“Don’t Sink the Admiral!”
(click to enlarge photos)
With a little effort we may imagine – an exertion ordinarily expected inside a theatre – that the exterior of West Seattle’s Admiral looks something like a ship; at least, that is how its architect B. Marcus Priteca intended it. So in this scene of its grand opening on January 22, 1942, the marquee with its neon anchors break over the sidewalk like a ship’s bow. Above it portholes, guardrails, nautical flags, and a mast (the crow’s nest is out of the frame) playfully elaborate the nautical fantasy
Priteca, famed architect of the fantastic, launched his movie palace career in Seattle with the theatre impresario Alexander Pantages. Designing theatres nation-wide for the Pantages chain or circuit, his Seattle creations included the Pantages (later renamed the Palomar), the Orpheum, and his lone downtown survivor, the Coliseum – “survivor of sorts” for it is long since home for a clothing store named for a fruit. For a neighborhood theatre, Priteca’s Admiral, a name its owner John Danz let West Seattleites choose by contest, was sumptuous. . . (Planned months before the start of the Second World War and opened a month after Pearl Harbor, the Admiral name, although tied to Admiral Way, was also a nice fit for wartime enthusiasms.)
In anticipation of its inaugural night, the West Seattle Herald exclaimed, “It transcends every preconceived idea of motion picture theatres, and will amaze everyone with its new beauties, its new revelations in comfort, sight and sound.” The nautical excitements continued inside with fluorescent murals of underwater scenes, a grand mural of Captain George Vancouver’s 1792 landing on Puget Sound, a ceiling sparkling with lantern projection of the signs of the zodiac, and usherettes ship-shape in naval uniforms.
Forty-seven years later the Admiral struck the bottom-line when, without warning or comment, the expansive Toronto-based theatre chain Cineplex Odeon closed it. And eleventh-hour leak of their intent brought out the pickets in a protest for the preservation of West Seattle’s unique example of the art of motion picture theatre design. Cineplex Odeon bought the Admiral in 1986, raised the prices, cut the staff, and let the place run down. Then, intending to build a multiplex theatre in a new mall planned near the West Seattle side of the new high bridge to West Seattle, the corporation put the Admiral on the block. Understandably, the preservationists found the last night’s bill “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” appropriate.
Clay Eals, then the recently departed editor of the Herald and the just-installed president of the Southwest Seattle Historical Society, and editor of “West Side Story,” the Herald’s 1987 oversized history of the Duwamish peninsula, was one of the preservationists struggling to save the Admiral. In six months of energetic organizing, the historical society secured city landmark status for the movie house.
This past Sunday, May 3, 2009, Clay returned to the stage of the Admiral as master of ceremonies for Seattle’s part in the nationwide celebration of folksinger Pete Seeger’s 90th birthday. The lesson was – and the song was sung, too – “We Shall Overcome.” In 1989, the people, Clay Eals and Priteca’s creation also overcame. The Admiral, after a three-year closure followed by the theater’s purchase by the preservation-minded Gartin family, reopened in 1992 and shows films and hosts live shows to this very day.