On January 8, 1916, the Coliseum Theater, advertised as “the world’s largest and finest photoplay palace,” opens to capacity crowds. (Films, at this time, are called photoplays.) The new venue draws thousands of first-day patrons, some of whom must endure several hours lined up outside in a cold drizzle. Located at the northeast corner of 5th Avenue and Pike Street, the house is designed by renowned theater architect and Seattle resident B. Marcus Priteca (1889-1971). Ticket prices are 15 cents for general admission, 30 cents for seats in one of the many loge boxes, and 50 cents for reserved loge seating.
Source of Local Pride
With a terra cotta exterior and “Byzantine” orange interior, the Coliseum was built by the Gottstein interests in conjunction with the Greater Theatres Company, a local firm headed by Claude Jensen and John von Herberg (1880-1947). The theater boasted an impressive array of luxury features, including a large smoking room for men, spacious restrooms for women, a children’s playroom, recessed floor lighting and, according to one journalist, “a symphony of upholstering.”
Lavish floral arrangements decorated the house from top to bottom, all but obscuring the workmanship of many local craftsmen, whose efforts could be seen virtually everywhere, from the plaster work and electrical fixtures down to the plumbing.
Boasting an eight-piece house orchestra (three violinists, a bassist, a cellist, a pianist, a drummer, as well as an organist to helm the giant Moller pipe organ), the Coliseum’s musicians -- all Russians -- were reportedly the highest paid in all the United States. The theater also boasted some additional, largely unintentional musical effects -- a collection of songbirds in wicker cages that hung throughout the interior. On opening day, the birds were startled into a chirping frenzy at the start of each musical number.
"God Save Anita King"
Lasky-Paramount actor Anita King (1891-1963) arrived from Hollywood to help dedicate Seattle’s newest photoplay palace, which debuted with Cecil B. DeMille's feature film The Cheat, starring Fannie Ward and Sessue Hayakawa. (The Coliseum was Seattle's exclusive venue for Paramount output, which included films from Paramount, Famous Players, Jessie L. Lasky, Oliver Morosco, and Pallas Pictures. In addition to King, the talent pool of these studios alone boasted such early box-office draws as Mary Pickford, Geraldine Farrar, Marguerite Clark, John Barrymore, and Blanche Sweet.)
Upon Anita King's entrance, the Russian orchestra humorously serenaded her to a version of "God Save the King," bringing all 2,400 patrons to their feet. In a slight geographical muddle, King dedicated the theater:
"To you lovers of silent drama, and to the great city of Seattle, I dedicate the most complete, the most beautiful and the most artistic photoplay theatre, not alone in the United States, but in America" (Sayre).
In addition to The Cheat, onscreen attractions during the Coliseum’s opening run included brief motion pictures of Anita King taken in and around Seattle, scenes from a cross-country motor tour she had recently completed, and a short comedy film. Offscreen, the theater’s luxurious features had to compete with the spectacle of a 236-pound fruitcake in the lobby, a gift to the Coliseum from the Northern Pacific Railway’s Dining Car Bakeshop.
From Motion Pictures to Merchandise
Although the Coliseum was for decades one of Seattle’s most lavish and popular downtown theaters, the structure eventually went into decline. Once the city’s premier venue for motion pictures, by the 1980s it was an aging relic -- a large, single-screen theater in the midst of a declining downtown, expensive to maintain and quickly losing ground to a host of suburban multiplexes.
The Coliseum shut its doors in 1990 with a very uncertain future, until downtown revitalization efforts managed to save the structure, albeit in altered form. In 1994 the Coliseum was transformed into a Banana Republic clothing store. The terra cotta exterior still looms large at the corner of 5th Avenue and Pike Street, and a portion of the venue’s old balcony is tucked away in the upper recesses of the building.