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Who is Howie Bierbaum?

Introducing the most omnipresent and diligent figure in the Portland arts scene of the last couple decades: Mr. Bierbaum, or as everyone knows him, Howie.

Howie came to Portland in 1981 at the height of the Reagan recession (his Comprehensive Employment and Training Act job in Eugene was cut, so he moved to the big city). He landed a job as a dishwasher at Victoria’s Nephew Cafe on SW 2nd and Stark. It was co-owned by William Jamison, who also had Howie work in his Folk Craft Gallery on Saturdays. He eventually got fired from both jobs when he took a vacation to the East Coast and kept extending it (Who could leave Provincetown in September?). Howie then started a line of postcards that he sold locally and then nationally, and he and a friend created a line of novelty earrings called Ear Thangs that also sold well. The cost of living was so cheap in Portland at that time that these funky art projects (plus some freelance graphic design and theater work) kept him afloat for four years. As AIDS started taking its toll in Portland and the “far right and religious zealots” were gaining prominence, he co-created KBOO’s notorious gay comedy show, Queersville in 1985 under the alias Howie Baggadonutz. The show had a strong following and ran for two years, until his co-host moved to San Francisco. He then got his first nonprofit arts job as General Manager of Echo Theater and its resident company, Do Jump! Once immersed in theater, he started presenting out of town performers on a regular basis at Echo and even performed on occasion. Howie left Echo Theater in 1989 and went to work for the Portland Area Theatre Alliance, creating Portland’s first half-price day of show ticket booth. But he also did side projects, and he ran Queer Night at the old La Luna in SE Portland with Thomas Lauderdale. It was held on Monday nights and was a laid-back dance party.

In 1994, he helped Lauderdale produce a benefit show with the Del Rubio Triplets at Cinema 21. Howie opened the show with his new band, Pink Martini, and had them open for a stand-up comic he was producing a few months later. (He thinks he paid them $200.) Over the next decade, he worked for Do Jump! (again), the Portland Symphonic Choir, and Third Angle New Music, while doing a bunch of volunteer and freelance work before joining forces with Mark Woolley and Chris Monlux to develop the Wonder Ballroom. After running Wonder for three years (for 65 hours a week), he hit a wall and needed a break. He went to Europe for a couple of weeks to chill out by himself. But soon, Thomas Lauderdale got wind of his leaving Wonder and called and cajoled him into becoming Pink Martini’s tour manager and lighting designer, a job he held for over seven years. The gig allowed him to see the world and work in some of the finest venues (Carnegie Hall and the Hollywood Bowl, among them). But touring became too physically demanding, and he left in 2016. Howie took some time off, and earlier this year, accepted a job with Oregon Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, which donates countless hours of legal help to low-income artists and arts organizations. And, he’s still putting on shows! He’s been lucky to work in the arts all his life, and he’s got to say: Portland’s been very good to him.

QUESTIONS FOR HOWIE

YEARS SPENT WORKING IN THE ARTS?
Thirty-three. My first show in Portland was as an actor in a show about an inner-city clinic. We performed at a gay leather bar called JR’s (which had a notorious basement), where the Life of Riley bar is now located.”

NUMBER OF NON-PROFIT ARTS ORGANIZATIONS YOU’VE WORKED WITH?
Five as an Executive Director and eight as a freelancer. Plus, as Howie Baggadonutz, I’ve presented and worked with over 75 performers, including Eve Ensler (in one of the first incarnations of her Vagina Monologues) and Seattle’s insane and surreal Dina Martina.

LARGEST NUMBER OF GIGS JUGGLED AT ONCE?
Probably right now! I’m working 25 hours a week as Executive Director of Oregon Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, and I have four artists I’m starting to work with for upcoming shows, including playwright/actress Danna Schaeffer and singers Storm Large, Holcombe Waller, and Ari Shapiro.

LONGEST ARTS GIG?
A tie: Portland Symphonic Choir and Pink Martini (seven-plus years each).
I also worked on Obo Addy’s annual Homowo Festival for 11 years.

FAVORITE ARTS GIG?
Co-developing and managing Wonder Ballroom. It was a huge undertaking, and it allowed me to use all the tools in my arsenal, while learning a whole bunch of new skills. I loved that we saved a historic building and got it on the National Register of Historic Places.

MOST HUMBLING GIG?

Producing An Evening with Quentin Crisp in 1997. He was very old and frail, but still wildly opinionated (He trash talked Princess Diana months after her death!) and a legendary profile in courage. He had quite a crush on Kevin Spacey, too!

MOST CHALLENGING GIG?

Twice having people dear to me die while I was in the middle of a Pink Martini tour and not leaving. The show must go on, right?

THE BIGGEST BARRIER TO THE ARTS IN PORTLAND?
The audience is certainly there but the costs are going up, and there’s simply not enough support from foundations, corporations, and philanthropists compared to Seattle and San Francisco.

HOPE TO SEE MORE OF IN THE FUTURE OF THE ARTS?
More quality! When I came to Portland in the early ‘80s, it was easy to work part time, do your thing and (as corny as it sounds) “put on a show!”  The results were always mixed but you could charge $5 so it didn’t matter. That changed in the late ‘90s. When Portland started getting popular, costs escalated and spaces started disappearing. Now, the shows are still mixed but the tickets aren’t cheap! .

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