A cultural centerpiece for Camas, county

Over 91 years, the historic theater has weathered economic ups and downs

The studio theater at the Liberty. The smaller of two spaces, this one seats 29 viewers.

The main theater at the Liberty prior to a show. The space seats around 340 viewers.

Rand Thornsley, operator of the Liberty Theatre since 2011, stands at the front counter. Thornsley operated theaters in Alaska for decades before coming to Camas.

The Liberty Theatre in downtown Camas, opened in 1927, has seen its fair share of trouble — a Great Depression and a Great Recession, a massive fire in 1994, even a failed Braveheart costume contest.

“We had like 12 people show up,” laughed theater operator Rand Thornsley. “The people who suggested it were the people who got all the prizes.”

Thornsley, who took over management of the space in 2011 after the previous operator walked out, hasn’t been discouraged by those sort of let-downs. Particularly in recent years, as technology has changed and theater trips have become a lower priority, the Liberty hasn’t been able to get by on charm alone. Thornsley’s innovative programming has helped one of Camas’ oldest businesses survive the ups and downs of the last decade.

“We have to find a way to generate revenue from every available opportunity. That’s why we do the kind of programming we do,” he said. “Last year wasn’t a good year for us. This year has been better, but we’re still behind on some things.”

Thornsley’s curation includes some shows that can be a little trickier to track down but have strong niche draws. Classic films, for example. Although it seems like a 1960 film might be cheaper, tickets have to be priced to match archiving costs on elusive reels. The theater runs concert films too, and will be showing Coldplay next month, as well as a show from South Korean boy band Burn the Stage.

“I’d never heard of (them),” said Thornsley. “Well, they’re hot. The minute we announced on Twitter we had people call and want tickets.”

The Liberty runs brand new Hollywood work as well, but even those require some finessing at a small, independent theater, Thornsley said.

“You try to maximize the space for the time period of the day. You don’t want to run a kids film late at night, and you don’t generally want to run an adult film on the weekend in the middle of the afternoon,” he said. “We have to do that in our business to survive.”

The old theater caught Thornsley’s eye from a long distance — over 2,000 miles away. He had been living in Alaska for about 40 years, at one point owning his own theater and managing a few others along the way. The unique style of the Liberty and its proximity to an appealing area of the Pacific Northwest were enough to draw him down for a visit.

“We spent a day and a half going through all the nooks and crannies in this building,” he said. In the end, he decided to go for it, partnering with his son and a friend in Wisconsin. Those two have since left the venture, and Thornsley now operates the Liberty solo.

Although management at the Liberty has changed hands over 91 years, some things have stayed the same. The building is still owned by the family who had it constructed so many decades ago. The facade of light that adorns the building’s entry, too, has remained the same, providing a familiar appearance to some residents who have walked beneath it many times.

“We get people who mention that they came here as kids, from time to time,” said Thornsley.

The exterior display can be a little too flashy for its own good though, he added.

“It’s probably the most photographed building in town. Sometimes I get a little aggravated with people out there, like — ‘You know what it costs to keep that thing looking like that?'” said Thornsley.

The budget is tight, and will likely remain that way. Thornsley, who turns 65 next year, isn’t sure what will happen once his current lease expires in 2022.

“It takes a lot of energy to keep this place going. I’m kind of hoping, between now and then, I’ll find a partner who wants to come in,” he said.

But for the moment, Thornsley looks forward to being the warden of a unique piece of history downtown.

“I think we provide a cultural centerpiece for, not just Camas and Washougal, but all east Clark County,” he said. “There aren’t too many towns the size of Camas that have a theater like we do.”