A Career in Photography, Film, and Production
By Olivia Ridgley Written as a part of the Portland Design History Class at PSU
Peter standing in front of The Hood Theater, owned by Henry Moyer. Moyer was Peter’s employer and the owner of more than six movie houses throughout the Portland area. The Hood Theater opened its doors June 2, 1950.
It is hard to miss the name Peter Corvallis when browsing The Oregonian archives from the 1960s to 1970s. It is equally hard to avoid seeing Peter Corvallis Productions box trucks zooming around Portland today. Though Peter Corvallis himself passed away in 2016 at the age of 85, he has a permanent place in the history of the city of Portland. During his lifetime, Peter moved fluidly from a youthful passion for cinema to a career in photography and film, and finally into building his own production and event company that kept him busy until his passing. A man about town, Peter was a local staple in the 1960s and 1970s Portland social scene, as his daughter told me unboastingly, “Everybody knew him, he was almost a celebrity.” His place behind the camera afforded him a unique position in which to witness the culture of the city, capture it, and share it with others.
An eccentric Greek with a magnetic personality, Peter found his love of film early. At the age of nine Peter was known to project movies for his friends in his parents NE Portland home. A graduate of Irvington Elementary School and Grant High School, Peter has been ingrained in Portland from the start. During high school Peter worked at a local movie theater. Before digital projection, movie theaters shared reels between locations. Peter’s job was to bike the reels from theater to theater and make it in time for the next showing.
Left to Right: A brochure Peter received about the path to a profitable career in photography from Brooks Institute. Peter behind the camera for KPTV, Portland’s first TV station and part of the CBS, KOIN-TV family.
Finding His Way in Film
After high school, Peter’s passion for film translated into an interest in pursuing photography as a career. He applied to Brooks Institute, a well reputed photography school in Southern California. After acceptance to the school, plans changed for Peter. He joined the army in 1956 and studied film-making at The Signal School at Ft. Monmouth, NJ. This education led him to the 82nd Airborne Div. at Ft. Bragg, NC. Where he served as the base photographer. After his hiatus in the military, Peter reinstated his admission to Brooks, and ventured down to California to further his knowledge in photography. As it turned out, he already knew everything he needed. He dropped out and headed back north. When asked, about his departure from Brooks, his eldest daughter Maria stated, “He didn’t learn anything. He was teaching them.” Following his time at Brooks, Peter returned to Portland with a camera in his hand.
Left to Right: Jane Russell photographed by Peter. Sen. John F. Kennedy photographed by Peter.
In the Newsroom
Back in his hometown, Peter got a job capturing his surroundings in another way, he found himself in the news industry. Instead of toting around film reels for the local movie theaters, Peter was the man behind the camera. KOIN-TV, Peter’s employer, was the very first VHF (Very High Frequency) television station in the city and a pioneer in the transition from radio broadcast news to televised news. The station went on air in October of 1953, and just a year later aired its first color television broadcast. When discussing the local news program to The Oregonian, Sig Mickelson, KOIN-TV television director of news and public affairs stated, “We are trying to cover news in a new way. We are trying to create a new form of pictorial journalism that will enable the public to get its news swiftly, interestingly, colorfully…television can combine all these elements—motion, detail and personality—with a speed which enables it to illustrate the hard news of the day.” Peter was the first local TV news cameraman in the state of Oregon. Being one of the first filmmakers in the state, Peter used his skills to work on other projects, including many for Hollywood studios.
Tied to the Community
Leaving his position with KOIN-TV in 1959, Peter made his way into the world of print. Hired on as a staff photographer for The Oregon Journal, and (after the 1961 merger) The Oregonian, he began a decade-long career in photo journalism. Peter’s portfolio at the paper is vast and diverse, largely though he covered local news. When describing exactly what topics Maria said, “He could really do it all, except sports.” Whilst browsing through boxes and boxes of glossy black and white photos from Peter’s Oregonian days I was able to catch just a glimpse of the Portland he was so enmeshed in. As Maria said, shuffling through a handful of photos that captured everything from the construction of the Fremont Bridge to a visit from John F. Kennedy, “How much history this man saw, like I said it was the Renaissance of Portland. Soft news was a big deal in the newspaper.” In the photos I can see that energy and excitement, the city of Portland was having a cultural hay day and Peter was there to capture it. During his time at the papers he had more than 10,000 photos published. Among those were the portraits and candid snaps of icons both local and national like Louis Armstrong, Jayne Mansfield, Jane Russell, the Jantzen girls, and Andy Williams. Peter also received five regional news and feature awards for his photography from the Associated Press photography contests. What was the first color photograph to be printed in The Oregonian? It was Peter’s shot of the opening of the Civic Auditorium (now known as The Keller Auditorium). I had the opportunity to meet with a journalist and co-worker of Peter’s at The Oregonian and when asked about the overall work experience at the paper, Judy McDermott relayed, “I found newspapering to be exciting, creative and challenging. The journalists I worked with were proud of their profession and shared a commitment to accuracy and fairness”. When Peter’s tenure at the paper came to an end, it did so through a slow and natural transition into being his own boss.
Left to Right: Peter in his prime, apparently the cigarette was a staple part of his work uniform throughout the 50s and 60s. Crowning of Miss Raindrop and her court at Lloyd Center Mall, photographed by Peter. Miss Raindrop was the star of the Merrykhanna Parade, the rowdy predecessor of the Rose Festival’s Starlight Parade.
A Friend at the Paper
During his time at The Oregonian Peter worked along side a man named Joe Bianco. In a letter to Peter’s family on his 70th birthday, Joe shared a story of their trip to Vancouver, British Columbia. The Oregonian was doing a travel column on what Joe called “Fun Cities” in the Pacific Northwest. Joe’s story goes like this:
“On assignment one night we interviewed the one and only Jayne Mansfield who was performing center stage in a fashionable nightclub in Vancouver, B.C. Miss Mansfield was most obliging and gave us a private interview backstage. Pete shot photos from every such angle. I leered and lusted, he didn’t. He was very businesslike. Anyhow, we had a lot of fun and as usual got back to the hotel late at night. It was always a long day…full of work. On the night we interviewed Miss Mansfield several urgent messages were waiting for us. They were from our wives. Each wife had the same message. The messages were short and to the point. ‘We’ve been trying to reach you for hours. Please note: Come home now. This was your last ‘fun city.’ Work or no Work.’ The messages were unsigned but the tone was very familiar. It was our last ‘fun city’…”
This letter gives a glimpse into Peter’s life at The Oregonian and the work ethic and professional drive that would be a theme throughout his career.
Striking Out on His Own
While still working at the newspaper as a staff photographer, Peter was following opportunity and building a company of his own. Using his charismatic personality, videography skills, and desire to document his surroundings Peter started moonlighting as a photographer in the basement of The Hilton Hotel downtown, which opened in 1963. Peter’s job at The Hilton was to photograph all the events that took place in the hotel, such as Pendleton Fashion shows in the ballroom, they even set him up with a small darkroom. During this time Peter took on a third job as a wedding photographer. As Maria puts it, “He had three jobs and he was staring to fail.” She goes on to tell me about letters she discovered from his co-workers at The Oregonian trying to encourage him to buckle down on his work for the paper. As the Hilton gained notoriety as an event venue Peter was presented with yet another work opportunity. Instead of only being the photographer for these hotel events, he started to acquire equipment, things like projectors and lights, and rent these things out as a part of his service. This was successful and as this facet of his work took up more of his time and he left The Oregonian entirely. When the Red Lion opened, Peter used his contacts from previous jobs to set up an office in the new hotel as well. Having found a niche in the hotel industry, Peter continued to partner with the new hotels springing up in Portland until he had around six audio visual offices. Why exactly did the hotels need these offices, you might be asking. Maria explained to me that they provided the hotels with all the essentials for conducting business, or throwing an event, this might have meant screens, projectors, lights, cameras, microphones, or speakers. It’s harder to grasp now, with how easy it is to have almost anything you want delivered straight to your location, sometimes within the same day you ordered it, but this was a different time. Maria explained, “Think of ordering something without the Internet.” She went on to explore the situation the hotels faced in the 1970s, “So you are in Portland, Oregon and you want a slide projector, where do you go? It’s so different now.” Peter was there to supply these events with audio visual necessities on demand.
Everything Came Together
When Mother’s Day came around, the Red Lion was throwing a large brunch, but found themselves lacking in plates, Peter found another need to fill. This is the moment Peter took the step from suppling purely audio visual goods, to providing all the party supplies as well. His client base and company grew as he moved into the business of orchestrating whole events. During this time Peter got an office of his own, and Peter Corvallis Audio Visual transformed into Peter Corvallis Productions and Audio Visual. This meant providing decor, doing the staging for events, catering, and creating settings for everything from weddings to The Rose Festival. He worked with notable Portland fashion brands, Pendleton, Jantzen, and White Stag, putting on fashion shows and setting up trade show booths. Maria joked, “People would call him asking if he had something and he would say, ‘yes’, and then he would go buy it and rent it to them. He filled all these warehouses doing that for years.” Running his own company, Peter had transitioned from the boy riding his bike to facilitate the event, to the student and photographer working hard to capture it, and finally into the conductor, using his tenacious work ethic and eye for design to produce events for others. Peter followed opportunity and applied himself to filling the needs he witnessed in the community around him. Peter and his family grew the company into one of the largest production event rental companies in the Northwest. Peter had an insatiable appetite for documenting and collecting the world around him, lucky for us, his world was Portland. •
Print room for The Oregonian, photograph by Peter.