all. Perhaps he just eats lots of pasta.

Anyway, I went over to visit the old Portola theater the other day and the name dates me. The movie house was known as the Portola only from 1919 to 1942.

Then it got a refurbishing, new owners and a change of name. Since then it has been called the Admiral - because it's practically at California Avenue Southwest and Southwest Admiral Way in West Seattle.

I met a nice gentleman who runs the Admiral. His name is Al Dabestani and Al's partner is Jack Clark. Together they have a company called A Theatre Near You, Inc., which owns eight smaller second-run theaters.

Al is Iranian by birth. He went from Iran to Vancouver, B.C., where he got his MBA at the University of British Columbia. He later worked on his doctorate at Simon Fraser, but he never completed his thesis.

Hanging out with Al for a couple of hours, I learned something about small theaters.

It is nice to rent some good films, but you'd better sell some popcorn.

As Al was saying, "The gross income from most second-run theatres is about one-third concessions - soft drinks, candy and popcorn.

"But at the Admiral" - he shrugs - "the concessions are about fifty percent of our income."

TV and its ominous protege, video rentals, have played havoc with theaters.

To indicate the status of theaters, Dabestani notes that "Nationwide, movie houses gross about $5 billion a year."

By comparison, industry figures indicate VCR rentals are running about $8 billion annually.

As we talked along, I'm sure Dabestani thought my note-taking amounted to a concentration on what he was saying. Not intending to be rude, I was setting down things I remembered about West Seattle, the old Portola and theaters in general.

Just off the cuff, I can name a depressing list of movie houses that are gone - torn down; blitzed; just gone.

Naming just a few: such downtowners as the First Avenue, the Green Parrott, the Liberty, Palomar, Embassy, Orpheum and Music Hall.

Today there is a move afoot among the City Council to save what few theaters we have left.

The Portola was my neighborhood theater. I used to go there once or twice a week with fellow kids of the very large Nokes family that lived across my street on 48th Avenue Southwest.

This was in the '20s and '30s. For all I can remember they didn't sell much in the way of candy and popcorn. We were too broke anyway.

I was raised on a cultural diet of such cowboy heroes as Tom Mix, Ken Maynard, Hoot Gibson and Monte Blue. In today's westerns, you find cowboys and ranch girls forever messing around the mesa.

But my guys were different.

Tom Mix hardly touched the lady, or "romantic interest," in one of his westerns. He might touch her in order to save her from the black hats, but it was all heroic and unbelievably platonic.

As for Ken Maynard, Hoot Gibson and Monte Blue, they never did anything that would, today, raise the hackles of Sen. Jesse Helms.

None of these western giants would ever hold a girl tenderly, the prelude to passion. But one of them would, on occasion, kiss his horse - the ultimate in sagebrush chivalry.

One exception, I recall, was that in one picture Hopalong Cassidy kissed the girl. But she died a few moments later, so we forgave him.

Friday night was a big one at the Portola. But so were the Saturday afternoon matinees, when you got in for 15 cents, or even a dime. At the Saturday matinees they would have "talent contests" where kids would come up out of the audience and "perform."

I remember one awful afternoon when I tried to win a toy steam engine by reciting an outrageously saccharine verse. I blew the lines and lost the steam engine.

I lost it to my friend and rival, Tommy Matula, who sang a song. Tommy later became a great athlete and played end for Santa Clara.

What kind of movies do well at the present-day Admiral?

Al Dabestani said it's hard to tell, but he did name the three highest draws he's had since leasing the theater.

The best one was "Crocodile Dundee." The next best was "Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade" and the third was "Back To The Future."

West Seattle preservationists had a lot to say about the Admiral.

A while back they fought its probable demolition and two civic-minded gentlemen, Marc and Cecil Gartin, owners of the C & R Electric Co., bought the property.

They were not even sure of what to do with it. But then along came Dabestani and his partner, Clark, to lease it.

Some $200,000 went into refurbishing the place. It is now a two-screen theater. A fair amount of the old Portola remains - notably the marble-floored entrance with Dolphins designed into the floor.

Inside, above the popcorn counter, is a very large mural, a kind of seascape, and in keeping with the old Portola's nautical theme, the two screens are named "Pier 1" and "Pier 2."

A Theatre Near You, Inc. has civilized ticket pricing - all movies can be seen for only $1.75.

It is considered bad form to bring your own popcorn.

Emmett Watson's column appears Sunday and Thursday in the Northwest section of The Times.