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Sunday, August 12, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Historic theaters still in operation

The 5th Avenue

Next time you're sitting in the 5th Avenue Theatre, just lean back and imagine you are in the throne room of the Imperial Palace, in Beijing's Forbidden City.

That is what architect R.C. Reamer did, as he created this fabulously grandiose vaudeville palace, which faithfully replicates Chinese royal interiors. A focal point of Reamer's ornate design was the ceiling of the 2,130-seat auditorium, with its five-toed golden dragon (each toe symbolizing an evil spirit to be vanquished) clutching the Pearl of Perfection chandelier in its teeth.

Seattle show-goers gasped with delight when they got their first look at it, during the 1926 opening of the 5th Avenue. And for decades, one could enjoy the theater's elaborate decor, the sound of its Wurlitzer pipe organ, and the sight of ushers costumed in Oriental-style garb when viewing a film there.

When vaudeville faded, the 5th Avenue became a popular movie house. But in 1978, the theater (like many other historic showplaces) closed its doors and seemed destined for destruction. Fortunately, a committee of 43 companies and local business leaders formed the nonprofit 5th Avenue Theatre Association, and underwrote a $2.6 million loan to renovate and preserve the facility.

In 1980, the landmark theater re-opened with a production of the musical "Annie." It has stayed busy ever since, and it has helped revitalize Seattle's downtown nightlife.

— Misha Berson



Washington Hall

Seattle singer Joni Metcalf still remembers the night in 1951 when the great singer Billie Holiday played Washington Hall.

"It was a community dance," she recalled. "Our band played for the dancing, then Billie came out and did her show. I was so excited, just to be that close to her. She sang beautifully!"

Washington Hall, at 14th Avenue and Fir Street, has been an African-American hub since the 1910s. Built in 1908 as a settlement house by the Danish Brotherhood Society, the hall was the site of Seattle's first documented jazz performance, a Grand Benefit Ball for the NAACP on June 10, 1918, featuring Miss Lillian Smith's Jazz Band.

In the decades following, the cozy upstairs theater, with its quaint balconies, hosted Marian Anderson, Mahalia Jackson, W.E.B. du Bois, Joe Louis, Duke Ellington, Martin Luther King Jr. and Jimi Hendrix.

In 1958, the hall was purchased by the Sons of Haiti Masonic Lodge, which from 1978-98 leased it to performance-art presenter On the Boards. Today, the theater still is available for performances.

— Paul de Barros



The Moore

Built as part of the Moore Hotel in 1907, it's the oldest remaining theater in Seattle. A vaudeville house, it had a seatless second balcony, with an entrance in the alley for non-whites (The Negro Ensemble, a local vaudeville act, was a favorite at the theater.) There's a swimming pool in the basement (for hotel guests), which has gone unused for decades.

Constructed by James A. Moore — a flamboyant local developer who built many of the early homes in Seattle — it was part of John Considine's Orpheum Vaudeville Circuit until 1927, when the Orpheum Theater was built on the site now occupied by the Westin Hotel.

During the Depression, The Moore was an art house, featuring such noted stars as Sarah Bernhardt, Lily Langtry, Anna Pavlova and Marie Dressler. It was a movie theater for a short time, but for the past 50 years has been used almost exclusively for live performances.

— Patrick MacDonald



Playhouse Theatre

Now home to the University of Washington School of Drama's productions, this rambling brick theater on lower University Way Northeast had another life in the 1930s and '40s.

Founded by director-teachers Florence and Burton James and actor Albert Ottenheimer as the Seattle Repertory Playhouse (SRP), it offered classics and introduced topical works by Eugene O'Neill and Clifford Odets. It also housed the government-backed Seattle Negro Unit of the Federal Theatre Project, and hosted a concert by folk minstrels Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger.

The Playhouse remained a vibrant cultural hub — until the Jameses were called before the Canwell Committee on Un-American Activities in 1948. Led by conservative state legislator Albert Canwell of Spokane, the committee accused the Jameses (and several UW professors) of being Communists and Soviet sympathizers.

Though the couple fought the charges, the SRP faltered and its 99-year lease was canceled. (The theater was sold to the UW in 1951.) These events were dramatized in "All Powers Necessary and Convenient," a play by Mark Jenkins that debuted at the Playhouse in 1998. During the run, a plaque was installed in the theater's lobby, paying tribute to the contributions the Jameses and Ottenheimer made to Seattle's theatrical life.

— Misha Berson



The Paramount

When the Paramount opened as The Seattle Theater on March 1, 1928, The Seattle Times described it as "rivaling the massive magnificence of the fabulous pleasure dome of Kubla Khan."

Three performances played to a total of almost 10,000, many of whom waited hours to get in. But the Depression hit the next year, and the theater struggled — mainly because, at 3,000 seats, it was so large. It closed in 1930.

It reopened in the late '30s as a movie theater, and remained so until the early 1970s, when new management brought in rock shows.

It was rescued in the early '90s by Microsoft millionaire Ida Cole who, with her own money and some government grants, remodeled it in 1995 into one of the finest theaters in the country. Today we can experience the theater much like those who crowded into it on opening day.

— Patrick MacDonald



Nippon Kan Theatre

It was built in 1909, but for nearly half its life, the Nippon Kan Theatre was dark.

Those were the years between 1942 and 1978. World War II signaled dark days for Seattle's Japanese-American community and for the theater they built, after selling $5 shares, in what is now the International District.

In its early years, the Nippon Kan was the cultural focal point for Japanese Americans in Seattle. Local shops paid for ads on the original painted stage curtain, a colorful mish-mash of Kanji characters and graphics for Toyo Bank or Hinode Moving Co., among others..

The curtain fell on the Nippon Kan in January 1942, just prior to the evacuation of Japanese Americans to internment camps. Before leaving, the community had the foresight to board up the theater to protect its history.

It was revived and reopened in 1981. Now managed by the Northwest Asian American Theatre, the Nippon Kan has expanded far beyond the Japanese-American community, hosting everything from international musicians and film series to weddings and festivals. It is now privately owned and a national historic landmark.

— Pam Sitt

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