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Fox (Music Hall) Theatre opens in Seattle on April 19, 1929.
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On the afternoon of April 19, 1929, the new Fox Theatre opens its doors for business. Located at the corner of 7th Avenue and Olive, the venue -- later known as the Music Hall -- shows only talking pictures, at the time a fairly recent Hollywood innovation. The Fox is the city's last major theater to open before the stock market crash in October, which brought the construction of downtown entertainment venues to a virtual standstill for almost two decades.
For the Masses
Like the opening of the Seattle (Paramount) Theatre the year before, the debut of the Fox lacked much of the pomp and circumstance that had come to characterize the openings of many downtown theaters, particularly in the early 1920s. "[Opening day at the Fox] is for 'all of Seattle,'" noted Richard E. Hays in the Times, "and no gala opening ceremony, no pretense of a 'brilliant society event' with flashlight photographs of the limousine trade enters into the inauguration day program" ("Seattle Promised Week of Exceptional Film Riches"). It was a movie house for the general public, and the general public would be amongst the first to see it.
Getting into the Fox on opening day, however, was a next-to-impossible feat. As early as 10 a.m. on the morning of April 19, some two hours before the doors were to open, the lineup outside the theater stood at 5,000-plus, a figure that continued to grow as the day wore on. All told, an estimated 15,000 people managed to attend the Fox on opening day.
Motion picture cameramen from the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer news department roamed the crowds, capturing people's reactions to the new theater and documenting their (sometimes-lengthy) wait. Although this was not an uncommon sight at large public gatherings, these particular cameramen were shooting with sound film, not the silent newsreel of old. Not only would the public have an opportunity to see themselves when the films were shown at the Fox a few weeks later, but possibly hear themselves as well.
Open for Business, and Business is Good
At approximately noon on April 19, one hour before the opening show was scheduled to begin, the first crowd of 2,600 people began filing into the new Fox Theatre. The honor of purchasing the first ticket went to Mrs. Sarah J. Stearns, "fulfilling an ambition she formed three years ago, when first construction started" ("House Jammed"). Ticket prices were 35 cents for matinee performances, 60 cents for evenings.
The opening attraction was Broadway Melody, billed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer as an "all singing, all talking, all dancing" feature film. Based on Edmund Goulding's Tin Pan Alley, the film starred Anita Page, Bessie Love, and Charles King, a song-and-dance man from the New York stage who was specially engaged for the picture.
Broadway Melody told the story of a small-time vaudeville act, a sister duo (Page and Love), who finally get their chance at the big time on "the Great White Way." In between various backstage dramas and hijinx, both girls fall in love with a wisecracking vaudevillian played by King, who is torn in his affections for each sister.
Cleverly devised by MGM as a Broadway show captured on film, the picture included several musical numbers, including "The Wedding of the Painted Doll," "You Were Meant for Me," and the title song, "Broadway Melody." A handful of the film's song and dance arrangements were shot in Technicolor, enlivening the otherwise black-and-white production. Broadway Melody came to the Fox after long runs in New York and Los Angeles, where critics praised it highly for combining "the merits of a musical comedy and an old-fashioned melodrama."
Although Broadway Melody was the main audience draw, it certainly wasn't the only thing of interest on the bill. Other features included Sampietro (conductor of the Fox's house orchestra), accompanied by the "Fox Melodists" with selections from Madame Butterfly; the young Jaimie Erickson at the helm of the venue's $60,000 Morton organ; The Bath Between, a movie short starring the team of Clark & McCullough and featuring Carmel Meyers; and an episode of Fox's Movietone newsreel. The show began with a short talking film of Seattle Mayor Frank Edwards, in which he welcomed the new house into the pantheon of local movie theaters and congratulated all involved in the new venue.
All Singing, All Talking ... All Praise
Reaction to opening day at the Fox was immediate, and overwhelmingly positive. However, Richard E. Hays of The Seattle Times saved his most generous words not for the venue itself but for Broadway Melody. "Here is an all-talking, singing and dancing production that really sets a new mark for motion pictures," Hays noted. "It does this by combining a story of much better than average photoplay material, with the spectacular qualities of a Broadway musical comedy ... it is rare screen entertainment" ("Newest Theatre").
Everhardt Armstrong, Hays's counterpart over at the Post-Intelligencer, couldn't have agreed more. "A photoplay that has everything!" was his declaration. "... Praise of The Broadway Melody [sic] cannot be overpitched. It is THE picture of the year, a massive popular triumph" ("Heartbreaks and Laughs"). Both men were impressed with the film's dialogue (dubbed "Cohanesque" by one) and the backstage scenes, which were not new to film but were quite realistic and very well done.
A Glorious Beginning, A Bitter Ending
The Fox may have opened to generous praise, but in retrospect the theater was a victim of circumstances that would haunt the venue for the rest of its life. The stock market crash occurred a mere six months after it opened, which played a large part in the venue changing management and ownership several times during its first seven years. The house was also located (along with the Paramount Theatre) in an area of downtown that was outside the traditional retail/entertainment core -- an area that developers quickly abandoned when the economy soured.
In 1936 the Clise family purchased the venue (which had been operating for a few years as the Roxy) and renamed it the Music Hall. Under their ownership, the house managed to weather a continual series of ups and downs, showing motion pictures well into the 1960s.
However, the Music Hall was barely scraping along when the multiplex boom of the 1970s virtually doomed all but the heartiest of the single screen movie theaters. Thoughts were entertained of dividing the venue into several different screens, 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, the Clise family, which still owned the theater, finally decided that enough was enough -- they announced plans to demolish the 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 Seattle's downtown area. Their fight was long, bitter, and ultimately unsuccessful.
In January 1992, the wrecking ball brought the once-glorious Music Hall down. It was a sad end to a venue dubbed a "cathedral of entertainment" upon its 1929 opening.
Richard E. Hays, "Seattle Promised Week of Exceptional Film Riches," The Seattle Times, April 14, 1929, p. 23; "Talking Film Will be Opening Feature of New Fox Theatre," The Seattle Times, April 14, 1929, p. 24; advertisement -- Fox Theatre, The Seattle Times, April 18, 1929, p. 23; "Ceremony is Planned for Evening Show," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 19, 1929, p. 17; "Trained Staff Assumes Duties," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 19, 1929, p. 17; "Fox Theatre Opening Today Sans Silk Hats," The Seattle Times, April 19, 1929, p. 1, 17; "Broadway Melody is Film Musical Comedy," The Seattle Times, April 19, 1929, p. 14; "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," The Seattle Times, April 20, 1929, p. 2; Everhardt Armstrong, "Heartbreaks and Laughs of Show Business Blend With Color and Music," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 20, 1929, p. 11; "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).
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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