Audio version: Download MP3 or use controls below:
It was strictly G-rated: Mindful of the sketchy reputation of his industry, Baker took pains to make his theaters as clean and wholesome as possible, and his players — who were part of the community, of course — shared that vision. Entire families made it part of their weekly routine, and on Wednesday matinees, babies and children under 5 were allowed.
Baker’s players, especially the leading ladies and men, quickly became celebrities.
“We belonged to them,” said Miss Fay Bainter, the company’s leading lady for a time around the turn of the century, in an interview many years later. “We were a part of their lives. Our position was enviable. Why, I never had to use a streetcar or taxi. Someone would always stop and take you where you wanted to go.”
“Don’t you remember the way it was?” former leading man Howard Russel asked an Oregonian reporter in 1909. “Why, if the right people did not occupy the seats we were accustomed to seeing them in, we would ask (from on stage), “Where is so-and-so tonight? I don’t see them in their regular seats!’ It was like a family party.”
It’s this picture of Portland — an overgrown small town, rough-hewn but with high cultural aspirations, a town in which workers and business executives moved in the same circles and knew one another’s families and laughed at the same jokes and enjoyed the same diversions — that has to be kept in mind when considering the things Baker became most notorious for after he was elected mayor of Portland in 1917. Because within just a few years of his election, that “belle epoque” Portland was lost and gone.
George knew, and had presided over, the golden past that the cultural reactionaries yearned for as the “Red Scare” dawned in 1919. He looked at union representatives fighting to get their members treated fairly, and saw out-of-town troublemakers trying to turn brother against brother for their own personal gain; so he hired a secret crew of thugs to fight them. He saw ethnic minorities and newly emancipated women influencing and changing the culture he’d helped create in ways he didn’t like, so he threw his support behind the “100 percent Americanism” of the Ku Klux Klan. This is, of course, no excuse for his q nbuasi-fascist behavior throughout the 1920s; but it’s important to know in evaluating this fascinating and controversial ex-mayor.
By the end of his time in office, in 1933, Baker was basically a spent force. Perhaps that’s because his theater company, which he hadn’t really been able to run personally while serving as mayor, went out of business in 1922. The golden age of stock theater was over; its primary functions had been taken over by the new Hollywood feature-length movies. By then there was a whole generation of Portlanders who had never been to Baker’s theater, never met him working the crowd on opening night, and knew him only as a back-slapping character about whom rumors of disreputability occasionally swirled, presiding over one of the more corrupt City Halls on the West Coast.
In 1932, 47 percent of the electorate voted to recall him from office. Baker took the hint and announced he wouldn’t run for re-election. He died in 1941.