Evelyn Collins: Portland’s Mrs. Doubtfire?

Years ago I was riding my bike up North Williams Avenue, at a red light I noticed a portrait of Evelyn Collins on the Urban League building. I didn’t know who she was but her name was under her image. To me, she was the spitting image of Mrs. Doubtfire, a character played by the late actor Robin Williams in a movie of the same name. I took a picture and I rode on. Since then I’ve waited for my schedule to clear so I could explore the Evelyn Collins/Mrs.Doubtfire connection.

Evelyn and Mrs. Doubtfire

Robin Williams made some good movies like The Fisher King. He did a good Oliver Sacks impression in the movie Awakenings. He was endearing in Good Will Hunting and creepy in One Hour Photo. There are others, I’m sure, but I’m forgetting. He had a personality to be reckoned with. He had a heck of a movie career for a stand up comic. I didn’t consult IMDB which will prove to be my downfall, but I’ve been under the impression that his 90’s movie output included some bad role choices or movies that weren’t good. I’m remembering a trio of consecutive films that may have started with Patch Adams followed by Mrs. Doubtfire, where he played a female nanny and Bicentennial Man where he was cast as a robot. I had even considered that a 24 hour Robin Williams film festival would have had me running from the theater if I had been forced to watch these movies in consecutive order. I don’t mean any disrespect. The loss of Robin Williams was tragic. With all the insanity going on in the world today it sure would be nice to see him cutting up on a lame talk show.

I don’t remember if I saw Mrs. Doubtfire. I remember it being a kid’s movie, a comedy of errors with Williams stumbling around in pancake make up and wig that I’ve since learned took four and a half hours to apply. It seems unlikely that Williams would have known anything about Evelyn Collins, certainly not enough to base a character on her. I’m sure he visited Portland but it’s doubtful that he would have run across her filing away her essence in his subconscious for the time his movie career would require him to play a middle-aged woman. It occurred to me that I could do some research on the computer in hopes of finding a Doubtfire/Collins link. Robin Williams was sure to have made promotional appearances for the movie. I stumbled upon an interview on The Actor’s Studio where William’s made a comparison between Mrs. Doubtfire’s breasts and his own then began riffing on the idea of God thinking out loud while designing the female body. A post about Mrs. Doubtfire on Mental Floss described the movie’s production team looking at photos of women from the 1940’s before finding the image of an English woman who resembled what they were looking for in Mrs. Doubtfire. Of course it couldn’t have been something like Gus Van Sant, Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Robin Williams going out to dinner at a restaurant to discuss the Good Will Hunting project while Evelyn Collins sat quietly in the background eating a bowl of soup only to find Robin Williams creating a mental character study for future reference of this interesting and vibrant woman on his way to the men’s room. This would have been impossible anyway because Mrs. Doubtfire was made well before Good Will Hunting.

I wanted to write about Evelyn Collins to learn about her connection to the Urban League and how she got her portrait hung on their building. While searching for information I learned from a blog post on the Eliot neighborhood website that Collins owned the building that has become Wonder Ballroom. There she ran a daycare facility and community center for minority children. It originally felt like I was onto something when I discovered that Collins worked in a profession similar to that of the fictional character that reminded me of her. This is only a coincidence. The Collins/Doubtfire connection has gone from a private in-joke between me and myself to a now, slightly public in-joke. I’ll still think of Mrs. Doubtfire every time I ride or drive up North Williams Avenue and look at the Urban League building but this feels unfair to the legacy of Evelyn Collins. She is known for far more than her slight resemblance to Mrs. Doubtfire. In the Eliot neighborhood piece, she was described as “an angel in our midst,” someone who provided “affordable Christian daycare to help working mothers.” From the Urban League website, I’ve determined that the portrait of Evelyn Collins is there to honor her life as a pioneer “who made a difference for Portland’s black community.” At least most people could agree that Mrs. Doubtfire dressed like Evelyn Collins.

 

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An Onion Dome of a Different Kind

The Pittsburgh Orbit has a legendary love for all things Onion Dome. It also happens to be located in a place with the right kind of orthodox religions that support this interest. Out here in Portland I’ve kept my eyes peeled for domes that might make a comparable piece to what Pittsburgh’s Orbit has come up with but I haven’t found any examples. I have yet to extend my search to outlying areas. Then it occurred to me that there is a dome. Whether this is onion enough to satisfy the Pittsburgh Orbit has yet to be determined but with such sparse pickings this is all the Portland Orbit can offer at this time.

The first time I saw this photo must have been soon after I moved to Portland ten years ago. I marveled at how cool this section of town looked. The dome was only part of what made it distinct. I wondered how I hadn’t seen it. All I could think was that I had to go there. Somehow I found out I had been looking at a place that was no longer there. I have a vague memory that my brother-in-law Paul may have broken the news. In his voice I can hear him saying with some resignation something like, “Yeah, they tore that part of town down” or maybe it was more like, “that’s no longer there, dude.”  This memory, as hazy as it is now, is tinged with a feeling of loss.

Seeing the building from a different angle in another photograph from that era brought back thoughts and imagings of what Portland, especially the North Williams corridor, was like a long time ago. It took me a while to make the connection that the old dome from the photos had been placed on top of the gazebo in Dawson’s Park.

My best attempts at research informed me that the tear down happened as part of the Emmanuel Hospital expansion that never went through as planned, a sad chapter in Portland history to say the least. I’ve read two accounts that both yielded the same result. There was one story explaining that surrounding houses and the Hill Block building were torn down due to expansion for the hospital but the planned funding did not become available while something else I read along the same lines mentioned that money for the project ran out after the land was cleared. In the end it doesn’t matter, a cool part of town was razed. It can only be experienced now by looking at old photographs. It’s a thoughtful memorial that’s bittersweet. As the plaque pointed out it was the citzen’s of the Eliot neighborhood and the City Of Portland who had the forethought to repurpose the dome that  allowing this area to hold on to a shred of history.

There was an amazing view when I drove past one recent February afternoon. I spotted the dome against the backdrop of a giant pink church. The dying light of that late afternoon sun lit up the background making the cupola look majestic. It highlighted how the dome keeps the spirit of the old neighborhood alive. There were guys playing dominoes and someone barbecuing. A community of people had gathered on a random Tuesday afternoon. The park has a long history from pasture land to a place circuses would perform. It was the place RFK gave his last speech before being shot a week later. The most recent celebrity stopover to the park was from Janelle Monae.

It wasn’t until I went for a visit did I realize how ornate the top of the dome was. There’s also a plaque in the middle of the gazebo that’s informative but hard to read. While I was in the area, I realized I needed to get a sense of where the actual dome had been. I’d read it was on the NW corner of N Williams and NE Russell. Being directionally challenged, I broke out the compass on my phone. As I walked down N. Williams toward the Urban League building where the streets cross I noticed I was walking past a big open field and then I arrived at the corner where the Hill Block building and its dome had been. There was something sad in that gray sky that hung over that emptiness where cool old buildings had once been.

 

Eliot Neighborhood News:

https://www.eliotneighborhood.org/2016/06/28/eliot-history-spotlight-dawson-park/amp/

Dawson Park Info:

http://www.oregonlive.com/portland/index.ssf/2016/09/dawson_park_gentrification_por.html

https://www.portlandoregon.gov/parks/finder/index.cfm?action=ViewPark&PropertyID=33