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Fox (Music Hall) Theatre (Seattle)

HistoryLink.org Essay 4196 : Printer-Friendly Format

When it opened on April 19, 1929, Seattle's Fox Theatre was described as being "fairy-like in appearance," but that luster would fade pretty quickly in the years following its debut. Known variously as the Fox, the Roxy, the 7th Avenue, the Emerald Palace, and (most famously) the Music Hall, this Spanish baroque theater, located at 7th Avenue and Olive Street, was the last major entertainment venue to open before the 1929 stock market crash. This bit of unfortunate timing seemed to bode ill for the house, which endured a series of misfortunes throughout its history before it was eventually torn down (amid much debate) in early 1992.

The Departure of the Mayflower

Although the venue opened up as the Fox, the house was originally planned and designed under the name Mayflower. However, roughly six months before the opening, the venue was purchased by Hollywood mogul William Fox (1879-1952), who at the time was expanding his theater holdings throughout the United States. Following the sale, the house was renamed the Fox, the first of many chain houses that would eventually bear his name. (During the early 1930s, Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre also briefly became a Fox holding, after which it was commonly referred to as the "Fox 5th Avenue.")

Designed by architect Sherwood D. Ford, the venue appears to have undergone some design changes following the sale. When the project was first envisioned, for instance, designers seem to have planned a nautical theme for the house, consistent with the proposed Mayflower name. Much of this was discarded, however, for an extravagant Spanish motif that dominated throughout the Fox when it eventually opened. The decorative grillwork for the house organ, in fact, was one of the few original details that made the final cut.

From Pilgrims to Conquistadors

The nautical grillwork must have seemed a bit out of place in a venue that was more akin to a fortress than to a movie house. With exterior stonework fashioned "in the Spanish Plateresque manner," the interior -- decorated in a 16th century Spanish tradition -- was described as "charming Baroque of Cartuja ... reminiscent of the Moors of Granada in old Spain."

The heavily timbered front doors, for instance, were flanked on both sides by suits of armor. These doors led directly into the venue's grand foyer, carpeted in red. The foyer was dimly lit, giving a castle-like appearance to its surroundings and belying what was reportedly a $90,000 lighting budget for the entire house. Velvet drapes of moss green and old rose hung about the walls, specifically crafted to give the appearance of weathered stone. On the stairway landings, large painted murals depicted scenes of Spanish warriors in battle, each done in classical style. Even the furnishings appeared regal in nature -- the mezzanine sported several plush divan-seating arrangements, each with backs a full 10 feet high, giving them a throne-like feel.

Historical Décor, Modern Amenities

The Fox, which seated nearly 2,600 people, was not the largest theater in Seattle at the time, but it certainly wasn't short on amenities for its patrons. Particularly of interest to women was the glass-enclosed "crying" room, in which mothers could take their infant children so as not to bother those in the main auditorium. Sound from the Fox's all-talking pictures was piped directly into this room, allowing them to enjoy some semblance of the show while caring for their children. A similar room was constructed for the male patrons of the house, although theirs allowed them to smoke during the show, since smoking was not allowed in the auditorium itself. Whether the sexes were allowed to switch rooms -- women to smoke and men to care for their infant children -- isn't clear.

Other features of the house included loge seats that were the same as those used in the famed Roxy Theatre in New York City, which William Fox also owned and operated. In addition, the venue's cooling system assured a summer temperature of at least 20 degrees lower than the outside, and without creating any drafts.

Up in the projection room, an electronic warning system alerted the projectionist in advance when a reel of film needed to be changed, allowing for seamless transitions in the onscreen action. Similarly, an electronic seating board allowed the Fox's manager to locate the open seats at any moment so that ushers could direct patrons quickly and easily to openings.

The house was devised as an up-to-date, modern theater, equipped and prepared to handle any type of entertainment. In addition to motion picture apparatus, the Fox had 30 dressing rooms and a fully equipped backstage area, allowing the venue to accommodate a touring theatrical production. "[The] stage so completely equipped that the largest 'legitimate' production such as Ben Hur may be presented," the Fox boasted upon its opening ("House Jammed").

Although the house's policy was to screen talking pictures, the owners still installed one of the most expensive pipe organs in the city, even though this element of motion pictures was fast falling by the wayside. This instrument, a Morton unit, could not only ascend and descend from the orchestra pit, but could also revolve on its lift -- a novel feature that allowed organist Jaimie Erickson to play directly to the screen or directly to the audience. The Morton was designed especially for the Fox Theatre, and attracted the attention of organists from competing movie houses throughout the city in the weeks leading up to the opening, many of whom dropped by the theater to give the instrument a try. (Interestingly, the fate of this impressive Morton instrument was ultimately as depressing as that of the theater itself. Despite costing a reported $60,000 in 1929, in 1964 it was sold to a Sacramento, California, inn for a paltry $7,500.)

Acoustically, the venue claimed to exceed all other local theaters. The auditorium was constructed using "acoustic plaster," thereby creating improved sound. This special plaster was applied over a half-inch thick padding of felt, which prevented any vibrations that could possibly distort the sound coming from the screen or the orchestra pit. Sampietro, the conductor who led the house orchestra, declared that the acoustics in the Fox were "as nearly perfect as is possible" ("Fine Acoustics").

From Boom to Bust

An estimated 15,000 people visited the new Fox Theatre when it opened to the public on April 19, 1929, but the good times did not last for the venue. The stock market crash would occur six months after it opened, and the venue changed ownership several times during the early 1930s. It was also located (along with the Paramount Theatre) in an area of downtown that was outside the traditional retail/entertainment core -- one that developers quickly abandoned when the economy went south.

In 1936 the venue was purchased by the Clise family and was renamed the Music Hall; it had been known as the Roxy a few years prior. Under their ownership, the house initially managed to weather the economic climate, and continued showing motion pictures into the 1960s.

However, the Music Hall was barely scraping along when the multiplex boom of the 1970s doomed all but the heartiest of the single screen movie theaters. Thoughts of dividing the venue into several different screens were entertained, but ultimately it became a dinner theater, offering a meal and Las Vegas-style floorshow. Still, its prospects did not improve.

For several years during the 1980s the Music Hall was closed, although it briefly reopened as the Emerald Palace and hosted a variety of public gatherings. In 1988, after several decades of losing money on the venue, the Clise family finally decided that enough was enough -- they announced plans to demolish Music Hall and erect a more profitable building, originally envisioned as a hotel complex.

The announcement touched off a storm of community activism (led in large part by Allied Arts), which sought to protect one of the last remaining period venues in the downtown area. Their fight was long, bitter, and ultimately unsuccessful.

In January 1992, the wrecking ball finally brought the once-glorious Music Hall down. It was a sad end to a venue dubbed a "cathedral of entertainment" upon its 1929 opening.

Music Hall Timeline

  • 1928: Began construction as the Mayflower Theater.
  • 1929: Renamed the Fox Theatre; opens to the public on April 19th with the film Broadway Melody.
  • 1933: Taken over by local firm of Jensen and Von Herberg, renamed the Roxy Theatre.
  • 1934: Leased to Seattle exhibitor John Hamrick, became known as Hamrick's Music Hall.
  • 1936: Purchased by the Clise family.
  • 1953: Introduced "Vista Vision" to Seattle for screening of the Bing Crosby film White Christmas.
  • 1962: Local firm of Sterling Theaters takes over management of the venue; the Music Hall would have several openings and closures during 1960s.
  • 1967: Renamed the 7th Avenue Theatre.
  • 1974: The Music Hall proposed for landmark status; status granted in 1977.
  • 1978: Became Jack McGovern's Music Hall, dispensing with films and instead featuring a Las Vegas-style floorshow with dinner.
  • 1980: Jack McGovern files for bankruptcy.
  • 1983: Entertainer Ben Vereen is among several investors that make an unsuccessful attempt to revive the theater.
  • 1987: After several years of inactivity, the venue reopens as the Emerald Palace.
  • 1989: Seattle Symphony rejects a proposal to relocate to the Music Hall as their permanent home. Later, Music Hall Theatre, Inc., a partnership controlled by Clise family, applies for city permit to demolish the building.
  • 1990: Music Hall redesignated as a city landmark, part of a long battle between the Clise family and historical preservationists to save the theater.
  • 1991: Possible deal to spare the Music Hall falls through in September.
  • 1992: Music Hall demolished in January.

Sources:
"Talking Dramas to be Features in Big Theatre," The Seattle Times, April 14, 1929, p. 24; Fox Theatre advertisement, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 19, 1929, p. 16; "Great Organ is Ready for Use," Ibid., April 19, 1929, p. 17; "Fine Acoustics Noted in Test," Ibid., April 19, 1929, p. 17; "Trained Staff Assumes Duties," Ibid., April 19, 1929, p. 17; "Fox Theatre Opening Today Sans Silk Hats," The Seattle Times, April 19, 1929, pp. 1, 17; "Circuit Builds," Seattle Star, April 19, 1929, p. 10; "Fox is Opened," Seattle Star, April 20, 1929, p. 10; "15,000 Witness Opening Show at New Fox Theatre," The Seattle Times, April 20, 1929, p. 3; Richard E. Hays, "New Theatre Vies in Beauty With its Plays," Ibid., April 20, 1929, p. 2; "House Jammed at Broadway Melody Here," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 20, 1929, p. 1, 11; "Music Hall (Fox) Theatre," Puget Sound Theatre Organ Society Website, (http://www.pstos.org/instruments/wa/seattle/music-hall.htm); Don Twekesbury, "The Day the Music (Hall) Died," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 3, 1991, pp. C-1, C-3.


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Fox (later Music Hall) Theatre, Seattle, 1930s
Courtesy Library of Congress


Fox (Music Hall) Theatre auditorium, Seattle, 1930s
Courtesy Library of Congress


Music Hall Theatre, Seattle, 1939
Courtesy MOHAI (Neg. W&S 147,619)


Music Hall, renamed Emerald Palace in the 1980s, prior to demolition, Seattle, prior to January 1992
Courtesy Library of Congress


 
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