Although never known for the cultivation of theatrical talent, during the early twentieth century Seattle had more than its share of businessmen make their mark on the entertainment industry. The starting points for two of the nation’s largest vaudeville circuits, headed by John Considine and Alexander Pantages respectively, the city was also home to John Cort, who concentrated his business efforts on legitimate stage productions. Starting as a small-time variety manager in Seattle, Cort eventually parlayed his local success into becoming part of the New York theatrical establishment, and at one point owned more high-class theaters than any other single individual in the United States.
Success Behind the Scenes
Born in New York in 1861, John Cort entered the field of stage management not so much by choice but by consolation. Although he had spent upwards of 10 years perfecting his craft as an actor, his efforts revealed little future for him in the footlights. "John Cort was once an actor," local drama critic J. Willis Sayre wrote in 1907, "but he never shows the press notices to anybody" (Sayre).
After giving up stage acting, he managed the Grand Opera House in Cairo, Illinois, for several years before heading West in the late 1880s. He began in Seattle by taking over the old Standard Theater, transforming it into the city's most popular box-house. (Box-houses, which thrived in Seattle’s pioneer days, were essentially saloons with stages attached. Although the shows were mainly variety affairs, the seedy nature of box-houses made them the subject of considerable public scorn, and a place where respectable citizens were almost never seen.)
Even so, the popularity of the Standard with lumbermen and miners was so fantastic that in 1888 he built a new, modernized Standard Theater at the southeast corner of Occidental and Washington streets. Costing upwards of $8,000, the new Standard was the first stage venue in Seattle to have electrical lighting, making it more modern than even Frye's Opera House, a legitimate theater, which was gas lit at the time. The new Standard seated more than 800 patrons, was steam heated, and had 19 individual boxes in the upper balcony. And, in a nice bit of irony, Cort leased the old Standard Theater, which had become a scourge as one of the city's most prosperous box-houses, to the Woman's Christian Temperance Union.
The Seattle Fire but a Temporary Setback
The Seattle fire of June 6, 1889, consumed virtually all of the city’s popular entertainment venues, including the new Standard. Losing his prized theater, however, did nothing to put off John Cort. Only two of the city’s entertainment houses -- Turner and Armory Halls, used irregularly throughout the years -- could support any type of stage production after the fire, and both were makeshift for the task at best. Shrewdly, Cort opened a tent theater some two weeks after his venue had been destroyed. By November he had erected a replacement Standard (the fourth he had been associated with in five years, counting his tent theater).
Moving into the National Spotlight
John Cort left Seattle briefly during the depressed economic conditions of the mid-1890s, but returned late in the decade -- the Alaskan Gold Rush was in full swing -- to begin construction on the Grand Opera House, located at 217 Cherry Street. Seating well over 2,200, the venue opened in 1900. The Grand, which was immediately deemed the city’s finest theater, demonstrated that John Cort’s interests were not focused on continuing as a box-house manager. Instead, he was crossing over to the legitimate stage.
In retrospect, Cort selected the perfect moment to change his business focus. While the Alaskan Gold Rush was changing the face of Seattle, prominent theater men in the East were moving to establish national circuit systems in an effort to organize and consolidate dramatic bookings throughout the United States.
These organizations, as they evolved, were commonly referred to as "syndicates." Although the move can be easily (and truthfully) depicted as an effort by Eastern businessmen to seize control of the industry through the establishment of powerful trusts, it was also a legitimate effort to bring order out of chaos. "It was a necessary development that was taking place,” notes Eugene Clinton Elliott:
“The confusion in booking, with hundreds of small theaters independently operated scattered all over the country and with every producing unit existing by itself, increased the hazards of management many times and could not be allowed to continue indefinitely ... The evils of the theater syndicate lay not in the combination [of houses] but in the uses to which the combined power was put: the strangulation of independent theater owners and the bleeding of producing units" (p. 45).
In the beginning, however, America’s growing theatrical industry was in desperate need of structure in order to expand and thrive. John Cort recognized this early on. He had long been in the practice of organizing small circuits for his theaters, a significant factor in his ability to draw talent from the opposite coast. Even before the fire of 1889, Cort had connections with other houses on the Pacific Coast that allowed him to book acts from the East for a run of 16 weeks, traveling a route that took them to major cities like San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle, followed by an eastern swing through Spokane to Butte, Montana, sometimes hitting smaller towns all along the way.
The same practice helped Cort negotiate with syndicate forces nearly a decade later. Slowly, he either purchased or forged business ties with theaters all along the Coast, controlling 37 outright by 1903. Anticipating the competition, John Cort’s efforts provided some leverage against any Eastern interests seeking to invade the territory.
Shortly after the turn of the century, Cort signed an agreement with Marc Klaw and Abraham Erlanger, then the preeminent booking agents of dramatic talent in America, looking to bring Klaw and Erlanger circuit shows to his Western houses. The move firmly established Cort as the top theatrical manager in Seattle, if not in the entire Pacific Northwest.
A Falling Out
Although bringing syndicate shows to Seattle was at first a coup for Cort's business interests, over time these attractions polarized the local theatrical scene. After a few seasons, many theater patrons (not to mention several journalists) began to complain that Klaw and Erlanger often failed to deliver quality shows. Worse, their play selection often veered more toward box-office potential than artistic merit. With syndicate revenue based solely on ticket sales, the Eastern interests clearly made more of an effort to keep their houses full, regardless of a show’s overall quality. In Seattle, mounting audience dissatisfaction with syndicate shows helped, in part, to spur interest in other forms of stage entertainment, particularly stock theater and vaudeville.
John Cort himself was troubled by the situation. In 1910, he helped organize the Independent National Theatre Owner's Association, a group of circuits in the West, Midwest, and South that simultaneously bolted from syndicate control. Reinforced with touring shows organized by the independent Shubert organization, the defection totaled 1200 theaters nationally.
Eventually Klaw and Erlanger, bowing to pocketbook pressure, settled with the Association and allowed members to negotiate for both independent and syndicate attractions. Even so, the agreement wasn’t reached until after Klaw and Erlanger had begun playing hardball. The settlement came after they had begun construction on Seattle's Metropolitan Theatre, designed in part as a blow to Cort’s interests -- the Eastern financiers attempting to build the city's most lavish syndicate house right in John Cort's own backyard.
Even When You Beat ‘Em, You Can Still Join ‘Em
Shortly after his victory over syndicate forces, John Cort left Seattle to become one of the Eastern interests himself. In 1912, he moved his theatrical offices to New York, where he continued to thrive in business, reinventing himself as a producer and manager of individual stars and productions. Shortly after his move, the Cort Theatre in New York was erected, which still exists today (2004) in the Broadway district.
John Cort enjoyed several years of success on the East Coast before retreating from the business world. He died in 1929.