Seattle Now & Then: Built Around the Organ

(click to enlarge photos)

THEN:  Seattle Architect Paul Henderson Ryan designed the Liberty Theatre around the first of many subsequent Wurlitzer organs used for accompanying silent films in theatres “across the land”.  The Spanish-clad actor-dancers posed on the stage apron are most likely involved in a promotion for a film – perhaps Don Q, Son of Zorro (1925) or Douglas Fairbanks’ The Gaucho (1929) that also played at the Liberty.  (Courtesy Lawton Gowey)
THEN: Seattle Architect Paul Henderson Ryan designed the Liberty Theatre around the first of many subsequent Wurlitzer organs used for accompanying silent films in theatres “across the land”. The Spanish-clad actor-dancers posed on the stage apron are most likely involved in a promotion for a film – perhaps Don Q, Son of Zorro (1925) or Douglas Fairbanks’ The Gaucho (1929) that also played at the Liberty. (Courtesy Lawton Gowey)
NOW:  The curving glass curtain on the west façade of the new Fifteen Twenty-On Second Ave. building can be seen to “repeat” somewhat the symmetry of the Liberty’s proscenium arch.  (photo by Jean Sherrard)
NOW: The curving glass curtain on the west façade of the new Fifteen Twenty-On Second Ave. building can be seen to “repeat” somewhat the symmetry of the Liberty’s proscenium arch. (photo by Jean Sherrard)

In the now 55 years since the Liberty Theatre was razed for the big snuggery of parked cars across First Avenue from the Public Market, a few oil-stained stalls have taken the places of the Liberty’s 1600 seats.  “The only theatre built around an organ!” Is how popular organist Eddie Clifford described the Liberty in 1954, which was forty years after it opened as one of the first big theatres built in Seattle for movies rather than some mix of film and variety.

The organ sat front-center – as you see it here – and from its seat some of the best players of its silent film glory days accompanied the films. Half-hidden behind the grills to the sides and above the grand and gilded proscenium arch that framed the movie screen were the pipes and special machines the made the romantic Wurlitzer sounds, and effects like cooing doves, marimbas (you could see the hammers through the grill), canary trills, the sound of surf, and much more. The tallest pipe – 32 feet – was removed for repairs when its dangerous vibrations cracked the plaster.

In 1929, only the 15th year of its joyful noisemaking, the Wurlitzer was quieted as the talkies took over and the screen was widened.   Still depression-time attendance was good as management bucked Hollywood’s price policy with its own “New Declaration of Independence” that announced a reduction in ticket prices.  The theatre prospered.  In 1937 some press agent figured that “if all the money the Liberty has made was laid end to end it would stretch from here to a point twenty-seven miles southwest of Honolulu” – thereby floating a vision of great prosperity with one of a tropical vacation.

While planning to widen the screen for Cinemascope in 1955, management changed its mind and razed the Liberty instead complaining that there were “not enough good films” but plenty of cars needing to be parked.  It did not think to revive the Wurlitzer for a new era of silent films – something that is happening now in other venues.  The organ was first saved – 15 truckloads – by the music department at Pacific Lutheran University. Now it is at home at Spokane’s First Nazarene church, where it has its own activist chapter of the American Theatre Organ Society.  One of the highlights of the American Theatre Organ Society 2010 convention this summer in Seattle will be a cross-state bus excursion to Spokane and the Liberty’s born again Wurlitzer.

WEB EXTRAS

Jean contributes a somewhat wider view:

Liberty-Theatre-wide
Liberty's lot

Anything to add, Paul? You might at least compliment me on my double entendre in the caption.

YES JEAN WE HAVE SOME EXTRAS (& continue to click once and sometimes twice to enlarge)

But first our well wishes for you and your puns, may they be as supportive of you as a mother, for one good pun is as good as a mother.

We have more – four more photographs of the Liberty.  First another close look at your organ, followed by a wide angle of another production and unidentified too! (something for our reading experts to ponder), followed by another mystery, ushers or performers, we do not know which, posing with an unexplained sign on the sidewalk in front of the Liberty Theatre, and finally a night shot with a happy crowd (we know) gathered to see what that blessedly egalitarian encyclopedia that is written and checked by enthusiasts identifies as “the second talkie photographed entirely in Technicolor.”   The blessed media is, of course, Wikipedia, and the film “Gold Diggers of Broadway”.

The LIberty Theatre stage with a scene of passion not identified and its famous organ too.
The Liberty Theatre stage with a scene of passion not identified and its famous organ too.
The Liberty's showy stage from the back of the theatre for another unidentified production.  We may remind readers who last last weeks insertion on the Swedish Baptist Church that like it the Liberty Theatre was designed by architect Henderson Ryan.
The Liberty's showy stage from the back of the theatre for another unidentified production. We may remind readers who visited last week's insertion on the Swedish Baptist Church that like it the Liberty Theatre was designed by architect Henderson Ryan.
We don't know, but it is on the First Avenue sidewalk  in front of the Liberty Theatre looking north.  What is the last time you made it to a movie that was so appointed?
We don't know, but it is on the First Avenue sidewalk in front of the Liberty Theatre looking north. When was the last time you made it to a movie that was so appointed?

Liberty-nite-1929-WEB

A happy crowd gathered in front of the Liberty Theatre for Gold Diggers of Broadway sometime after its Aug. 30, 1929 release.  This, of course, is only weeks before the great economic crash-panic that began that fall and lingered to the Second World War.  So the film’s enduring hits “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” and “Painting the Clouds with Sunshine” were not composed as diversions or compensation for the Great Depression, but would soon serve so.

Gold Diggers was a hit – “one of the ten best films of 1929″ as rated then by Film Daily. Wikipedia concludes “Contemporary reviews, the soundtrack and the surviving footage suggest that the film was a fast-moving comedy, which was enhanced by Technicolor and a set of lively and popular songs.  It encapsulates the spirit of the flapper era, giving us a glimpse of a world about to be changed by the Great Depression.”   To conclude and to repeat the historical point that was noted in the introduction to these four “extras”, Gold Diggers of Broadway was the second talkie photographed entirely in Technicolor.

Gold Diggers poster

5 thoughts on “Seattle Now & Then: Built Around the Organ”

  1. Demolished a few years before I was born, The Liberty is one of those lovely old theaters I visit in my dreams. Thanks so much for featuring it in your column. The auditorium was actually oriented north to south at a slightly eastern diagonal. An online visit to University of Washington Libraries Digital Collections and a search for the Blaine Building will reward the viewer with a beautiful set of original 1914 architectural drawings for this theater. I have never seen this 1929 Gold Diggers photo. All the extra neon is fantastic! Imagine this neighborhood in its heyday on a Saturday, the market buzzing, streetcars rattling down 1st Avenue, and the Liberty packed with kids for a ten-cent matinee!

  2. Well I just assumed! Perhaps you could return with Jean or meet him there at a coincident-convenient time and show him where to stand and we will do a correction. So the lots that held the Liberty were then wider than they were deep – perhaps? I have a 1912 Baist map and could have checked it there for lot coverage but did not think to do it. Thanks much David, your 80 degree (?) turn to the right is most invigorating.
    Paul.

  3. David
    Nitpicker, not so. To anyone who loves maps, and footprints, and spatial relations of many kinds your correction is thrilling. Well it is turning. You turned us!
    Paul

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