Alexander Pantages was a theatrical entrepreneur who had a considerable impact on the development of popular stage entertainments in the Puget Sound region in the early twentieth century. He created a large and popular vaudeville circuit, commissioned the design of elaborate theater buildings in several cities including Seattle, and with considerable business acumen, despite a total lack of formal education, amassed a fortune. During his last decade, motion pictures combined with scandals in his personal life contributed to his decline.
Pantages, born on the Greek island of Andros, probably in 1876, worked at a multitude of jobs in several countries after having run away from home at the age of nine. His first connection with the theater came in San Francisco shortly after his arrival in the United States, and although his role then was as a lowly utility boy, the exposure to vaudeville entertainment seems to have made a lasting impression.
The Klondike gold rush swept the young Pantages up the Pacific coast to Skagway, where his entrepreneurial genius soon found expression in the production of popular plays staged at the restaurants in which he worked in various capacities. In Dawson, he assumed management of an established theater in partnership with its principal performer, soon to be Pantages’ mistress, Kate Rockwell. The productions Pentages staged in Dawson filled his pockets with the gold of miners eager for entertainment.
Turn of the Century Seattle
Settling in Seattle in 1902, he opened the Crystal Theater, which presented mixed shows of a variety of live acts, and which became the seed of his vaudeville circuit. Seattle’s theatrical history at that time was brief but not without richness. By the 1880s, the rough edges of frontier entertainment had been polished and a process of commercialization of the theatre was under way. Travelling entertainers gave way to established theatres, usually connected with saloons, that offered regular shows to a growing clientele.
The depression of the 1890s took a heavy toll on public entertainments, but by the time Pantages arrived in Seattle, variety and vaudeville had become popular, well-established forms of commercial theater. The Crystal Theater enjoyed considerable success, and Pantages quickly became an important figure in Seattle’s vaudeville scene.
The First Pentages Theater
The first house to carry the name Pantages Theater opened in Seattle in 1904. By 1909 Pantages had amassed a considerable personal fortune, owned mansions in Seattle and in Los Angeles, and managed or owned theaters up and down the Pacific Coast and beyond, in Canada as well as in the United States.
Pantages’s business acumen and the growth of audiences brought him increasing success, and a second and larger Pantages Theater opened in Seattle in 1915. At the peak of his career, Pantages owned or controlled more than 70 vaudeville theaters, virtually all under his direct personal management.
Pentages the Man
Pantages’s personal involvement with all aspects of his theatrical businesses seems to have been essential to his creation of a theatrical empire. It is remarkable that Pantages may have been illiterate. Certainly, he received no formal education. He possessed, however, the prodigious memory of the unlettered, and a shrewd ability to compensate for these deficiencies in his business and theatrical dealings.
More than anything, Pantages possessed the energetic ambition of the entrepreneur, and a capacity to act quickly and decisively. He enjoyed a high reputation for integrity in his business dealings that won the confidence of investors and creditors. His business practices with respect to his competitors reflected a far lower ethical standard.
His energies focused on his business affairs, and his personal relationships seem to have been rather distant. He had an extremely sensitive understanding of the psychology of his theatrical audiences, and he took great pains to keep continually in touch with the reactions of the patrons to his shows. He stressed, for example, the necessity of keeping performances relatively short and turning over audiences as often as possible in the course of a day’s performances. In the debate over Sunday closures, he argued forcefully in favor of keeping theaters open on the grounds of the best interests of his largely working-class audience.
Vaudeville theater as a genre evolved from variety shows held in drinking establishments, and for a time in the first couple of decades of the twentieth century enjoyed pride of place as a public popular entertainment. For an admission price of 10 cents theater-goers could enjoy an hour’s live entertainment. Patrons followed the various bills with enthusiasm, performers of national reputation traveled the circuits, and fortunes were made and lost by impresarios such as Pantages.
A typical billing comprised several acts, not uncommonly as many as 10, most often seven, and might feature musical performers, gymnasts, comic monologues or skits, and a mixture of other acts. Pantages’s particular genius seems to have lain in his appreciation of which acts, or parts of acts, his audiences would enjoy. He exercised personal supervision over all bookings.
Pantages’s circuit faced vigorous competition, however, as the vaudeville theater business was anything but monolithic. Rival circuits, like those of John Considine and John Cort enjoyed a considerable following in Seattle as in other cities, and vied for performers as well as for patrons. The acts of the Pantages circuit distinguished themselves from their rivals by the quality of performers and by a tendency to be sensational.
Pantages sought to make his vaudeville billings distinct and novel, and he put much stock in the character of his theater buildings as well. His long association with the Scots architect B. Marcus Priteca (1889-1971) began in 1911 and continued through the 1920s. Pantages encountered Priteca, then only 21 years old, in a chance meeting, and after some discussions, commissioned him to design the San Francisco Pantages Theater. The site in San Francisco presented some challenges which the young Priteca met to Pantages’s satisfaction, and the theater opened its doors in December of 1911.
The houses Pentages built shared many classical stylistic features that moved their eponymous creator to declare them to be “Pantages Greek.” Priteca used similar details in his early theaters, including domed ceilings and generous use of stained glass, as well as other stylistic flourishes that suggested opulence. Gilt and bronze glowed in the interiors, and murals and tapestries complemented the inlaid marble floors.
The grandeur of the theaters was not only stylistic; none was small, and the largest of them could accommodate well over 2,000 spectators. The largest of the theaters, the Hollywood Pantages, built in 1930, seated 2800 persons. The choice of location of the theaters rested mainly on Pantages’s sense of how to draw the largest audiences.
In collaboration with the decorative painter A.B. Heinsbergen, Priteca designed and oversaw the construction of 22 theaters for Pantages, as far afield as Edmonton, Kansas City, and Memphis. As late as the 1960s Priteca was engaged as a consultant in the design of the Seattle Opera House (1962) and the Portland Civic Auditorium (1968).
Motion Pictures and the End of Vaudeille
Compromising his personal affinity for live theater, Pantages in 1925 announced an initiative to open a circuit of motion picture theaters. This venture was not unsuccessful, but within three years Pantages had sold the new theaters to motion picture companies, primarily RKO, and refocused his energies on vaudeville.
By then the genre of vaudeville had already begun to be eclipsed by the new medium of motion pictures, and Pantages’s decision to remain faithful to his roots in live theater contributed to the decline of his fortunes thereafter. By the time of his death in 1936 his influence had dwindled, and his active involvement in the theater had largely come to an end.
On the personal side, Pantages’s life was punctuated by public scandals over his romantic involvements. He had lived with Kate Rockwell while in Alaska, and when he married Lois Mendenhall in 1905, “Klondike Kate” filed suit against him in the amount of $25,000 for breach of promise. The suit was eventually settled out of court.
More disturbing was Pantages’s arrest and trial in 1929 for allegedly raping a 17-year-old woman named Eunice Pringle. Found guilty in a jury trial, Pantages sought a retrial, and was finally in 1931 found not guilty of the charged rape. The legal battle, however, had exhausted a large part of Pantages’s personal fortune, and probably contributed to the heart failure that eventually claimed his life.
The stamp of Alexander Pantages’s influence on theater in Seattle survived his death, however, as did the presence of his theater on the landscape of the city. The second Pantages Theater in Seattle, which opened in 1915, stood at the corner of 3rd Avenue and University Street. Remodeled under Pantages’s guidance in 1925, it was sold along with his other holdings in 1929. Thereafter the theater accommodated various uses as motion pictures gradually supplanted live vaudeville theater.
In 1965 the Seattle Pantages Theater fell, as many of its sister houses already had, to the wrecking ball, having by then outlived the age of vaudeville by 30 years.