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Published in the Seattle Times online on March 17, 2022
and in PacificNW Magazine of the printed Times on March 20, 2022
Fifth Avenue Theatre endures as the pride of downtown Seattle
By Clay Eals
Pearls of promotion can bear timeless truths, as in this pair of catch-phrases 95-1/2 years apart:
- “The Magic Sign of a Wonderful Time.”
- “Joy is essential. Laughter is essential. Escape is essential. Inspiration is essential.”
The former graced ads for the Sept. 24, 1926, grand opening of downtown Seattle’s Fifth Avenue Theatre. The latter exhorts from today’s marquee. Either can apply to each era.
Beneath the hype is a bedrock message: An alluring array of entertainment venues can bolster a downtown’s durability and buoy the soul of an entire city.
No doubt the Fifth’s first-night throng — its girth likened to the spontaneous celebration that broke out at the end of World War I eight years prior — heartily agreed.
“More humanity to the square inch than was ever crowded into a similar space in this northwest corner of these United States packed the streets of seven city blocks radiating from the Fifth Avenue Theatre last night,” exulted the next-day Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
The turnout, spurred by an outdoor carnival and free streetcar service, equaled “the populace of Ballard and Georgetown, Ravenna, Alki and the whole Rainier Valley.” It was “the closest approach to a human sardine can that Seattle has seen since Armistice Day.”
Inside the 2,400-seat, elaborately Chinese-themed palace, those with tickets enjoyed three stage shows, each climaxed by Cecil B. De Mille’s silent cinematic drama “Young April.”
Emblematic of a raft of vintage downtown theaters, the Fifth has stood tall through the years, supported crucially by a massive 1978-80 renovation. Sadly, many Seattle showplaces (notably the Orpheum, Music Box and Blue Mouse) have fallen, while one was preserved for a different use (the Coliseum, as the now-closed Banana Republic clothier) and two others (the Moore and Paramount) survived largely intact.
After a two-year pandemic-induced closure, the Fifth reopened in January, providing hope for all who see such institutions as instrumental to the physical and mental health of Seattle’s core.
Surveying more than a century of context and detail about the rich history of downtown theaters, longtime Seattle architectural historian Lawrence Kreisman has assembled a lavishly illustrated online talk, “Another Opening, Another Show,” which he will present at 5 p.m. March 31, for the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation.
The sponsor couldn’t be more apt, as the Trust, with the state Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation, launched in 2020 a grant program to bolster the viability of 80 eligible historic theaters statewide.
That aim catches the 1926 sentiment of the P-I, which proclaimed the Fifth “a large asset to this city” that “far excels the ordinary.”
Special thanks to Larry Kreisman and Huy Pham, program director for the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation, as well as Victoria Dyson and Kara Terek at the Fairmont Olympic Hotel and Rachel Liuzzi of the Fifth Avenue Theatre, for their help with this installment.
To see Jean Sherrard‘s 360-degree video of the “Now” prospect and compare it with the “Then” photos, and to hear this column read aloud by Clay Eals, check out our Seattle Now & Then 360 version of the column.
Below are 15 added photos and 23 historical clippings from The Seattle Times and Seattle Post-Intelligencer online archive (available via Seattle Public Library) that were helpful in the preparation of this column.
We saved the best clipping for last. Don’t miss it!