The bodyguards standing sentry outside James Brown’s dressing room were as tall as the ceiling–an impossible 20 feet or so, remembers Tim Hills ’93 MA. But maybe it was his nerves.
After a long wait, the door opened and the historian was granted entry. Reclining on a sofa in Portland’s Crystal Ballroom, decked out in a blue leather suit, surrounded by his large entourage, the Godfather of Soul was prepared to entertain Hills’ questions for the next hour.
How did an unassuming public historian who once worked for the Congressional Information Service before earning a graduate degree in history from WSU end up interviewing one of the most celebrated singers of the twentieth century?
Years later, while lunching in the ground floor restaurant of the Crystal, his beard long and working its way toward majority gray, Hills offers his answer. He simply wrote a letter to the owners of McMenamins, his favorite local chain of pubs, entertainment venues, and hotels, and suggested they hire him. Next year he’ll celebrate his twentieth year as staff historian for the hospitality and entertainment company that has rescued and revived many old and historical structures throughout Oregon and Washington.
The Crystal, as Hills calls it, was his first project with McMenamins. It resulted in a book The Many Lives of the Crystal Ballroom and set the template for a career helping the company “keep the past in the present.” The storied venue, built in 1914, had hosted jazzers, cotillions, R&B artists, soul singers, and rockers in its long history before falling out of public use for almost 30 years. In 1995 the downtown ballroom faced demolition. But McMenamins bought it, refurbished it, and tasked Hills with telling its story.
He collected handbills and posters, and dug around for primary documents like letters and newspaper articles. He interviewed person after person.
“You talk to someone and they say you need to talk to this person,” Hills says. “You talk to six different people and, especially from the ’60s era, there would be six different versions of the same night.”
Teasing the real from the unreal was the fun of it, Hills says. One rumor he heard detailed a Led Zeppelin show at the Crystal. Not true. Another dealt with a live recording of the Grateful Dead that ended up on their second album, Anthem of the Sun. True. Glenn Miller played here. So did Ike and Tina Turner, and Marvin Gaye.
Most of the history you can see for yourself if you visit the downtown ballroom. Posters of past shows and murals cover the walls offering windows into the Crystal’s past. (The company recently celebrated the ballroom’s centennial with 100 straight nights of entertainment.) With such a singular history, the feeling is undoubtedly unique. But if you’ve ever been inside a McMenamins establishment, you’ll recognize the strange mix of history, site individuality, and quirky company branding that gives each of the company’s 65 properties that special something.
The company’s sprawling Edgefield resort, the former Multnomah County Poor Farm, has it with its hotel, restaurant, music venue, golf course, and movie theater–not to mention its rumors of hauntings from former patients. The Kennedy School, an old Renaissance revival-style Portland elementary school once slated for demolition, has it, too. As does the 1927 Bagdad Theater on Hawthorne, where One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest debuted.
While its selling points include charming rooms named for colorful locals and filled with vintage furniture, the century-old Olympic Club in Centralia doesn’t shy away from its role in the Centralia Massacre of 1919, when members of the American Legion had a deadly encounter with “Wobblies,” the Industrial Workers of the World. Six men died, more were wounded, and the Olympic Club, where the Wobblies often gathered, sat at the epicenter.
“The owners of the Oly Club, their lifeblood was the workers,” Hills says. “Those were their customers. But at the same time, they had made enough money. They were part of the elite. So they were aware of both plans, both sides.”
The massacre continued to divide the town even as Hills researched the club for McMenamins in the late 1990s. “People still talked in hushed tones about it. Their parents or grandparents were really prominent on one side or the other,” he says. Local librarians told him that for years they weren’t allowed to carry any material about the massacre. When a mural commemorating the Wobblies was painted on another building in 1996, some people were outraged. “It caused so much commotion. Eighty years later,” he says.
Hills first learned about the massacre during his studies in Pullman. He and his wife Andrea Hills ’93 MA had relocated from the East Coast and enrolled in graduate school.
A highlight of his time in Pullman was the instruction of Orlan Svingen, who still teaches public history.
“He was a great teacher,” Hills says. “Initially, it was rather disconcerting because my papers would have red all over them. At first it was just so intimidating and frustrating, but I learned an incredible amount from his comments. Just to be a better editor and writer of my own stuff.”
In Svingen’s class, he learned the national historic registry process. He visited Albion and documented the history of a particular house from the time it was built. And he and several other students helped Svingen on a centennial history of the Northwest Mining Association.
All of it, Hills says, now helps him in his career with McMenamins, which he still refers to as a “dream job.”
“We try to connect the history to the property and to the community it’s in,” he says. “That’s what I really admire about McMenamins. Instead of turning their back on all this history and characters and events that have happened around these places over the years, like most people would do, they celebrate and commemorate those connections.”
Reprinted from Washington State Magazine, courtesy of Washington State University. To read the full story and other articles from the magazine, please visit wsm.wsu.edu.