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Curtain falls on Seattle's Metropolitan Theatre on December 4, 1954.
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On December 4, 1954, Seattle's Metropolitan Theatre, located on University Street between 4th and 5th avenues and originally opened in 1911, sees its final performance. Famed actress Helen Hayes (1900-1993), who played the lead in the final production, What Every Woman Knows, solemnly marked the occasion for Seattle audiences by returning to the stage after her performance, leading crowd in a eulogy for the passing of the theater.
The Metropolitan opened to much fanfare in October 1911. Although not the largest venue in Seattle at the time, (with 1,650 seats, it was only about two-thirds the size of the Moore), it was perhaps the most elegant. Unfortunately, the Metropolitan opened at a point in time when the touring stage shows it was designed to support went into serious decline, rendering it a relic of the theatrical past virtually from the day it opened. The Metropolitan was not to die a quick death, but a mere 24 months after its opening it had a regular policy of screening motion pictures, a telling change in programming made to keep the house from going dark between stage engagements.
The Metropolitan continued to showcase theater, film, and concert attractions through the years, and over the course of its history many a famous name trod its stage: Anna Held, Elsie Janis, Ethel Barrymore, David Warfield, Alla Nazimova, Geraldine Farrar, and Minnie Maddern Fiske, to name a few. When it opened the theater was lauded as the new "center" of Seattle, but after its 1911 opening much grew up around it. The most obvious was the elegant Olympic Hotel, which was built on three sides of the theater and opened to the public in 1925.
What the Woman Knew
For the touring company of What Every Woman Knows, December 4, 1954, was no ordinary night. Ready to strike the set and move to their next destination, they found themselves thrust into an emotional climax in Seattle's theatrical history. Following the last act and the inevitable curtain calls, the entire cast remained onstage while star Helen Hayes addressed the gathered crowd:
"Dear, wonderful audience, it has seemed to us all evening that there was a special emotion and feeling in response to our efforts. I believe we are not mistaken in that, because, after all, for you as well as for us this was no ordinary performance, and nor ordinary closing performance.
Hayes then praised Hugh Beckett, the Metropolitan's manager, for his valiant (though unsuccessful) effort to keep the grand old theater open. She also recognized longtime Seattle theatre critic J. Willis Sayre, who had never missed a show at the Metropolitan -- Sayre had been present for the opening night performance of Jumping Jupiter on October 2, 1911, and claimed to have seen every stage performance given there since.
"More, this is a very special performance, and it cannot help being a sad occasion, because this is the last time you people in Seattle will be able to walk into this theater to see a play.
"The dying of a theater is a very sad thing, because, I suppose, there is no building in a community, excepting a church, in which so many people can share so many hours of spiritual uplift" ("Audience Weeps as Final Curtain Falls on Met").
Seattle architect G. C. Field had also been there on opening night and made special arrangements to secure the same seat -- seat 6, row K -- for the Metropolitan's final performance. Field had kept his program from the theater's 1911 debut, and had made a note of where he and his wife sat during the performance. His wife had since passed away, but he attended What Every Woman Knows in the company of his daughter Anne.
A Grand Exit
Before saying her closing words, Helen Hayes paused for a moment to do a favor for Guthrie McClintock, husband of actress Katherine Cornell and a former Seattleite. Admitting that what she was about to do was "terribly corny," the actress paused to explain its significance. "Guthrie," Hayes told the audience, "said [that] when he was a high school kid he used to stand outside the alley door [of the Metropolitan] and dream of someday ... getting to the center of the stage. He asked me to kiss the center of the stage where he had never stood, and so I am planting a kiss on the stage center" ("Audience Weeps as Final Curtain Falls on Met").
After she knelt to carry out her task, Hayes turned to a bagpiper onstage with the rest of the cast, commanding him to "pipe the guests out!" To the strains of "Auld Lang Syne," the last crowd streamed out of the Metropolitan and into University Street. Formal demolition work on the theater began the following day.
Helen Hayes had the grim task of eulogizing the Metropolitan Theatre, but nearly a quarter century later she had an opportunity to revisit Seattle on a much more upbeat occasion. In June 1978, Hayes was the guest of honor at the 5th Avenue Theatre, when the restored and refurbished venue opened to the public. Standing roughly a half-block from the old Metropolitan site, the historic 5th Avenue had very nearly became a victim of redevelopment before a consortium of business leaders banded together to save it.
Herb Robinson, "Theatrical Landmark's Days are Numbered," The Seattle Times, November 2, 1952, Magazine Section, p. 2; Louis R. Guzzo, "Metropolitan Will Close November 1; Palomar Gets Series," Ibid., April 18, 1954, Women's/Amusements Section, p. 11; Charles Russell, "Audience Weeps as Final Curtain Falls in Met," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 5, 1954, pp. 1, 9; J. Willis Sayre, "City's Historic Metropolitan Saw Many Famed Stars," Ibid., December 5, 1954, p. 25; "Man Has Same Seat at 1st, Last Met Show," The Seattle Times, December 5, 1954, p. 6; "Kiss by Helen Hayes is 'Met's' Farewell," Ibid., December 5, 1954, p. 6; "End of an Era," Ibid., December 7, 1954, p. 25; Neal O. Hines, Denny's Knoll: A History of the Metropolitan Tract of the University of Washington (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1980), pp. 100-107; James Warren, "Metropolitan Theater Played Host to the Stars for 40 Years," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 24, 1983, p. D-3; Paul Dorpat, "The Old Metropolitan," The Seattle Times, March 13, 1988, Pacific Magazine, p. 26; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Fifth (5th) Avenue Theatre," (by Eric L. Flom), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed August 13, 2004).
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Metropolitan Theatre (A. H. Albertson, 1911), University Street, Seattle, 1912
Photo by Asahel Curtis, Courtesy UW Special Collections (Neg. A. Curtis 24657)
Metropolitan Theatre (A. H. Albertson, 1911), Seattle, 1920s
Metropolitan Theatre (A. H. Albertson, 1911), University Street, Seattle, shortly before closing, 1954
Courtesy MOHAI (Image 1986.5.12645.1)