The Gem Theatre is housed in the historic 1901 Jacob Betz Building located at 239 West Main Street, Athena Oregon.
The structure was built by the Jacob Betz Brewing and Malting Company of Walla Walla, Washington as a saloon and restaurant. In 1904, the Stahl Brewery of Walla Walla purchased the lots adjoining to the east of the Betz Building and constructed a saloon building identical to Betz and exactly twice as large. The Betz and Stahl families were long standing rivals in the brewery business. Today these two structures remain as the sole architectural examples of these two pioneer brewing dynasties.
Athena passed a local option law in 1908 closing all saloons and the west compartment of the Betz Building was converted to a movie house in 1909. According to the reminiscences of Charlotte Cannon, the theatre at this time was very primitive. There was no stage and the floor was flat. A large skylight left over from saloon days flooded the auditorium with unwanted light. The projection equipment was located in a "crow's nest" high on the back interior wall of the hall that could only be accessed by ladder. Music was provided by a piano played by local musicians who were hired for the occasion. Occasionally the ladies would become engrossed in watching the movie and forget to play the piano.
Films arrived by train and occasionally the train was late arriving. In such instances, the crowd would adjourn to the train station and when the train arrived deliver the film enmasse to the theatre.
After going through several different managements, the theatre was acquired by Colonel Boyd, proprietor of the Athena Press newspaper and greatly remodeled in 1919. At this time, the skylight was removed and the sloping floor and stage added. Second hand seating was acquired from the then recently closed Pendleton Cosy Theatre. The Cosy opened in 1906 and had been the first moving picture house in Umatilla County, Oregon. The theatre today still retains a number of these historic seats.
The 1920s were a heyday for silent films in the theatre with movies showing four nights per week and matinees on Saturdays. Western films and comedies were favorites. Killgore's Cafe and Fountain was located in the St. Nichols Hotel across the street from the theatre. Theatre patrons often went there for ice cream or a hamburger after attending a film. With the addition of a stage, live bands and orchestras often provided "prelude" or "olio" entertainment prior to a film. Local fiddler Alvin "Alf" Johnson, then in his 80's, entertained the crowds with fiddle tunes he had learned as an Oregon Trail emigrant sixty years earlier. Johnson's Orchestra included fiddle, guitar, banjo and bass. The University of Oregon "Hot Jazz Band" also appeared at least twice during this decade.
In the fall of 1928, Fox Studios spent nearly a month filming a major silent picture in the wheat fields surrounding Athena. Under the direction of Friedrich Murnau, the film was titled "Our Daily Bread" and was an epic to the harvest of wheat. Many local people worked as extras and appeared in this film production but unfortunately the film never appeared in the local theatre. In November of 1929 the stock market crash ushered in the Great Depression which immediately hit the community of Athena with "hard times." At the same juncture, talking motion pictures rendered silent film theatres obsolete. Unable to compete, Athena's movie house closed for the first time in January of 1930.
Following a number of years of sitting vacant, the theatre building was purchased by Lloyd and Edith Moore of Hermiston in 1937. The Moores owned a chain of regional movie theatres beginning in the 1930s. After adding a balcony, a new projection room and new seating on the main floor, the Modern Gem Theatre was opened in 1938. The Moores hired Chet Dugger, who had served as projectionist in another of their theatres, to manage the Gem.
The Moores operated their chain of theatres using a process old timers called "bicycling" a film. After showing a film in one theatre they would load it into the trunk of their automobile and hand deliver it to another of their theatres until it had moved through the entire chain.
Chet Dugger enlisted in the armed services during WWII as a radio operator and upon his return in 1946 the Moore's sold the Gem to him. Dugger continued to operate the old theatre until 1968 when it closed due to the popularity of television. Chet Dugger passed away in 1978 and the building went through an number of owners. In 2004 it was donated to the City of Athena to be renovated as a theatre.
In 2005, Athena's Gem, Inc. was formed as a non profit corporation and the property was transferred to them for renovation.