Mr. Montgomery turned 95 last month; he is healthy and still the jokester. Don and I took him out to lunch then back to the shop so friends could share some cake and good memories.
Occasionally, I publish some of Mr. Montgomery’s musings edited only for grammatical errors. I really appreciate all that Mr. Montgomery has done for the local theatrical community, so this is an article on his impressions of the Seattle Theatre scene for your enjoyment. Thank you, Mr. Montgomery.
I really didn’t get much of a chance to see a lot of theatre in the 1930’s. I think it was probably due to the lack of ready spending money at the time. My impression of some of the theatres at the time:
The Coliseum theatre at 5th & Pike Street was one of the first big theatres built for showing movies, and it was obvious that it was for movies. It had over 2000 seats, and a big fancy proscenium, and over decorated auditorium. The stage was only about 7 feet deep behind the curtain. It had fancy looking box seats next to the proscenium, and they were fake, hiding the organ chambers of one of the first theatres to have a really big pipe organ for movie accompaniment. It had 2 balconies, 1 small one with only about 250 seats and the extra charge loge seats. The main balcony just above was so steep that we always had the feeling that falling down we would end up crashing into the orchestra pit at full speed.
In its heyday it was a first run palace, but by the time I was a patron, it played 2nd or 3rd features at reduced prices. Up 5th Avenue it had big new competitors. One end of 5th avenue had the Orpheum (1927) the most ornate theatre in Seattle.
Then just up 5th Ave from the Coliseum were Hamrick’s Blue Mouse,
and across the street, the Music Box theatre that usually ran first-run shows.
And finally up the next block was the new 5th Avenue theatre (1926), designed to look like a gilt Chinese Palace.
And right off the corner on 4th Ave near the Orpheum was the Colonial, another nice theatre built to be a movie house about 1914. The Colonial had about 800 seats, and no stage – just movies.
The Coliseum had one feature that interested me. It had a dark blue domed ceiling, with little sparkling lights. I discovered that the architect had designed that ceiling to duplicate some of the heavens and things like the Big Dipper, North Star, etc could be recognized. If the movie turned out to be dull, you could always lean back, relax, and watch the winking stars in the night sky above.
The Liberty theatre was on First Avenue, just across from the Pike Place Market. When it was built, Fifth Avenue felt like it was way up town, and I don’t think the owners thought that the main business district would move away from First Avenue.
The Liberty theatre was built about 1914, and was advertised as the greatest new movie palace in the west. It had all the look of a great ornate theatre, but the stage was just a fancy looking alcove about 4 feet deep. The theatre seated about 1600 people and was designed only for showing motion pictures.
It had one distinction, it had the first big theatre organ installation by Wurlitzer, and they even hired special trains to come out to Seattle from Chicago just to show this marvel to prospective organ customers.
Oliver Wallace, possibly the “original” theatre organist, became nationally famous playing that new Wurlitzer organ there and in later years went to Walt Disney studios. You will find his name credited as music director for several of Disney feature length films. The organ is now located in a Church in Spokane, WA, and a local group http://www.sfntos.org/ of volunteer organ people associated with the ATOS–a national theatre organ group, and the organ is still playing there today.
The Orpheum , no not the one at 5th Ave & Westlake, I mean the original Orpheum at 3rd & Madison. It fell on evil times about the First World War, and was the original vaudeville palace, with a very big stage, 1400 seats with real marble on the walls. Built by the Pacific Bridge and Dredge Company to withstand the effects of a San Francisco earthquake.
I never saw the very impressive interior until they had it open when Matheny & Bacon, demolition contractors, were tearing it down in the 1960’s. It was a true theatrical palace. I received a copy of a very old newspaper (1912 Seattle Times) that covered the opening back in 1913 that credited the operation to be managed by the Sullivan and Considine Co.
There were 3 theatres on 2nd Ave between Spring & Seneca that were long closed out, but Tiny Burnett remembered them as show places where he had played in the pit orchestra. I had occasion sometime in the 1940’s to walk down the alley behind them, and realized that they all had big tall 25ft doors in their back wall, and the obvious appearance of a stage house built for a rigging system. They apparently closed before 1920, but the buildings were being used as late as 1950 for things like a men’s store, a Chinese nick-knack store, and some other innocuous things. It occurred to me once that across the street would have been the Frederick & Nelson Department store before 1916.
Seattle Paramount was built about 1926-27 and opened in the fall of 1927 as the Seattle Theatre. Design of the building was a remake from the design of the NewYork Paramount (Balban & Katz), and was remade to fit the Seattle lot at 9th & Pine by local theatre architect: B. Marcus Priteca. It was the largest movie house built in Seattle, with over 3000 seats, and it had a performance stage with a full stage rigging system, an orchestra pit big enough to accommodate a 40-piece orchestra, and one of the last “big” Wurlitzer pipe organs. (I think it is still in operation, 2012) It had just got going, when the great financial debacle of 1929 brought on the great depression of 29-30-31.
It is still standing in its glory, possibly because it was located too far up Pine Street, just out of the main business district of Seattle. It was even the site of one of the original Cinerama theatres with an almost “surround” movie screen installed, and for several years featured the Cinerama film exclusively.
It is a miracle that it survived the wrecker’s treatment. Even the Seattle freeway runs almost under the edge of the stage at the rear of the building lot, how they missed tearing it down for a vacant lot is a miracle. The theatre had long periods, when it was closed, and appeared abandoned. But sometime about the 1990’s a group of several people became interested in the theatre and bought it. They did a complete refurbish of the theatre, and added space, and completely rebuilt the stage system with new rigging, new dressing rooms, and a complete revision of the auditorium floor. It is now possible, with special installed machinery, to convert the slanted theatre seating to a flat banquet floor in 1 or 2 hours time. The Seattle Theatre organ society, for a convention, used the Paramount for a public concert at 1:30 PM, then returned at 6:30 for a banquet, when all the seats had been moved (by machinery and placed under the seating area) and served a dinner on the flat floor that came up to stage level of the theatre. Apparently, they have found a way to use this old, very large ornate theatre that may keep it in public use for some time to come.
The Metropolitan Theatre was the ultimate legitimate stage theatre of the northwest. The building was built sometime about 1910. About 10 years later, they built the Olympic Hotel around the theatre. For 35 years the Metropolitan Theatre was located within the “H” of the Olympic with the rear of the stage against the elevator wall of the hotel.
This was typical of many legitimate stage theatres back then. It had a fairly steep main floor, a main balcony, and above it a 2nd balcony. The 2nd balcony even had it’s own entrance and stairway up into the heavens. I rarely went to this theatre because of the New York style prices for a show.
Typical attractions at this theatre were things like Grand Opera and featured several touring companies. Beatrice Lilly doing a 1 woman show and most famous concert artists appeared here. I remember sitting in the upper balcony in a seat with a metal post in front of it. The show was a performance of the opera Aida, by a travelling opera company that regularly visited Seattle every year in the 1920’s and 30’s.
A famous incident occurred, I think about 1933, when Katherine Cornell’s show was touring, and scheduled to play the Metropolitan in Seattle. Her husband (stage manager of the show) was Guthrie McClintic who had grown up in Seattle, so was a local celebrity. The play was a sell-out. One little problem, it was winter, with heavy rains and a tremendous snowstorm hit the Cascade Mountains. Apparently the show had played in Spokane the previous night and was on its way to Seattle via Great Northern railroad. The train got stalled in the mountains somewhere past Wenatchee, and had not arrived by curtain time—with all seats occupied by the Seattle audience–a full house. The word got to the theatre, that they would be late, but they would play the show that night. Apparently the railroad made special effort to clear the tracks and get the train to Puget Sound, but they did not arrive until about midnight. This was a fully staged show. The audience waited. Word was that practically everybody stayed at the theatre waiting. They finally arrived and started setting up the scenery. The stagehands left the curtain up, assembled the stage set in view of the audience, and then closed the curtain and started the show well after midnight.
The Moore Theatre, a typical classical stage presentation theatre surrounded by the big Moore Hotel, built about 1908, it’s still running in the 1990’s. Several years ago (1970/75) there was a new Musical Production that was supposed to be rehearsing at the Moore Theatre with intentions to go to New York when the show was ready after rehearsals. I walked up past the theatre and discovered I could hear an orchestra playing inside. I figured that meant dress rehearsal in progress. So, I sneaked into the balcony box seat area and watched the show still in the process of being put together. They even brought in re-writes of musical score changes for the orchestra (about 35 or 40 in the pit).
I recognized some of the people on stage: Pat Carroll, John Raitt, and John Carroll, an unusually good soprano singer I didn’t recognize, and a middle aged actor who was obviously an old hand on a theatre stage. I came back and got a ticket for the Pre-View performance of the show that night. I still have no recollection of the title for the show. The show went on tour into California, etc, but never played its intended Broadway performance.
The Rivoli Theatre was built as a real vaudeville theatre back in 1913, and featured first class vaudeville for a few years for what eventually became the Orpheum Vaudeville Circuit. It fell on hard times, and eventually became Seattle’s premier Burlesque theatre featuring mostly naked girls and sleazy comedians by 1929.
The low-end of Seattle Movie Theaters – near the Pike Place Market on First Avenue:
The new building boom, after the 1960’s Seattle Fair, completely eliminated these places with new High Rise apartments and condominiums, but the old movie patrons still seem to haunt the streets in the area anyway. Some of these “theatres” were the Green Parrot Theatre – “Open-all-Nite” movies – “All Talking Pictures” and First Avenue Theatre – “ditto”. These were called Store-Front movie theatres, and probably went into business back about 1914 or so. In the early days, a fellow with a movie projector and some brass would rent a small store and become a theatre impresario; this started the early days of silent movies.
In the 1940/50’s attendance at these theatres required steady nerves, and careful seat selections. Finding a seat required “watch your step” and the sound of wine bottles bouncing down the slope of the floor. One of these theatres actually had an upstairs glassed-in area where a mother with baby could watch the movie without disturbing patrons in the auditorium below. (Some of the “disturbed” below were sleeping!!).
Note that I did not fact check Mr. Montgomery’s dates or locations.