On March 1, 2012, the Seattle Theatre Group's (STG) Historic Theatres Library, locatedin the Paramount Building at 901 Pine Street, opens to the public. It is 84 years to the day after the Seattle (later "Paramount") Theatre had opened in the northwest corner of the same building. On hand to dedicate the new library is Judith Rosenthal, the granddaughter of L. N. Rosenbaum, the financier who inspired and organized the construction of what would become one of the city's most luxurious movie houses. The creation and maintenance of the Historic Theatres Library is an all-volunteer effort, headed by Lynn and Marian Thrasher. The library's early efforts will concentrate on documenting and preserving the history of the STG-owned Paramount. Future plans include giving similar attention to the historic Moore and Neptune theaters, which are operated (although not owned) by the theater group.
History Worth Saving
When the Seattle Theatre opened its doors on March 1, 1928, local newspapers were rhapsodic, comparing it to the Palace of Versailles and Kubla Khan's fabled pleasure dome and praising it as "a magnificent cathedral of entertainment" ("Theatre Opening is Awaited by Seattle"). Built at an estimated cost of $3 million, the theater was lavishly decorated in a rococo, Beaux Arts/French Renaissance style, with elaborate ironwork, ornamental plaster moldings, and wall medallions encrusted with gold leaf, all illuminated by spectacular chandeliers.
Nearly 3.500 people attended each of the two opening-night shows, which offered an eclectic mix of entertainment that included selections from Faust performed by the Seattle Grand Concert Orchestra; a "Technicolor novelty" short film entitled Memories; the duo "Don and Ron" playing the giant Wurlitzer 4/20 Publix No. 1 organ; a Publix road show called A Merry Widow Revue; and Feel My Pulse, a film starring Bebe Daniels (1901-1971), Richard Arlen (1899-1976), and William Powell (1892-1984). The new venue joined the Moore Theatre (1907), the Orpheum Theatre (1911), the Coliseum Theatre (1916), and the 5th Avenue Theatre (1926) on the list of Seattle's luxury movie palaces. Arguably, it was the most luxurious of all.
In March 1930 the Seattle Theatre was renamed the "Paramount" to conform to the Publix Theatre chain's policy of bestowing that name on the grandest venue it operated in each city. But it was also the early days of the Great Depression, and it would not be long before the economic hard times were felt by theaters across the nation. By the summer of 1931 the Paramount had temporarily suspended regular operations, and from then until October 1932 the theater kept no regular schedule and opened only for specific films or stage events. When the Paramount fully re-opened in late 1932, the age of vaudeville had largely passed, and the elaborate stage shows of former years no longer found a place at the theater. While the country remained in the Depression's grip, only films and organ music would be offered to a public eager for some diversion from the bleak realities of day-to-day life.
Over the ensuing decades, the Paramount Theatre would see both good eras and bad. Throughout the 1940s and into the early 1960s, it was primarily a movie house, although occasional live stage productions or other performances were also presented. In good years, top-rated, first-run Hollywood films would fill the bill; in others, only lesser entertainments were offered. A brief experiment in the mid-1950s with the new wide-screen Cinerama format was not a success, and during the 1960s the Paramount was again closed for long periods at a time. The low ebb may have been in 1967, when only 13 people showed up for a screening of the Hollywood classic Gone With the Wind.
In 1954, the Paramount Theatre was sold to Clise Properties Inc., a family-run business that has been investing in Seattle real estate since 1889. The theater was leased to West Coast Theatres for several years. It later reopened as Paramount Northwest and had a years-long run as one of the city's premiere live-music venues, featuring top rock bands interspersed with occasional performances by jazz or soul artists. The theater sold again in 1979 and in 1981, and new owners poured $500,000 into renovations and upgrades. In October 1981 its doors opened once again, and this time it featured a much wider selection of entertainment, including Broadway musicals, performers ranging from Frank Sinatra to The Krasnayarsh Siberian Dancers, more rock 'n' roll, comedians, inspirational speakers, even a Star Trek convention. But despite these efforts, by the late 1980s the Paramount was once more on the ropes and in dire need of rescue from a probable encounter with the wrecker's ball.
Ida Cole and the Seattle Theatre Group
As had happened more than once over its long history, help was again at hand, this time in the person of Ida Cole (b. 1947), a former Microsoft executive with a love of theater and theaters and a purse deep enough to make a difference. On February 8, 1993, Cole purchased the Paramount and under the auspices of the non-profit Seattle Landmark Association set about devising a plan to save and improve the venerable venue.
Cole and the association, using both her money and funds raised from private and governmental sources, embarked on an ambitious restoration and renovation that would, before it was done, cost roughly $37 million. A noted architectural firm, NBBJ, did the design, and Sellen Construction carried out the work, which was extensive and detailed. It took 10 months, but on March 16, 1995, the Paramount Theatre reopened to the public with a lavish production of the Broadway hit, Miss Saigon. Since then, the theater has enjoyed a long run of success, offering a mix of Broadway shows, dance companies, musical performances of nearly every description, and a variety of other entertainments.
In September 1999 The Seattle Landmark Association changed its name to the Seattle Theatre Group (STG). In 2003 the Paramount's auditorium was named in honor of Cole, who not only saved the theater, but also, in 2002, presented it as a gift to the Seattle Theatre Group, along with a substantial contribution to pay down the building's outstanding mortgage. STG later would lease and manage two of Seattle's other historic theaters, the Moore and the Neptune. Today (2012), it continues to provide a wide variety of films and stage productions at its three venues and has become an important and valued component of Seattle's cultural scene.
In 2002, Lynn Thrasher (b. 1939) and his wife, Marian (b. 1939), both recently retired, were looking for something worthwhile to do that they could enjoy together. Marian had been a teacher, and for 15 years the administrative assistant to the Renton fire marshal. Lynn had worked in finance for a number of years, and the couple had owned three True Value hardware stores in south King County. As if that wasn't enough, for 11 years they also owned and operated a successful bed and breakfast in a restored turn-of-the-century family cottage in Renton. After long and productive careers and mutual success as entrepreneurs, they weren't ready to just sit back and watch the world go by.
Lynn was a history buff and had worked in student theater in high school, and Marian loved historic theaters, so they contacted the Seattle Theater Group to look into the possibility of doing some volunteer work. Deborah Heesch, STG's volunteer coordinator, gave them a private guided tour of the theater and the die was cast. The Thrashers immediately signed up as volunteers, and in June 2002 they put in their first stint at the Paramount, as unpaid ushers for the Broadway musical South Pacific, starring Robert Goulet (1933-2007).
After more than a year of doing general volunteer work at the Paramount, the couple in 2003 was asked by STG's education department to develop a regular student-tour program for the theater. As Marian Thrasher puts it, "When we get involved in anything, we go 100 percent." By 2004 the Thrashers had put together a program, and it was an immediate success. For the first five years, with Marian handling scheduling and administration, the couple guided student groups through the historic theater while still serving as volunteer ushers on show nights. They also developed a "Student Tour Handbook" that provides a chronology of the theater's history and information about its restoration. "The program has just blossomed," says Marian Thrasher, "and now we've brought in about four new tour guides to help us" (Thrasher interview). Currently, the theater offers more than 40 such tours a year (in addition to tours for the general public) and introduces more than 1,500 students to a big slice of Seattle's theatrical past.
In 2006 the Thrashers were invited to join STG's 12-member volunteer council, of which Marian is now chairperson. The council organizes and supervises more than 600 volunteers who provide ushering and other volunteer services at the Paramount, the Moore, and the Neptune theatres (all operated by STG), and at the 5th Avenue Theatre, which is not.
Suite 707, Full of Treasure
Creating a library wasn't really on anybody's mind when the Thrashers started their volunteer work at the Paramount, or for several years thereafter. But in doing historical research to ensure that tour guides had accurate facts to impart, it became clear to Lynn Thrasher that there was a great deal of conflicting and inaccurate information about the theater in many of the sources he consulted. The more he looked, the more he found, and as the lost and long-forgotten details began to emerge, he decided that the Paramount Theatre, with its ups and downs, its many different "lives," and its major role in Seattle's cultural life through many decades of changing tastes in film and the performing arts, would be a worthy subject for an entire book.
Lynn's research efforts did not go unnoticed, and in November, 2010, he was appointed the theater's official historian by the volunteer council, although no one at the time knew exactly what that would involve. But when he got serious about a book, he and Marian met with David Allen, the longtime chief operating officer for the Seattle Theatre Group, who had started working at the Paramount, as a stagehand, in 1979. No one knew the theater and the Paramount Building as well as he did, and when the Thrashers asked if he was aware of any historical materials that might be of use on the book project, Allen revealed that the building's Suite 707, used for storage, was overflowing with old records and artifacts that no one had ever really examined. There earlier had been discussions at the theater about simply discarding it all, but Allen recognized its value and saved it from that fate.
When the Thrashers first entered Suite 707 of the Paramount Building, they found two large rooms and a kitchen, bathroom, and closets overflowing with boxes, filing cabinets, and piles of "stuff," much of which would turn out to be anything but junk.It was an absolute treasure trove, one that had barely escaped the ignominy of a landfill. And, with so much misinformation in circulation about the theater and its history, here was a resource that could provide some incontrovertible facts for the book project.
Building a Library
The contents of Suite 707 were of obvious and immense value to Lynn Thrasher's book project. The idea of putting them to another use came suddenly to Marian, when one morning she woke up, turned to Lynn, and said "Guess what. We're going to make a library out of this." Says Lynn, with mock exasperation, "I think she makes this stuff up in her sleep" (Thrasher interview).
Thus began a project that, had they known then what it would ultimately entail, they may have been hesitant to tackle. After further mulling it over, in January 2011 the couple met with STG's volunteer council and put forward their plan for a library, telling the members that "If we're going to have any legacy, this is how we do it" (Thrasher interview). The concept was immediately popular, but as always, money was an issue. To prime the pump, the Thrashers contributed $2,000 to the project, and the work began.
Eventually, 23 other volunteers would be recruited for the library project, of whom eight did extended service examining, sorting, preserving, and organizing the contents of Suite 707. In a stroke of good fortune, it turned out that one STG volunteer, Ryan McKenna, was an archivist at Seattle's Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI) and another, Bonnie Briant, was a retired information technology director with a background in library science. Both brought valuable expertise to the library project. In another lucky break, MOHAI was preparing to move from its longtime location in Montlake to a new home at South Lake Union and was winnowing out what it wanted to take with it and what to discard. The STG library would benefit, receiving donations from MOHAI of framing equipment, storage cabinets, and other useful supplies.
One goal of the project was to insure that, in the event the Paramount Theatre did not survive and the Seattle Theatre Group should cease to exist, the contents of the library could be integrated with ease into the Seattle Public Library's collection. Another was to make the collection's contents searchable by and accessible to everyone. To accomplish these ends, Bonnie Briant's library expertise was brought to bear. Eventually, the entire collection would be documented in a spreadsheet "directory" and classified and organized using the Dewey Decimal System.
Paying the Bills
All the volunteers who worked on the library project worked for free, but this did not mean that there was no expense involved. The library project received some financial assistance from STG during its earliest stage, but this funding ended before 2011 was out. A Christmas party that year raised nearly $1,500 for the library, and with the assistance of an STG grant writer, Richard Nelson, the project in 2012 received a $6,000 grant from King County's 4Culture program.
But more than money, what has made the library a success is the willingness of the Thrashers and other STG volunteers to put in thousands of hours of uncompensated time to make it happen. Only about $5,000 has been invested in the project so far, but this is matched, almost one-for-one, by nearly 5,000 hours of volunteer labor. In addition to working on the preservation and cataloging of the material, volunteers cleaned and painted suites 401 and 402 in the Paramount Building, which now house the library, and even made new drapes for its windows. From the very beginning, not one cent has been paid for labor, and without the generous expenditure of time by all involved, the library simply would not exist.
The Library Today
Today (2012), the Thrashers manage the library, aided by several volunteers, notably Charlotte Sherry, the mother of Mason Sherry, the Paramount Theatre's manager. Currently, the library collection includes:
- Historic photographs the Paramount, Moore, and Neptune theaters
- Autographed show posters
- Programs of touring Broadway shows
- Historical data on silent movies
- Historical data on the Paramount's Wurlitzer organ & Knabe piano
- Architectural drawings
- Performance information for all genres of entertainment -- vocal, instrumental, dance, lectures, variety shows, magicians, comedy, children's shows, Broadway shows, drama, and community-related events
- A DVD/CD collection of recorded performances
- A collection of early play bills from the Moore Theatre
- Books related to theater history
- Miscellaneous memorabilia and artifacts
Although the library's collection today is dominated by information about the Paramount -- the only theater actually owned by the Seattle Theatre Group and the first to come under its management umbrella -- efforts to supplement the collections for the Moore and Neptune theaters are ongoing. The Neptune, in particular, is proving to be a challenge, but persistence pays. The Thrashers and the crew of other volunteers have amply demonstrated a willingness to put in the time and effort needed to document the history of all three venues currently operated by STG. They will continue to refine and supplement the collections and press their efforts to persuade those who have "borrowed" artifacts from the theaters over the years to either give or lend them back.
The Historic Theatre Library is located in Suites 401 and 402 of the Paramount Building, at 9th Avenue and Pine Street. It is open to the public on Tuesday and Thursday each week between the hours of 10:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m., and admission is free.
After years of research, the complete story of the Paramount's colorful history, titled Seattle's Paramount Theater -- From Birth to Rebirth and Beyond, written by Lynn Thrasher and edited by Marian Thrasher, was published in December 2012. Its 158 pages, liberally illustrated with vintage photographs, tell the colorful story of the magnificent theater from the earliest days to the present. It can be purchased directly from the STG library (206-467-5510 Ext. 1150), and proceeds of the sale will be used to sustain the library's mission.