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Thursday, April 25, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Theater

Feting the 5th: The 5th Avenue Theatre celebrates 75 years of entertainment

Seattle Times theater critic

The night of Sept. 24, 1926, was quite the festive affair in downtown Seattle.

On Fifth Avenue between Union and University streets, the entire block was closed to traffic. Live bands played, and arc lights illuminated a crowd of thousands thronging to get a first look inside Seattle's newest entertainment palace: the 5th Avenue Theatre.

Once inside, they discovered a 2,349-seat showplace that was — and remains — unlike any other venue in town. In contrast to the Spanish, Moorish and Italian-influenced décor in most theaters of the day (including the nearby Paramount Theatre, built in 1928), the fabulously ornate 5th Avenue evoked an eye-popping Far East fantasia.

Architect Robert C. Reamer and artist Gustav F. Liljestrom based their elaborate wood-and-plaster design for the interiors — the ornately carved and gilded ceilings and walls, the magnificent dragon chandelier and murals — on the historic Throne Room of the Imperial Palace in China's Forbidden City.

Yet despite the palatial setting, the 5th Avenue Theatre has consistently offered populist, mainstream fare to generations of Seattle show-goers. And Saturday night (a few months after its actual 75th birthday) the auditorium is celebrating a long, successful run with a gala benefit show and party.

First a home for vaudeville and silent films (accompanied by the Mighty Wurlitzer organ), then for "talkies," and eventually for large-scale musical-theater productions, the 5th Avenue is an enduring source of local pride and patronage — and a magnet for theater-architecture historians.

On that inaugural in 1926 (which The Seattle Times reported "exceeded the fondest hopes of those in charge of the grand opening"), the audience was treated to an extravaganza assembled by the Fanchon & Marco producing team, including a "symphony of lights and melody" titled "Orientale," numbers by Boyce Combe and the Sunkist Beauty Revue, and a short Cecil B. DeMille "photoplay" titled "Young April."

When vaudeville fizzled, the 5th Avenue presented premiere Hollywood movies — from the Depression-era comedy "Tugboat Annie" to a lengthy run of "The Sound of Music."

But as in many large American cities, Seattle by the 1970s was starting to lose its historic downtown theaters to so-called urban progress and the wrecking ball. In 1978, the 5th Avenue closed its doors as a first-run movie house.

Fortunately, 43 Seattle businesses and individuals formed the nonprofit 5th Avenue Theatre Association and underwrote a $2.6 million loan to spiff up the aging showplace. They were aided by such sympathetic preservationists as Broadway actress Helen Hayes, who in 1980 told Seattle Times drama critic Wayne Johnson, "(The 5th Avenue) is a national treasure. And it's not just the structure that is beautiful. It's the whole idea of bringing it back to life and operating it to enrich the lives of all of us."

From 1980 (when the rehabbed theater reopened with a production of "Annie") through today, the 5th Avenue has mounted and imported a slew of Broadway musicals — from Sigmund Romberg's "The Desert Song" to Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Phantom of the Opera," and from "Hair" to the upcoming pre-Broadway run of "Hairspray."

Under the artistic management of Frank M. Young from 1989 to 2000, the musicals series attracted up to 36,000 annual subscribers, hosted such stars as Katharine Hepburn, Tommy Tune and Lauren Bacall, and sold more than 5 million tickets. Since 2000, new artistic head David Armstrong has carried on with the Broadway musicals tradition, but is diversifying the fare with free "spotlight night" musical programs and singalong movie screenings.

Happy birthday, 5th Avenue Theatre — and may you celebrate at least 75 more!

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com.

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