Tuesday, May 24, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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5th Avenue Theatre emits silver sparks

A remarkable community treasure, The 5th Avenue Theatre, is looking ahead to its 25th anniversary season in September. But not before a Broadway-bound musical, "Princesses," tunes up in Seattle this summer prior to heading to New York.

Vitality and verve are constants of the 5th Avenue story, whether it is a dynamo of theatrical arts on stage or intense behind-the-scenes activity by civic-minded executives and individual donors. The 5th Avenue history is a blend of struggle and achievement that has brought industry recognition for collaboration and an ability to nurture musical-theater productions and take risks on new shows.

Away from the stage, there has been a parallel commitment from community leaders to help the theater weather regional economic downturns and survive periodic droughts of marketable creativity from Broadway.

The theater began life in 1926 as a vaudeville and movie palace. By 1978, its doors were closed and future unknown. A year later, 43 Seattle companies and individuals — a blend of theatrical angels and risk-takers — founded The 5th Avenue Theatre Association.

Guaranteeing loans, cheerleading and handholding, they inspired a renovation that led to a grand reopening in June 1980 and a spot on the National Register of Historic Places.

They wanted a home for musical theater and to provide a facility that could host extended runs of national touring companies. The 5th Avenue was back with a bang.

Tough times in the 1980s saw the theater improvising to pay the bills, serving as a venue for community events and local promoters.

The theater worked its way back to greater glory collaborating with a Houston regional theater plus a determined turn toward self-production. Add some killer, national tours, and the theater rebounded.

Most often, the 5th Avenue made its own good fortune. The theater was fortunate to keep Marilynn Sheldon, now managing director, and find David Armstrong, producing artistic director. A busy theater season, in a busy theater city, means work for hundreds of actors, artists, technicians and staff.

A rich and deep education program ranges from theatrical primers for the public before a show opens, to taking musical theater to Washington schools and sponsoring a festive celebration of high-school talent.

Support for The 5th Avenue Theatre is user-friendly, from buying single tickets to subscribing to the 25th anniversary season. The legacy of a remarkable community institution can be further burnished with a donation to The 5th Avenue Challenge, a $600,000 challenge grant through the Seattle Foundation.

The 5th Avenue Theatre is a valued cultural anchor for downtown Seattle and the region. That enduring belief will also celebrate a silver anniversary.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company


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