(click to enlarge photos)
I first showed this Kodachrome slide of the Rivoli Follies, Seattle’s last house of burlesque, to the Daughters of the American Revolution in the mid-1980s. I was asked to do an illustrated lecture (we then still called them “slide shows”) on local history by the DAR’s program director, then also in her mid-eighties, but still wonderfully spry and good-humored. I confess now to including the Rivoli in that lecture in order to ask the members – whom I imagined as more prudent than impetuous — if any of them had gone there to see a show.
The response was startling, and it came first and fast from my “sponsor.” She exclaimed, “Oh I danced there!” This clamors for some explanation.
Lawton Gowey date-stamped his slide April 11, 1967. Knowing Lawton, I think it most likely that he photographed this east side of the block on First Avenue between Madison Street – where he stood – and Marion, because it would soon be razed for architect Fred Bassetti’s Federal Office Building. The Times theatre ad on that spring day for the Rivoli promised “Blonde, Beautiful and Buxom Maria Christy in person! Plus extra added Zsa Zsa Cortez Mexican Spitfire – plus a stage full of beauties” in “4 shows daily.” *
Of course, the DAR’s program manager appeared on stage here much earlier than Ms. Christy and Cortez – perhaps already in the teens, for she was part of a small local class of amateur dancers performing for a mixed audience – often including their parents – at a weekend matinee.
On Oct. 27, 1939 the State Movie Theatre changed its name to Rivoli and its programing to a “vaudeville policy.” Actually, stage acts had been all or part of the entertainment here since 1905 when vaudeville impresario John Considine bought and booked the corner as the Star Theatre. Years later during the Second World War the more loving and/or libidinous urges of young soldiers moved the Rivoli to “refine” its vaudeville policy into programs that mixed B Movies with the refined arts of removing clothes.
* One browsing and perhaps blue reader has found this attachment: a web page dedicated to campy erotica including a moving duet by the Rivoli stars for April 11, 1967. Here’s a desktop “grab” of the Ms. Christy and Ms. Cortez. In the interest of you the reader I turned it on and discovered that about ten second and two winks into the show it stops and asks one to subscribe. At that point I left and returned to this sober and demure blog.
Anything to add, Paul? A few other past Pacific features from the neighborhood, starting with something more on the Star Theatre. Correction – we will start with a few recordings of the Rivoli’s destruction and then of the Burke Block as well in early 1971. This may be the second insertion in this blog for some of these subjects, but who is keep track? We will act as if they bear repeating with this new “cross-reference.”
The BURKE BUILDING
(First appeared in Pacific, March 3, 1996)
Elmer Fisher was the most prolific of the batch of mostly imported architects who rebuilt Seattle after its Great Fire of 1889. He designed this well-lit red brick pile of Chicago design – modern at the time – for the city’s biggest post-fire shaker: Thomas Burke. Appropriately, Fisher dressed Burke’s namesake building in a uniform of affluence and influence, with hand-carved pilasters, molded corners and tons of marble and granite effects.
At the northwest corner of Second Avenue and Marion Street, in the heart of the city’s financial district, the Burke Building survived in its Victorian raiment well into the 20th century. Its eight stories were transcended by more modern neighbors, first across Marion Street by the 278-foot-high Art Deco Exchange Building in 1929, followed 30 years later by the modern glass-curtain Norton Building, one block south at Columbia Street.
In the mid-1960s the federal government bought the Burke Building – and everything else on its block – after studying more than 40 proposed sites for its new “branch home” in Seattle. If the Henry M. Jackson Federal Office Building had been clad in red brick, as its architect, Fred Bassetti, intended, the Burke Building’s usurper would have, at least, repeated the warmth of its skin. But the office building, late in construction largely because of its price tag, was finally raised without its expensive masonry.
Still, Bassetti and Richard Haag, the site’s landscape architect, did manage to preserve parts of the Burke Building’s ornamental handiwork, along the Federal Building’s Second Avenue Plaza and down the long red-brick stairway to First Avenue along the Marion Street sid
The STAR THEATRE
(First appeared in Pacific, Feb. 10, 1991)
The sign on the Madison Street side of the Star Theatre reads “Continuous Vaudeville.” The general-admission price of one dime bought a seat for eight acts, featuring performers such as ragtime pianists and jazz singers – AI Jolson appeared at the Star in 1907 – and lantern-slide shows illustrating ballads sung by nasal tenors.
The acts were frequently changed. When Seattle’s John Considine, who bought the Star in 1905, signed an act he liked, he could keep the artists at work for more than a year, packing costumes and instruments from coast to coast into scores of theaters he owned or booked.
In 1911, the Star was eclipsed when Considine opened the Orpheum, a grander vaudeville stage two blocks up Madison Street at Third Avenue. This, however, was not the end of theater on the east side of First Avenue between Marion and Madison streets; the Star’s space was converted for motion pictures, first as the Owl Theatre and then as the State Theatre.
In 1885, George Frye had opened his namesake opera house in this same block. It was the best stage north of San Francisco. The last performers to strut this site were strippers. During World War II the New Rivoli Garden Theatre was popular with servicemen. The closure of the Rivoli in the late 1950s marked the end of burlesque in Seattle, and the end of theater on this block. In its place – and all others on the block – the Henry M. Jackson Office Building opened in 1974. (Historical photo courtesy U.W. Libraries, Special Collections.)
The PIPERS on FRONT STREET
(First appeared in Pacific, Oct. 28, 1984)
Front Street couldn’t have been a more appropriate name for First Avenue before the tum of the century. The historic scene, taken in 1878 or ’79, shows Elliott Bay at high tide lapping up against the timber retaining wall that held the street high and dry above the waterfront. This, was Seattle’s first major public work – the regrading of Front Street from a stump-strewn, ravine-ridden path to a filled-in, smooth road with guardrails and a sidewalk promenade.
The photo was taken from a balcony above Maddock’s drugstore at the northeast comer of Front’s intersection with Madison Street. The ” now” shot was taken from the second floor of a brick building which replaced the drugstore after the 1889 fire. (Something we will prove only when we recover it.)
In the far right of the older photo is the balcony of the Pontius Building. The great fire began in the basement. It and the Woodward Grain House (the building that holds the photo’s center-right) were both built on piling. In between them is a gIimpse of a Section of Henry Yesler’s wharf and mill.
Posing in the photograph’s lower left corner are A.W. Piper; his son, Wallis; and their dog, Jack. As the proprietor of the Puget Sound Candy Manufactory, Piper was very popular. He lived in Seattle making candy and friends for 30 years. When Piper died in 1904, his obituary was an unusually good-natured one. He was remembered not only for his great candy and bakery goods, but for his artistic abilities and pranks. “He could draw true to life,” said his obituary, “could mold in clay, cut stone . . . His Christmas display was noted for its Originality, humor and beauty.”
The candy-maker also was unconventional. A religious Unitarian, he also was a socialist member of the Seattle City Council. Many remembered him for being a successful practical joker as well. Once, he mimicked Henry Yesler so convincingly at a public dance that the real Yesler ran home to construct a sign which read, “This is the only original Yesler.” The same could have been said for Piper.
GRANDEST STAGE NORTH of SAN FANCISCO
(First appeared in Pacific, May 5, 1987.)
Several landmarks formed Seattle’s early skyline, the effect advertising the city’s new urban confidence of the mid-I880s. The most formidable in this view is the mansard roof line of the Frye Opera House. When it was completed in 1885, George Frye’s opera house was the grandest stage north of San Francisco. It was modeled after the Bay City’s famed Baldwin Theater, and dominated the northeast corner of First Avenue and Marion Street.
Kitty-corner from the opera house and above a grocery store, the YMCA quarters are marked by what appears to be a banner. The Y moved into this spot in 1882 and out in October 1886, and so this scene dates from sometime in 1885 or ’86. Across the street from the Y, with its own high-minded sign, is the Golden Rule Bazaar. Just above the bazaar and behind the opera house is the Stetson Post Building at Second Avenue and Marion Street. When the Post building was built in 1882 it was the most fashionable address in Seattle.
The mansion with tower and cupola to the right of the Stetson Post is the Stacy Mansion at Third Avenue and Marion Street. This lavish pile of Second Empire architecture lasted much longer than anything else in this scene. In the 1920s, having escaped the fire of 1889, it was pivoted 90 degrees to face Marion Street and became Maison Blanc, one of Seattle’s legendary restaurants. Unfortunately, it was damaged in a lesser fire in 1960.
With its landmarks, what also sets this scene apart are the two sailboats in profile in front of Budlong’s Boathquse. They were rentals from the popular boathouse. In 1886 the Puget Sound Yacht Club was established here.
The Great Fire in 1889, which started at the southwest corner of First and Madison in the far left of this scene, destroyed Frye’s Opera House and practically everything else showing west of Second Avenue.
FIRE STATION No. 1
(First appeared in Pacific, Jan 5, 1992)
The ornate brick façade of Seattle’s first dedicated engine house faced Columbia Street west of Second Avenue. It was built in 1883 to house the fire department’s Washington No. 1 – most likely the steam fire engine posed here with its crew.
Earlier, the department’s other engine, the smaller man-powered Washington No.2, was also housed here in a barn. In the summer of 1882, when No.2 attempted to answer an alarm on the waterfront – sans horses – the weight of the rig dragged the men holding its pole down Columbia street and into the bay. Fortunately, both the firemen and the fire engine were pulled from the water with little injury.
By the time of the city’s fire of 1889, the Seattle Fire Department had a half~ dozen pieces of apparatus, but only one, No. 1 on Columbia Street, was horse-drawn. The ornate brick station that No. 1 left on the afternoon of June 6 to fight the “Great Fire” would not welcome it home. Of the 30-some city blocks destroyed that night, all those south of Spring Street and west of Second Avenue, including this one, were razed.
The PROSPECT From the FRYE OPERA HOUSE
(First printed in Pacific, July 16, 2000.)
What this scene lacks in photographic qualities it makes up with architectural highlights. Landmark gables, towers and steeples surmount the blotches, thumb prints and dark recesses of the photographic print. The view looks south-southeast from an upper story of the Frye Opera House at the northeast comer of Front Street (First Avenue) and Marion Street.
Included here is much of Seattle’s first residential neighborhood – the area east and northeast of Pioneer Place (Square). At this time, in the late 1880s, business was still centered at the square. It also ran through the four blocks of Commercial Street (First Avenue South) that extended south from Yesler Way as far as King Street. There, until the mid-1890s, development was stopped by tideflats.
The largest landmark showing here is the Occidental Hotel on the far right. Built in 1883 in the flatiron block (now home of the “Sinking Ship Garage”) facing Pioneer Square, it was expanded east to Second Avenue in 1887 as we see it here. One of the oldest structures – perhaps the oldest – is far left: the Methodist Episcopal Church built in 1855 near the southeast comer of Second and Columbia. In 1887, the congregation moved two blocks to a new sanctuary at Third and Marion and sold its “White Church” -Seattle’s first – to a new proprietor who moved the building two blocks to Third and Cherry and reopened it as a saloon and gambling house.
The centerpiece here (near the center) is the fire station with the bell tower and ornate brick facade facing Columbia Street between First and Second avenues. This was the home of the horses, apparatuses, and firemen who for want of water pressure proved so ineffective during the city’s Great Fire of June 6, 1889. Everything west of Second Avenue in this scene was destroyed, including the fire station.
Above: Most of the structures in this view up Front Street (First Ave.) north of Madison St. in 1886 would be consumed in the city’s Great Fire of 1889. The fire started at the Southwest corner of First and Madison. Below: The Alexis Hotel, on the left, and the 20-story Waterfront Tower, on the right, are landmarks in the six-block Waterfront Place, first developed in the early 1980s.
FRONT STREET, 1886
(First appeared in Pacific July 26, 1992.)
The landmark in this scene – the “finest theater north of San Francisco” – is implied. From its fourth-floor roof, the Frye Opera House was an obvious perch from which to look down on Front Street (First Avenue).
The opera house was opened in 1885; this view northwest across the intersection of First and Madison to the waterfront was photographed probably in the summer of 1886. This was the 10th anniversary of the city’s first major public work, which regraded Front Street north of Yesler Way.
Also in 1886, the U.S. Post Office Department reprimanded the Northern Pacific Railroad for regularly holding up (for 22 hours) Seattle mail in Tacoma, the railroad’s company town. The department awarded Seattle the southern terminus for mail collected from communities to the north of the city – a role previously Tacoma’s. Despite the Northern Pacific’s best efforts to neglect or outright inhibit use of the “orphan road” railroad line that ran between the two cities, commerce across it was increasing rapidly.
The northern end of that Seattle spur appears here. This is a rare view of the “Ram’s Horn” track that snaked along the waterfront north of King Street about as far as Pike. It was the trigger for sustained bellicosity between waterfront land owners, shippers and public officials who wanted to get around or under it.
The following year it would be surpassed by a straighter trestle of the Seattle Lake Shore and Eastern Railroad (SLSE), which ran north from the waterfront to Interbay and, eventually, to Canada on what is now part of the Burke-Gilman Recreation Trail. Together the “Ram’s Hom” and the SLSE were the beginning of Railroad Avenue, the wide swath of timber trestles that is now our waterfront.
FIRST AVE. North Thru MADISON STREET
(First appeared in Pacific, June 22, 1986)
Although several decades separate our “now” and “then,” not much has changed. Indeed, this First Avenue block between Madison Street (in the foreground) and Spring Street is one of the best-preserved in the city. This lucky situation is the result of some unlucky happenings.
The first of these was the Great Fire of 1889, which razed to a rubble this intersection. Then, before the elaborate post-fire rebuilding could make its way up First Avenue from Pioneer Square, the street (and the nation) suffered another setback: the economic crash of 1893.
In 1897, First Avenue finally enjoyed some fortunate attention when thousands of travelers came crashing through Seattle en route to the lavish hardships of the gold fields in the north. First Avenue was built up from the wealth of the gold rush, and it shows. The three elegant buildings on left, historically the Globe and Beebe buildings and the Hotel Cecil, are all the satisfying 1901 creations of architect Max Umbrecht. In this photo they are brand new, showplaces along what was for a bief time one of the busiest blocks in Seattle. But this elegant energy was short-lived. For all the terra cotta tiles, fluted pilasters and arched bays lavished on these facades, behind them it was primarily a strip of workingmen’s hotels serving the rougher businesses of the waterfront.
The economic crash of 1907, although not as bad as 1893’s, hit this avenue particularly hard. It never really rebounded – never, that is, until now. And the irony of First Avenue’s years of neglect is that it was thereby preserved. (A reminder: this was written a quarter-century ago.)
It was because the Globe Building, on the left, was for years the home of a penny arcade that its savior, Cornerstone Development Co., could renovate it as the centerpiece of its six-block Waterfront Place project.
Here, between Madison and Seneca streets, Cornerstone has saved five architectural delights, including the Globe which is now the European-styled Alexis Hotel. Cornerstone’s one exception on First is its 20-story Watermark Tower at Spring Street. And this is but half an exception since the sculptured tower with its art deco touches and cream-colored tile skin emerges from within the preserved terra cotta facade of the 1915 Colman Building.
A real exception to this ornate First Avenue story is the simple two-story brick structure on the right of this week’s historical scene. Although it is one of the oldest buildings in Seattle, put up soon after the fire of 1889, its longest continuous occupant is still there. This year (1986), Warshal’s Sporting Goods celebrates its golden anniversary at First and Madison. (In that quarter-century since, Warshal’s has gone missing and the corner has been developed to greater heights.)
The EXCHANGE BUILDING
(First appeared in Pacific, Jan 10, 1999)
Architect John Graham Sr.’s Exchange Building is one of the graces of local architecture – a modest grace. Facing Marion Street, its great front facade is not shown off as it might have been fronting Second Avenue or looking out to Elliott Bay across First Avenue. Since the opening of the Federal Office Building in 1974 it looks demurely across Marion Street into the fed’s greater but less alluring north façade.
In his contribution on Graham for the U.W. Press book “Shaping Seattle Architecture,” Grant Hildebrand, a professor in the School of Architecture, comes to the mildly restrained conclusion that the Exchange Building is perhaps Graham’s finest work. Hildebrand finds it “an engaging play of Art Deco motifs” and delights in its “all-over massing, but especially in its street-level treatment and its lobby.”
The jewel-like arches at the entrance to the main lobby off Second Avenue are evident in this view. (What follows was written for the clipping included directly above, and not the photograph exhibited above it.) The American flags adorning City Light’s street fixtures are grouped with signs, which read – certainly – “Exchange Building,” but also seem to read “Grand Opening.” Most likely this dates from 1931, when the landmark was new. More evidence: Most of the windows are still without shades, and many of the rooms seem empty.
Graham was born in Liverpool, England, in 1873 and came to Seattle in 1901. A few of his other works are the Frederick and Nelson Building, The Bon Marche, the Dexter Horton Building and, immediately south of the Exchange Building on Second Avenue, the Bank of California. A small portion of its classical front shows here. To quote Hildebrand once more, Graham’s “work was significant . . . because in playing a major role in the making of downtown Seattle, it was invariably executed with a sure and sensitive hand.”
The GARDEN OF ALLAH
(Appeared in Pacific first on Feb. 1, 1998)
Although these two scenes (if we had the “now” in hand, which we don’t for now) were not figured with a surveyor’s chain, a bet that they were photographed from within a few feet of one another is as good as the likelihood that this organist could accompany Jackie Starr, right, in her dosing number. The sheet music, with the title “Oh! What It Seemed To Be,” shows between organist Jimmy Baker and drummer Earl Steves.
The historical scene was photographed a half-century ago on – to use the full title of the book from which the photo was taken – “An Evening At The Garden of Allah, A Gay Cabaret in Seattle.” So, as her closing number perhaps suggests, the elegantly dressed and coifed Starr is not a she but a he.
The Garden began as a Prohibition speakeasy in the basement of the old Arlington Hotel. In 1946 it reopened primarily for the postwar, high-camp performances of mostly female impersonators who, like Starr, learned their art in vaudeville. Resembling Gypsy Rose Lee, Starr once filled in for her so convincingly in a Music Hall performance that the sophisticated New York audience was fooled.
The Garden, which lasted 10 years, was also a sanctuary for Seattle’s gay population. First Amendment rights to comedy, love songs and bawdy routines (tame by today’s standards) were “guaranteed” by police payoffs.
The contemporary scene was shot in the library of Harbor Steps’ new high-rise apartments on First Avenue. Skippy LaRue was a friend to whom Jackie Starr left the photographs used throughout Don Paulson’s remarkable book. With University of Washington associate professor Roger Simpson’s creative help, Paulson shaped his hundred-plus interviews with Garden performers and regulars – including LaRue – into a Columbia University Press publication, which won the Governor’s Writers Award for 1997.
8 thoughts on “Seattle Now & Then: Rivoli Follies”
This single post is so chock full of interesting things I would love to discuss with you. Maybe it’s time for me to return the favor of a bowl of chowder.
I work in the National Building so this area is very familiar to me. I have several questions for you:
1) In the text below the photo of the Pipers on Front Street, you say that the now shot (which appears to be omitted) was taken from a two story building that replaced the drug store. Would that have been the Louvre/Warshal’s building? I’d love to see that now shot if you ever found it.
2) In the 1886 photo looking north from Madison in the Prospect from Frye section, there’s a second-story balcony at lower right. Is this the location where the “Pipers” photo was shot from? If so, that would again be be the location of the Louvre building, I think.
3) Not a question really, but in the photo of the Stevens Hotel that also shows the Burke building, you put the Star Theatre at the southeast corner of First and Marion. I think that’s First and Madison, no?
The shot over the roof of the SLS&ER office is fascinating. I’m now sitting midair in the space between that roof’s ridge and the buildings beyond. You mention the Louvre/Warshal’s building. Left of it is a 3-story affair that I believe is on the site of what later became the much taller Wadsworth building, and I wonder if this is the same building and if this is another case of later roof-raising. In any case, the neighboring Schoenfeld and Holyoke buildings further left are not yet built.
Thanks for posting all these wonderful views.
Hi, thanks for the info, I work in the Exchange Building now and am grateful to your work for giving me an ability to see and remember the history of this area (I have some memories of this area from about 1972 on). Seeing the old buses reminded me of my youth.
My buddies and I used to go to a burlesque place on 2nd & Yesler called the Paris Follies. This was back in the late ’60s, early 70s. It had an ever changing cast of live strippers, and a MC/Comedian. I believe that the “Paris” was part of a chain of burlesque houses owned by the Pioneer Theatre Circuit.
Fascinating, Seattle’s history is rich and colorful and it has impacted my life to a large degree. I lived in Belltown, The Rivoli, in 1979 for a few months and was amazed at its architecture. Love old cities. I am going back this week for a visit to downtown, a place that has always intrigued me. It would be nice if I can view one of the apartments in the Rivoli to remember. Take care, C
I was an exotic dancer at the rivoli theatre in 1964,65 and part of. 66. The owners also owned the new mission follies in sanfrancisco. I was only eighteen yrs old and it was just an unforgettable experience. To b part of the line-up . The orchestra pit held usually a trio and I remember some of the tunes Sometimes trumpet always piano and drums. There was no drinking but smoking was allowed and a very large bright spotlight right in your face I akso went to several dances at the gay room downstairs off first ave. fabulous shows and fun people. We also hung out at the Madison tavern at second and Madison. Many more memories. I was ” baby jane ” and I met some great dancers And comics. It was the end of a fun era of enter tainment. We had a drag queen sewing our gowns. Right back stage !
I have heard that Gypsy Rose Lee danced at the Rivoli
I just happened to be trying to find some kind of list of the girls who used to work there. Some were “features” from out of town on the stripper circuit, and others were locals. Who can ever forget some of the names they went by: Irma the Body, Natasha, Raven Wilde, Penny Cillin, on and on. I was working my way through college, and I’d occasionally go down to Pennyland and play the “Bingo” machines for a little extra change. There was one machine I could work pretty well that had a little more tolerance for gently shaking or hitting a ball to a certain slot without tilting. On this particular night a friend came in, we chatted for a few minutes, and he invited me to go across the street to the
Rivoli where he had a job cleaning up the theater after it closed. There were thirty minutes left, so I could see the last couple of girls do there thing. That night I helped him sweep and clean out the theatre, and my friend asked me if I wanted the job? He had just got another job at the Polynesian restaurant on the waterfront where he could park cars and earn more in tips in one night than he could earn at the Rivoli in a week. I got the job and I worked there from 1964 until it closed down for good five or six years later. I worked several other jobs at the same time downtown, all the while going to school, and working toward my master’s degree. There appears to be a dearth of information about the Rivoli and some of the other theaters I cleaned out at this time. Maybe I should just write a book. Any interest out there? JWL
Tempest Storm did the Rivoli sometime in the mid-1950s. She told me a story about a one-armed drummer that was playing with the other musicians working there. The girls would come in and, when they saw the drummer, they couldn’t believe he could keep up with their bumps and grinds. They wanted to leave. Tempest said in no time at all he turned out to be a fabulous drummer. Couldn’t remember his name.
I got this information from her when I happened to attend Glamour-Con in L.A. in l995 at the head of the Betty Page craze at the time. A friend from Woodinville here put on Glamour-Con at this time. JWL