Seattle Now & Then: The Orpheum Theatre

(click on photos to enlarge)

THEN: Thanks to Pacific reader John Thomas for sharing this photograph recorded by his father in 1927.  It looks north across Times Square to the almost completed Orpheum Theatre. Fifth Avenue is on the left, and Westlake on the right.
THEN: Thanks to Pacific reader John Thomas for sharing this photograph recorded by his father in 1927. It looks north across Times Square to the almost completed Orpheum Theatre. Fifth Avenue is on the left, and Westlake on the right.
NOW: Razed in 1967, the Orpheum was soon replaced by the "corncob architecture" of the Washington Plaza Hotel, later renamed the Westin. In this view from the corner of Olive Way and Fifth Avenue, Jean Sherrard has adjusted his prospect a few feet in order to look around the monorail support.
NOW: Razed in 1967, the Orpheum was soon replaced by the "corncob architecture" of the Washington Plaza Hotel, later renamed the Westin. In this view from the corner of Olive Way and Fifth Avenue, Jean Sherrard has adjusted his prospect a few feet in order to look around the monorail support.

When it opened on Times Square in the summer of 1927, the Orpheum Theatre was the largest venue for films and vaudeville in the Pacific Northwest. However, in six months the distinction of its 2,700 seats was surpassed only six blocks away when the Paramount Theatre opened with 4,000 seats. The Paramount, of course, has survived, while the Orpheum was razed in 1967 with hardly a protest.

Six years earlier, the destruction of the Seattle Hotel in Pioneer Square was vigorously protested because it was the cornerstone of that neighborhood. But here uptown in the mid-1960s the unique three-block diagonal cut of Westlake, from its origin at Fourth Avenue and Pike Street to Sixth Avenue and Virginia Street, was being discussed as the best place to create a civic center that Seattle did not have since the city’s commercial interests moved north into this retail neighborhood. This aura of progress by building something “new and modern” surely dampened preservationist enthusiasm for the Orpheum.

Right after the two-day auction of its lavish appointments, including the marble cut from floors and walls, the theater was destroyed. Surprisingly, the tear down took so long it broke the wrecker’s budget. The sturdy Orpheum was more reluctant than expected.

This “Spanish Renaissance masterpiece” was one of Seattle architect B. Marcus Priteca’s greatest theaters. And in spite of the squeeze of its location his Orpheum was in every part sumptuous from sidewalk to sky. The roof sign was the largest on the coast. Meant for Vaudeville as well as films, it had 14 dressing rooms, all but two with baths.

The Orpheum opened with the film ‘Rush Hour’, and although designed for live performance, it kept for the most part to movies through 40 years in business. I remember seeing both “Never on Sunday” and “Goldfinger” there in the mid-1960s, and confess to being more interested in the films than in the theater (or even aware that it was doomed). Perhaps if it had been in Pioneer Square.  (Later I purchased in a garage sale a nicely cut piece of marble that was, I was told, salvaged from the lobby.  It was then my belated part in preservation.  Now it is on my desk.)

McGraw
McGraw

WEB EXTRAS

Jean writes: Stepping out into Fifth Avenue gave me a better view of the “corncob” and the statue of Governor John McGraw (1850-1910), which existed both ‘then’ and ‘now’.

The Westin (née Washington Plaza) Hotel unobstructed
The Westin (née Washington Plaza) Hotel unobstructed
A blown up detail of McGraw's statue shows the governor and former Seattle police chief peeping from behind the firs.
A blown up detail of McGraw's statue shows the governor and former Seattle police chief peeping from behind the firs.

Anything to add, Paul?   Yes – a few things Jean.  And will first say that it is a fine hide-and-seek with the Police Chief in the bushes, you show above.  Another evidence of what a shadow is life.  How brief and how forgotten.   A man of such note, now unknown but to a few.  Not even this monument in one of the landmark intersections of the city will instruct or distract citizens enough to make much mark for the identity of Governor McGraw, pawn of the railroads.    Still surviving in a few libraries are copies of McGraws “In Memoriam” chap book served up at his memorial service.  This cover was copied from the library of our regular supplier of “Edge Clipping” – Ron Edge.

John-McGraw-Memori-WEB

First another photo of the new Orpheum, followed by another now-then feature first published in 1993, and more, which will be captioned in its places.

The Chorus Kid, a 1928 silent film, is on the Orpheum Marquee.  So here is the nearly brand new theatre in all its magesty and a year before the Great Depression would dim even this lustre.   This pix, like many others, was got from Lawton Gowey, and soon below we'll also include three that he took.
Could this have been the official portrait of the theatre? The Chorus Kid, a 1928 silent film, is on the Orpheum Marquee. So here is the nearly brand new theatre in all its majesty and a year before the Great Depression would dim even this lustre. This pix, like many others, was got from Lawton Gowey, and below we'll also include two of the site that he took. Hopefully David Jeffers, our local silent film expert, will check in and instruct us some on this 1928 offering and this theatre too in its first years.

GOLDEN ANNIVERSARY FOR THE SEATTLE SYMPHONY.

(This story was first published in The Seattle Times Pacific Magazine on Dec. 5, 1993.)

In 1953,The Seattle Symphony Orchestra promoted its golden anniversary with a pubic campaign to discover “Where were you on the night of Dec.28, 1903?” – the night Harvey West directed the Seattle Symphony’s first concert in the ballroom of the Arcade Building at Second and Seneca.

Arthur Fiedler guest-conducted the Seattle Symphony for this Nov. 3 concert, and local virtuoso Byrd Elliott was featured with Prokofieff’s Second Violin Concerto.  The Orpheum was filled to its 2,600-seat capacity.

Earlier, in January of 1953, Arturo Toscanini’s assistant, the violist Milton Katims, made his first appearance here as guest conductor.  The Seattle Symphony was then still playing in the Civic Auditorium, an acoustic purgatory that violinist Jascha Heifetz called the “barn.”  Heifetz’s opinion was shared and extended by Sir Thomas Beecham.  The already-famous English maestro conducted the Seattle Symphony during much of World War II and, before leaving here, famously called Seattle a “cultural dustbin.”

The symphony’s first postwar conductor, Carl Bricken, resigned in 1948.  The musicians soon formed their own Washington Symphony League and scheduled a season of 16 concerts at the Moore Theatre with a conductor of their own choosing, Eugene Linden of the Tacoma Symphony.   This rebellion was short-lived, and the following year the organization was reformed.  Milton Katims, the Seattle Symphony Orchestra’s guest conductor became its residence conductor with the 1954-55 season and he stayed on until 1976.

In 1993 when this feature was first published, the Symphony was it its 90th season and, the story noted then, “is quietly campaigning for a new auditorium.”   It got it, of course.

Lawton Gowey's 11th Hour of the Orpheum in 1967.
Lawton Gowey's 11th Hour of the Orpheum in 1967.
Frank Shaw's look into the wreckage.
Frank Shaw's look into the wreckage.
Lawton Gowey's repeat of the theatre site soon after the Westin Hotel was completed.  Note McCraw standing revealed.
Lawton Gowey's repeat of the theatre site soon after the Westin Hotel was completed. Note McCraw standing revealed.
A different and earlier Orpheum Theatre, this one on the east side of Thrid Avenue between Jefferson and James Streets, where the City-County Building was raised in 1914 (I believe).   The theatre had to wait on the destruction by fire of the Yesler Mansion that stood on this block from the mid 1880s untlll 1901 when it held the local library and when up in flames with all its books except those that were checked out.
A different and earlier Orpheum Theatre, this one on the east side of Third Avenue between Jefferson and James Streets, where the City-County Building was raised in 1914 (if memory serves, which is to say, without checking). For a while this Orpheum was the longest theatre in town. Some spoken lines were relayed by helpful customers who on hearing them from the middle of the theatre would then turn and shout them to the back. The players would ordinarily wait. This theatre was so long that it could be raining at the front door on James Street when sunlight was streaming through the windows on Jefferson Street. This theatre was so long that the ushers were organized into two platoons: east and west. This theatre was so big that the pigeons who lived on one end of the roof knew nothing of those at its other end. The theatre had to wait on the destruction by fire of the Yesler Mansion that stood on this block from the mid 1880s until 1901 when it was home for the local library. Only the books that were checked out survived. Those who returned books late were especially thanked - we hope. This theatre was so long that when it was razed the two crews working from either end wound up six inches off.

8 thoughts on “Seattle Now & Then: The Orpheum Theatre”

  1. School had only been in session for a month, and already my grades had fallen from they had been the previous year, when I had nearly been an honor student. One Monday morning, my English teacher announced there would be a 2pm matinee that Wednesday of a filmed Shakespeare play at the Orpheum theater and that anybody who wished to could get out of school early to attend, and would be given extra credit if they wrote a report on it.

    I wasn’t going to pass up such an opportunity, especially since the play was “Hamlet” and starred Richard Burton, and I had been listening to selections from this production all summer on a record my mom had picked up through her membership in the Columbia Record Club.

    That Wednesday afternoon marked a thrilling encounter with spoken language, It wasn’t merely the soaring cadences of Burton’s soliloquies, but the energy level he set for the entire cast. Even though I had listened several times to scenes from this production, I was unprepared for the ecstasies of verbal flight it offered. I was also blind to the physical shortcomings of Burton’s performance, and the misconception that acting was a matter of a sonorous voice was planted so deep within me that I was never able to uproot it. As a result I was never any good as an actor, even though I subsequently spent many undeserved hours trying to justify my presence on the stage.

    When my English teacher awarded my report on the film with five extra credit points, I asked her if I could earn some more credit by memorizing some of the speeches. She answered with a delighted yes, and was somewhat shocked when, the next day after classes I stopped by her classroom and delivered letter-perfect imitations of Burton’s readings of “Too Too Solid Flesh,” “Now I Am Alone,” and “To Be Or Not To Be.” Perhaps I should have relieved her amazement at my feats of memorization by confessing that I had been spouting these soliloquies about the house for several weeks, but I needed all the extra credit I could get just to lift my grade up to a C.

    excerpt from “Cinema Penitentiary”

  2. Bill
    SSS super swell and sweet and I look forward to reading the entire Cinema Penitentiary, the story of your cloistered development with films. I was similarly enchanted by filmed Shakespeare – with L. Olivier in Richard III. “Now is the winter of our discontent make glorious summer by this son of York . . .” (There is a pun in there on sun-son.) Although the talk lifted me it was the walking of the crippled villain that had the most measurable effect. I could not stop limping when leaving the theatre. Kept it up involuntarily for an hour. But what a blessed infirmity – nothing organic, all theatric. . .
    Paul

  3. The theater pictured at 3rd and James was the first Seattle house named for the Orpheum Vaudeville Circuit, from 1908-1911. It was known as the Coliseum Theatre, 1907-1908 and 1911-1913. There were a total of four Seattle theaters named for the Orpheum Vaudeville Circuit.

    Orpheum by the numbers –

    Any discussion of Variety Vaudeville Theater in American history must certainly include the name Orpheum. It is virtually synonymous with the mixed-program “clean” houses, which began in the nineteenth century musichall and ended in the twentieth century moviehouse. Orpheum was everywhere, from coast to coast, and Seattle was no exception. Over the years, six Seattle theaters bore the Orpheum name.

    500 3rd Avenue
    Mention The Coliseum Theater to most Seattle residents and they are quick to respond, “Banana Republic.” The first Coliseum was in fact located on the southeast corner of 3rd and James. Cornerstones of early Seattle theater, Sullivan and Considine opened this vaudeville house in 1907, which was re-named Orpheum 1908-1911, and closed for good in 1913.

    919 3rd Avenue
    Another Sullivan and Considine establishment, this Orpheum opened in 1911. Owners changed and the name moved in 1923. The theater on the southwest corner of 3rd and Madison was boarded for years and served as a “colored” USO during WWII before it was razed in 1954 for a car park. The side street entrance was located at 217 Madison.

    1932 2nd Avenue
    Seattle’s grand lady of theaters, John Cort’s palace on the southeast corner of 2nd and Virginia opened December 28, 1907, and was home to Orpheum Vaudeville for a number of years before Moore was dropped from the name 1923-1927. Along with the Moore Hotel which surrounds it, The Moore Theater is the sole survivor from this list.

    504-506 Stewart Street
    The last hurrah for Orpheum in Seattle was the grand palace designed by B. Marcus Priteca at 5th and Westlake. This theater opened as The New Orpheum on August 28, 1927 and survived the demise of vaudeville a few years later. Operating as a movie theater and concert hall for most of its existence, this spectacular Spanish Renaissance tribute to the height of movie palace opulence was demolished in 1967 to make way for the Washington Plaza (Weston) Hotel.

    Two other theaters bearing the Orpheum name were unrelated to the chain.

    200 2nd Avenue
    Back in the day, our forefathers kept the seedier parts of society, theaters, saloons and “social clubs” south of Yesler. This box-house on the southeast corner of Second Avenue and Washington operated as The Orpheum from 1896-1900.

    1010 2nd Avenue
    Located on the east side of Second Avenue between Madison and Seneca, this diminutive vaudeville theater operated as The Orpheum 1904-1908.

    Seattle theater manager J. P. Howe was the first to bring the Orpheum Vaudeville Circuit to town, booking two separate bills at the Seattle Theater (3rd and Cherry) in April 1902.
    Prominent Seattle theater manager John Considine also booked Orpheum Vaudeville at The Star Theater (1st and Madison) around 1905. Considine’s other Seattle theater at that time was the second Orpheum (1010 2nd Avenue) but ironically, it never presented Orpheum Vaudeville.

    I once heard a demolition story involving the New Orpheum (5th and Virginia). Workers hammered away at the mezzanine for over a week, but it would not fall. One day, as they enjoyed their lunch break, it came down with a thundering crash while everyone was out of the building.

  4. Thanks David. You and our cup now runneth over. Now how many can we illustrate? I’ll ask Jean if we can – but I sort of doubt it – illustrate directly into comments. If not we can take your text and put it with the main body of Orpheum texts and illustrate it there. Any idea. I know I have buried a few Orpheum pixs. I may even have the one at 3rd and James with the Coliseum name on it. I remember that confused me once. The Moore of course. A colored postcard of the 3rd and Madison one is somewhere in this basement. Perhaps a black and white neg too. As for those “south of the line” I don’t know – as yet.
    Paul

  5. As pointed out in the March 13, 2010 column, The Orpheum Theatre remnants were purchased in the two-day sale of Orpheum items by many of its fans.

    According to A. J. Mullally, the original owner/developer of what’s now Lake House Condominium along Madison Park’s lakefront, several of The Orpheum’s chandeliers (including the one still adorning Lake House’s original building) are still to be found around Seattle. The one anchoring the original Lake House Apartments (now Lake House Condominium’s Building A of the two-building complex), upon its debut in 1968 (41 years after the opening of The Orpheum Theatre) has been at its second home four years longer than it was at The Orpheum!

  6. Greg such second lives are possible for artifacts, bless their example. But only we of withering flesh and blood can hope on and on about our eternity.

  7. And about John Von Herberg’s wife, Gene Dennis? She was on the Vaudeville circuit as a Psychic. They owned Von’s restaurant and the Broaadway Market beside the chain of theaters. Do you know about the fire at the Orphuem opening?

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