Gene Keene ends 31 years of theater production in Seattle on December 30, 1980.

  • By David Wilma
  • Posted 8/21/1999
  • Essay 1634
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On December 30, 1980, Gene Keene (1919-1988), founder and director of the Cirque Dinner Theater, ends his 31-year career presenting professional theater in Seattle when he sells his stock in the company.

After several years of financial difficulty, Keene declared, "I'm tired. I want to get out." Bob Nethery and Ed Shelton acquired his interest in the Cirque Dinner Theater, Ltd., along with the interest of Secretary-Treasurer Shirley Capriotti. They presented six more productions before they closed the doors forever on January 1, 1982, and sold off all assets.

The Cirque Playhouse

Keene, an English major at the University of Washington, founded the Cirque as First Central Staging. He and a loyal group of performers remodeled an upstairs auditorium in Broadway Hall, located on Broadway and Madison streets on Capitol Hill, and on January 12, 1950, presented "Springtime for Harry." In 1952, he adopted the name Cirque (French for circus) and moved to 3406 E Union Street in Seattle's Central Area. Under Keene's leadership, the company became "the oldest and longest running professional theater in Seattle." The company specialized in well-known performers starring in well-known musicals and comedies in the 270-seat theater.

On February 16, 1969, Seattle's Cirque Playhouse closed "permanently" after 17 years in the Central Area. Limited parking and an increase in street violence in the neighborhood had cut attendance.

The Famous Dinner Theater

After two years of putting on summer shows in Port Townsend and for the Seattle Parks Department with a core of six loyal actors, Keene reopened the Cirque as a weekend dinner theater in the Georgian Room of the Olympic Hotel (4th Avenue and University Street) in March 1971. In 1973, the Cirque moved to a remodeled bowling alley at 131 Taylor Avenue N where it became the only professional dinner theater on the West Coast. By 1975, the Cirque had staged 225 shows featuring actors such as Sterling Holloway, Edward Everett Horton, John Carradine, Mercedes McCambridge, Hans Conreid, Ruta Lee, Eve Arden, Bob Cummings, and Howard Keel.

Teahouse of the August Moon

Keene often acted in his own productions. One of his favorite roles was that of Sakini in "Teahouse of the August Moon," which ran three times. As part of this production, Keene recruited Asian women from Seattle's International District. They created quite a sensation though they had never been on stage before. Keene himself served as the prototype for the character Captain Fisby, which Vern Sneider, author of the novel from which the musical was made, had created after the two men were stationed together on Okinawa during World War II.

"Fiddler on the Roof" also ran at least three different times. Keene found that light comedies and musicals were more successful than dramatic productions. Keene described himself as "a shameless ham" and "the abominable showman."

Keene moved to Seattle with his parents at age 14 and became the first radio major at the University of Washington's School of Communications. After leaving the Cirque, Keene and his wife moved to California, and reportedly then lived in Israel for a time.


Seattle Post-Intelligencer, June 6, 1982, p. E-1; Carole Beers, "Geene Keene and The Cirque," Seattle Times Sunday Magazine, January 12, 1975, pp. 9-10; Ibid., December 16, 1980, p. B-9; Ibid., December 31, 1980, p. F-1; Ibid., March 16, 1982, p. B-1; Ibid., March 22, 1987; John Patrick, "Teahouse of the August Moon" a play adapted from a novel by Vern Sneider (New York: Dramatists Play Service, Inc., 1957; Walt Crowley, Rites of Passage: A Memoir of the Sixties in Seattle (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1995), 266.

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