Published in The Seattle Times online on Sept. 11, 2022
and in PacificNW Magazine of the printed Times on Sept. 8, 2022
Priteca’s captivating Coliseum still shines brightly downtown
By Clay Eals
Back in 1989 when I was helping to save West Seattle’s Admiral Theatre, word came out that downtown’s Coliseum Theatre, which opened in 1916, also was endangered. So I did what came naturally — went there to see a film. In it, Morgan Freeman portrayed the notoriously tough New Jersey high-school principal Joe Clark. Based on a song, its title was “Lean on Me.”
To appreciate the grandeur of what was considered the nation’s first movie palace, I climbed to the top of its balcony. The view was startling. I sat mere feet from the Italian Renaissance-style ceiling beams. The rake was so steep that only by splaying my knees could I glimpse the screen far below.
Today, as a theater, the Coliseum is largely a memory, its closing night coming 32 years ago, on March 11, 1990, with the sci-fi thriller “Tremors.”
When a plan emerged in 1992 to restore and convert the Coliseum to a Banana Republic outlet, then-Seattle Mayor Norm Rice declared, “There won’t be a more stunning building this side of the Taj Mahal” in India. The clothier operated inside the city-landmarked structure from 1994 until the pandemic sank the store in 2020.
The trendsetting, terra-cotta Coliseum was one of 60 major West Coast theaters (including the Pantages chain and, yes, the still-operating Admiral) designed by architect Bernard “Benny” Marcus Priteca (1886-1971). With 2,400 seats and hailed by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer as “the last word in picture playhouse construction,” the Coliseum opened when Priteca was just 26.
Scotland-born into an eastern European Jewish family, Priteca had been lured to Seattle by the city’s first world’s fair, the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition. His affection blossomed. As he told The Seattle Times’ Don Duncan while puffing on a cigar eight months before his death, “Washington and Oregon are the world!”
His designs — the lifelong bachelor never retired — extended to Seattle’s Bikur Cholim synagogue (now Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute), Renton’s now-gone Longacres racetrack and even a Paige auto grille and windshield. But the stage was his steadfast siren.
Arguably his most captivating creation was the Coliseum, whose showcase signage changed with the times. Notably, its concave corner half-dome, topped by a massive glass cupola, gave way in late 1950 to a rotating circular marquee and neon pillar featuring filmdom’s golden Oscar. The weather-damaged statue was removed in 1966.
Priteca told Duncan he wished that “Seattle would just stop growing, period.” Perhaps he also would have liked his Coliseum to screen movies forever. It still shines at Fifth & Pike. As the “Lean on Me” lyrics proclaim, “… there’s always tomorrow.”
Thanks to Lawrence Kreisman , Wendy Malloy, Dave Eskenazi, Colin Campbell and Gavin MacDougall 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, check out our Seattle Now & Then 360 version of the column.