5th Avenue Theatre (Seattle)

  • By Eric L. Flom and John Caldbick
  • Posted 3/17/2012
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 3750
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The 5th Avenue Theatre, built by Pacific Theatres, Inc., was one of the most lavishly appointed theaters on the West Coast when it opened in September 1926. The theater is located in downtown Seattle on 5th Avenue, and formed a part of the new Skinner Building. Designed by architect Robert C. Reamer (1873-1938), with interior design supervised by Gustav Liljestrom of San Francisco, the theater embraced Seattle’s growing connection to the Far East by employing a Chinese theme, debuting a full eight months before the now-famous Grauman’s (now Mann’s) Chinese Theatre in Hollywood first opened. After closing in 1978, the theater was rescued by a coalition of local companies and arts patrons, who funded a $2.6 million restoration of the classic venue. A national recession in the mid-1980s brought a temporary halt to the 5th Avenue's musical production, but the theater roared back in 1989, and ever since has provided theater-goers a broad selection musical productions.  Broadway touring companies make regular appearances at the 5th Avenue, but many of the theater's presentations are produced locally in their entirety, including a handful of world premieres that have moved with great acclaim onto the Broadway stage.

Harry Arthur's Vision

Construction of the 5th Avenue Theatre was largely the vision of Harry C. Arthur, then president of Pacific Theatres, Inc. Arthur, a rising star in theater management, had recently acquired the local theater chain of John von Herberg (1880-1947) and Claude Jensen, and began adding to his Northwest holdings by constructing a pair of brand new theaters, one in Seattle and one in Portland. Arthur managed more than 40 theaters in the Northwest alone, just a portion of a Pacific Theatres organization that stood as the largest West Coast theater chain under the leadership of one individual.

Costing more than $1 million to construct, the 5th Avenue formed the centerpiece of the new Skinner Building, located on 5th Avenue between Union and University streets. Although today primarily a venue for stage shows, the 5th Avenue was originally designed to showcase “unit programs,” or shows that featured motion picture attractions and stage productions equally on the same bill. Shows ran continuously from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. each day, with a complete change of program each Friday.

Pearl of Perfection

Despite the rather conservative exterior of the Skinner Building, the interior of the 5th Avenue marked it as one of the most lavish theaters on all the West Coast. Architect Robert C. Reamer and interior designer Gustav Liljestrom embraced Seattle’s growing connection to the Far East by employing a Chinese theme, unusual in an era when traditional styles such as Spanish or Italian tended to dominate. Inspiration for the theater was taken from three of China’s notable architectural achievements: the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heavenly Peace, and the Summer Palace.

Then, as now, the main feature of the house was a mind-boggling attention to form and detail. One of the most impressive features was the theater’s ceiling, a replica (except twice as big) of the ceiling in the Throne Room of Beijing’s Imperial Palace. The ceiling’s massive centerpiece, the “Pearl of Perfection” chandelier, hung from the mouth of a giant, five-toed dragon that symbolized China’s emperor. With each toe representing an evil spirit, this beast was based on a legend that said that he who defeated all five spirits would receive a pearl directly from the mouth of the dragon.

The venue’s proscenium arch was another distinguishing feature:

"The proscenium arch at the new Fifth Avenue Theatre is massive and elaborately decorated, forming a gorgeous frame for the grand curtain. On each side of the proscenium are two wall lamps, the imperial dragon predominating in the decorative motif. Another feature of the front end of the theater are two exquisite panels of blue velvet, twenty feet long and eight feet wide, upon which are embroidered scenes from a Chinese legend. Above these panels are the organ grilles in which have been wrought in bold relief three giant 'ho-ho birds,' famed in Chinese lore" (“Comfort is First”).

Even more impressive than the actual construction of the theater was the 5th Avenue’s intricate design scheme. Gustav Liljestrom employed traditional colors -- red, orange, jade, black, and silver -- but revealed such a flair in his exotic décor -- incorporating carvings, sculptures, and tapestries from the Far East -- that one local journalist declared the entire house a “masterpiece of Oriental art.” It appeared that no detail had been overlooked -- even the 5th Avenue’s decorative exit signs were designed to incorporate both English and Chinese characters. Commented a writer from the Seattle Daily Times:

“Chinese legends and symbols, inspired by ancient Chinese temples, have been reproduced with astonishing perfection in the wall, hangings, carvings, sculpture, furnishings and fixtures. One becomes dizzy at the mere thought of the difficulty and the magnitude of the exacting task that confronted the theater’s builders. Doubtless nothing like it ever has been attempted in the history of building in this country and its fame is certain to spread far beyond the limits of Seattle and vicinity” (“New Theatre Wins Praise”).

Jade, Silk Damask, Velvet, Gold Plate

Although the Chinese flavor of the new 5th Avenue tended to dominate the visitor's first impression of the house, the comfort of patrons was a prime concern for designers. Once audience members came through the doors and into the mezzanine area, they were treated to "the most elaborate room of its kind in the United States.”

Lighted by candelabra-style fixtures, the surrounding walls of the mezzanine were draped with wall hangings of jade and red. It was also filled with several pieces of custom-built furniture, each overstuffed, with intricate sidepieces of Far East origin, including characteristic lamps, statuary, and urns. The thick, velvety carpets (woven with an intricate lotus flower pattern) seemed to explode from this area into all parts of the theater, upstairs and down.

Just to the left of the mezzanine was a small kitchen and tearoom staffed by a pair of servers. Adjoining was the women’s lounge, whose walls were lavishly decorated in silk damask and accented with gold-plated electrical fixtures. Interestingly, the furniture in the women’s lounge dispensed with the predominant theme of the house, being of French rather than Chinese influence. Like the furniture in the mezzanine, these pieces were also custom-built for the 5th Avenue.

The seats in the auditorium -- nearly 3,000 of them -- were of lacquered red and gold, with dark green upholstering. Management bragged that another 500 seats could have been added, but they opted instead to provide an additional four inches of legroom to each row. Aisle seats were equipped with a built-in lamp that flooded the aisle-way with light, allowing theatergoers to come and go as they pleased while a show was in progress without detracting from the stage or screen presentation. This was reportedly the first time that lamps of the sort had been constructed in the seats themselves -- most theaters simply attached them afterward.

Even the theater’s ventilation system was tied into the seating, with special ducts placed at every third seat throughout the venue, each with a decorative mushroom covering. Air was pulled through each of these ducts, “washed,” then heated and recirculated throughout the auditorium. Special thermostats installed throughout the house helped ensure that the interior temperature of the 5th Avenue remained at comfortable levels, regardless of the weather outside.

Luxury and High Technology

The patron amenities were not the only first-class features of the house -- behind the scenes, the 5th Avenue was a state-of-the-art theater. There were 20 individual dressing rooms underneath the ascending stage (the largest north of Los Angeles), as well as separate “star” dressing rooms and large community dressing rooms for chorus girls.

From the projection room, located in the back balcony, a bank of controls allowed the projectionist to single-handedly adjust the lighting for the entire stage. Yet another lighting innovation was a hollow beam on the ceiling above the orchestra pit, concealing from the audience a bank of windows and colored lights that could also illuminate the stage. The projection room was equipped with a special radio amplification system that allowed the operator to hear, no matter how quiet the music or dialogue, exactly what was occurring onstage.

The 5th Avenue’s technical gadgetry extended all the way to the box office. With each ticket purchased, a record of that sale was transmitted directly to the manager’s office, who could determine exactly how many people were in the house at any given moment (“Months of Drill”).

Designing the Staff

The design elements of the 5th Avenue Theatre went beyond the décor of the house to include members of the staff. Ushers ("usherettes") were fitted in Mandarin costumes of blue, red, green, and yellow, outfits reportedly designed for the 5th Avenue by silent film star Vilma Banky. Although Chinese clogs would have been a natural choice for the costumes, the young women were apparently allowed to vote on their favored footwear, and overwhelmingly supported a more modern (and more comfortable) pair of pumps. (“Occidental feet are not made for such [Oriental] footwear,” explained one publicity notice.) A pair of the black satin shoes were ordered for each usher through Wallin and Nordstrom’s on 2nd Avenue, then hand-painted with Chinese characters to create a more exotic look.

Costuming wasn’t the only consideration, when it came to the staff. Management claimed to have hired only select women to helm the box office, their work schedules dictated by the color of their hair. Blondes (natural only) were chosen to work the early shifts, when the morning sunshine would radiate off their golden tresses. Brunettes were scheduled to work the late afternoon shifts, when shadows from the surrounding buildings would begin to become more prevalent. And, predictably, women with black hair were assigned to work the evening shifts.

Opening Night

On September 24, 1926, the 5th Avenue opened its doors to the public. In an era marked by the debut of posh entertainment venues, the opening ceremony at the 5th Avenue was by far the most elaborate. In addition to the opening-night feature attractions inside -- including the Fanchon and Marco stage revue, The Night Club, and the silent film Young April -- an enormous and elaborate street fair occurred outside. The street celebration brought thousands into downtown Seattle on opening night.

Living up to the mantra coined for the theater's marquee, “the Magic Sign of a Wonderful Time,” searchlights waved through the sky, huge banks of Klieg lights illuminated the streets, and several hired men fired flareguns from nearby rooftops. All announced that something extraordinary was happening on the evening of September 24th.

Crowds packed seven or more city blocks for the carnival event. Estimates put celebrants at anywhere between 50,000 to 100,000 people, with barely room to move on 5th Avenue between Pike and Seneca streets, and on Union and University streets between 4th and 6th avenues. The mass of people was such an extraordinary sight that newspapers speculated it to be the largest downtown gathering since Armistice Day. Dancing was the order of the evening, even though the bands (strategically placed throughout the Metropolitan Tract) tended to drown each other out. In addition, a massive sing-along was held directly in front of the 5th Avenue, with the lyrics to each tune projected onto adjacent buildings so that the crowd could follow along.

Whether one was outside or inside or the new venue, the opening of the 5th Avenue Theatre was a stunning success. It brought Seattle together as few others had to that point in the city’s history.

A National Treasure

Business at the 5th Avenue Theatre flourished in the decades following its 1926 opening. However, in 1978, after many of the grand theaters of the teens and twenties had already been demolished, the grand 5th Avenue Theatre closed and rumor had it that it would become an upscale Chinese restaurant. The theater was saved when a consortium of business leaders rallied support for the $2.6 million restoration. It opened to the public once again in June 1980. Legendary actress Helen Hayes (1900-1993), the guest of honor for the reopening ceremonies, declared the venue “a national treasure.”

A month later, on July 3, 1980, the 5th Avenue presented Annie, the first touring Broadway musical to appear at the theater. The show ran for 77 sold-out performances over 10 weeks and stamped the theater as the premier venue for large musical-theater stage productions in Seattle. The remainder of that season saw productions of I Do, I Do!, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, A Chorus Line, The Winslow Boy, Annie, West Side Waltz, and Camelot. This was followed in the 1981-1982 season by Little Johnny Jones, On Golden Pond, Oklahoma!, Fiddler on the Roof, Pirates of Penzance, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Colette, and A Day in Hollywood, A Night in the Ukraine. A reappearance of Annie closed out the season. The magician Doug Henning also made an appearance in 1982. But things were slowing down, and in December 1982 the drama critic for The Seattle Times, Wayne Johnson, in a review of the past year, noted:

"The 5th Avenue Theatre survived. This is no minor achievement for a theater in the business of presenting commercial theatrical 'product' at a time when Broadway, the 'product' fount, is not bubbling up shows that will travel. The survival is all the more impressive when it is realized that, with the big, splashy shows it presents, The 5th Avenue needs to make upwards of $200,000 per week just to break even, to say nothing of retiring the $3-million debt incurred in the renovation of the theater" ("Persistence and Excellence Were the Mark of Theaters That Survived").

The 5th Avenue did survive, but an extended period of retrenchment was on the horizon. The 1982-1983 season brought productions of the musicals Hello Dolly, A Chorus Line, Evita, Show Boat, Sugar Babies, and On Your Toes. A dramatic presentation, Children of a Lesser God, also appeared, as did legendary chanteuse Lena Horne (1917-2010).

Holding On

A national recession in the middle years of the 1980s closed several Broadway theater venues, but the 5th Avenue managed to weather the storm, albeit with reduced staffing and a temporary abandonment of expensive musical productions. In the 1984-1985 season, the theater managed to present just three musicals -- Nine, Sugar Babies, and Jerry's Girls -- and an appearance by Steve Lawrence (b. 1935) and Eydie Gorme (b. 1928).The theater supplemented its schedule with performances by entertainers such as Wayne Newton, Bill Cosby, The Fifth Dimension, Zamfir ("King of the Pan Flute"), and the Flying Kamarazov Brothers, and a smattering of non-entertainment moneymakers, including such events as a commercial presentation on tax shelters.

After the final curtain call of the only musical presented in the 1985-1986 season, 42nd Street, the 5th Avenue virtually shut down its musical presentations and for the next several years was sustained by local productions and community events. These were difficult years -- in 1984, board members and other supporters subsidized the theater's operations to the tune of more than $1 million.

In 1987, Marilynn Sheldon, who had started with the theater in 1980 as the box-office treasurer, was appointed managing director. Then, as the national economic improved, so did the fortunes of the 5th Avenue. When it hit its stride again in the 1989-1990 season, its whole approach had been transformed.

Making Musicals at Home

The year 1989 saw yet another renaissance for the historic venue when the The 5th Avenue Theatre Association was formed. No longer would the theater limit itself to presenting touring productions of Broadway musicals; it would now produce its own shows, with the goal of presenting home-grown productions of the caliber of those found on the stages of New York. The non-profit association, which was under the artistic management of Frank M. Young from 1989 to 2000, eventually attracted more than 34,000 annual subscribers. With this new approach, the association would become the only professional theater organization in the Pacific Northwest to stage both touring productions and its own high-quality musicals.

Under Young's leadership, the association formed a collaborative partnership with Theater Under the Stars (TUTS), a Houston theater group that he had founded in 1968. The two organization would together produce 10 seasons of musical theater, which include both national tours and home-produced musicals. The first such collaboration, Mame, starring Juliet Prowse, appeared at the 5th Avenue on October 17, 1989. A 1995 production of the musical Jekyll and Hyde, produced with TUTS and Houston's Alley Theatre, later opened on Broadway, the first 5th Avenue Theatre co-production to do so.

First under Frank Young's supervision and, after 2000, under the artistic direction of David Armstrong, the 5th Avenue has presented a full slate of productions each year since the 1989-1990 season. More than half of these have been self-produced: the theater association hires the creative team, including directors and designers; auditions potential cast members; arranges for sets to be built and costumes to be made; organizes a production's light and sound systems; and does all the necessary public relations, advertising, and branding work to draw the public to the offering. Since David Armstrong took over in 2000, the 5th Avenue has collaborated with other theater groups besides TUTS and has expanded its offerings to include some free "spotlight night" musical programs and sing-along showings of selected movies.

From 5th Avenue to Broadway

One measure of the 5th Avenue's success since 1989 is reflected in the number and quality of the shows it has presented. Between the 1989-1990 season and the 2010-2011 season, the theater has put on no fewer than 123 musical productions. Some perennial favorites have appeared multiple times -- the champion here is Les Miserables, which has been presented no fewer than nine times between 1991 and 2011. By the end of the musical's 2006 run, nearly 375,000 people had watched it performed on the stage of the 5th Avenue. Another perennial favorite, The Phantom of the Opera, has enjoyed three runs. Other productions range from the classics of musical theater -- The Sound of Music, My Fair Lady, and South Pacific, to name just three -- and newer fare, such as Disney's Beauty and The Beast, Hairspray, The Full Monty, The Rocky Horror Show, and Edward Scissorhands. Hairspray, which premiered as a 5th Avenue coproduction, went directly from the Seattle stage to Broadway. It would go on to win eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical. Other productions that started in Seattle and moved to the Big Apple were Princesses, The Wedding Singer, Shrek: The Musical, and Memphis (coproduced with the La Jolla Playhouse).

Since the 2008-2009 season, the 5th Avenue has settled into a pattern of presenting seven or eight productions each season, a mix of old and new, Broadway touring productions and home-produced shows. Among the musicals that have appeared since 2008 are Hello, Dolly!, South Pacific, Guys and Dolls, Catch Me If You Can, and Legally Blonde. The 2011-2012 season (underway at the time this essay was written) offered a similarly eclectic range, with Damn Yankees , Oklahoma! (in collaboration with Spectrum Dance Company), and Cinderella balanced with the newer Saving Aimee, Titanic: The Concert, Rent, and First Date (in collaboration with ACT Theatre). Anchoring the season was the theater's eighth presentation of Les Miserables.

Since the 2002-2003 season, The 5th Avenue Musical Theater Association has premiered several brand-new productions. Among these were Hairspray in 2002, Princesses in 2005, Lone Star Love in 2007, Shrek: The Musical in 2008, Memphis and Catch Me If You Can in 2009, A Christmas Story in 2010, Vanities, Disney's Alladin, and Saving Aimee in 2011, and First Date in 2012.

In January 2010 Marilyn Sheldon retired from her post as managing director. David Armstrong stayed on as artistic director and executive producer, Bernadine (“Bernie”) Griffin replaced Sheldon as managing director, and Bill Berry became the theater's producing director.

Doing Well and Doing Good

As the theater has prospered it has continued to improve both its venue and its productions and has reached out to help other artistic enterprises in Seattle that have not always enjoyed equal success. Its contributions to the region's theatrical arts have ranged from award presentations to direct financial grants.

By 1993 the 5th Avenue Association had become one of the largest subscriber-based theater organizations in the country and that rarest of things -- a largely self-sustaining, non-profit art association. It decided to share some of the fruits of its success with other Seattle theater organizations by establishing a $1 million charitable endowment through the Seattle Foundation. The stated goal of the endowment is "To enhance the cultural knowledge and educational opportunities for students to experience the performing arts," and its strategy is to make contributions to local cultural groups for training and educational purposes. ("Successful  5th Avenue Theatre Shares The Wealth").

The endowment's first grants, totaling $50,000, were awarded in 1995. The recipients ranged from large and well-known organizations -- A Contemporary Theatre (ACT), Intiman Theatre, the Tacoma Actors' Guild -- to the smaller and less-widely known -- The Northwest Asian American Theatre, Seattle Shakespeare Festival, the UMO Ensemble of Vashon Island, and the Lincoln Theatre Center Foundation in Mount Vernon.

The association also supports an active education and outreach program that, among other things, puts together educational presentations about 5th Avenue Theatre's  stage productions. These include musical theater tours to K-8 schools throughout the state, special musical theater workshops and summer school programs for teens, and an annual awards ceremony honoring outstanding work by high-school theater programs throughout the state. The program also puts on Saturday dance and musical theater classes for children and teens and free public events and lectures designed to enhance the public's understanding of and appreciation for musical theater.

As successful as it has been, the 5th Avenue Theatre Association still benefits through support from the region's patrons of the arts, with such outside funding often used for capital improvements. After it was damaged in the 2001 Nisqually earthquake, the theater underwent repairs and renovations in the summer of 2002. Floor-to-ceiling scaffolding -- eight stories high -- was erected in the theater's interior to allow access to its loftiest reaches. The work included removing and replacing 72 plaster ceiling supports and repairing damage to the decorative plaster of the ceiling.

Private funding also helped the theater recapture some of its original street-view visual éclat. During the 1980 renovations, the 5th Avenue's exterior marquee that dated back to 1942 was determined to be beyond repair and was removed. In 2009, Christabel Gough (b. 1938), daughter of Unico Properties chairman Roger L. Stevens (1910-1998), thought something should be done about it. Her connections to the theater world ran deep -- her father had been one of the original contributors to the earlier restoration project and was himself a famed Broadway producer.

Gough thought that replacing the visually striking marquee would be a good way to memorialize the contributions of those who had come to the theater's rescue 30 years earlier, and particularly those of her father and his friend and business associate, Jim Ryan (1908-1992). With Gough underwriting the entire cost, a new sign was fabricated and installed. On December 3, 2009 -- opening night for the theater's holiday production of White Christmas -- it was lit for the first time. Although not an exact reproduction of the original, it is very similar and, with modern LED lighting technology, even more visually arresting.

Looking Forward and Looking Back

The vitality of the 5th Avenue Theatre is well-reflected in the plans for the 2012-2013 season, when it will mount its own productions of Elf: The Musical, The Music Man, Grey Gardens, and The Pirates of Penzance, and will present touring productions of Memphis, The Addams Family, and Jersey Boys. Future years promise to bring to the city a steady supply of musicals of a quality to rival that of Broadway.

Despite ups and downs throughout its history, the words from a 1926 advertisement for the 5th Avenue seem to have held true:

"Within those walls of stone and steel, countless thousands will find happiness reflecting not alone the glory of a magnificent theater, but the glory of its city as well. 'May the Magic Sign of a Wonderful Time' blaze on forever, finding increasing prosperity with the passing years" (Seattle Star).


Everhardt Armstrong, "Playhouse Promises New Epoch," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 19, 1926, p. 1-D; "Orchestra Leader at New Theater Arrives," Seattle Daily Times, September 22, 1926, p. 12; "Comfort is First at New Theater," Ibid., September 23, 1926, p. 16; "New Theater Wins Praise," Ibid., September 24, 1926, pp. 1 and 15; Marian Badcon, "New Theater Casts Spell Over Guests," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 24, 1926, pp. 1 and 3; Everhardt Armstrong, "Glittering Street Carnival Tonight," Ibid., September 24, 1926, p. 13; "Chain Centers in Seattle," Seattle Star, September 24, 1926, p. 22; "Months of Drill Make First Night a Perfection," Ibid., September 24, 1926, p. 22; "Ushers Dressed as Mandarins," Ibid., September 24, 1926, p. 24; "An Orient-Occident Combination," Ibid., September 24, 1926, p. 24; Full-page Advertisement, Fifth Avenue Theater, Ibid., September 24, 1926, p. 21; "Cashier's Tresses Show Time of Day," Ibid., September 24, 1926, p. 23; "Let’s Play!," Ibid., September 25, 1926, p. 1; "Show Crowds Pack Streets as Sardines," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 25, 1926, p. 1; "5th Avenue Theater," Puget Sound Theater Organ Society Website, (http://www.pstos.org/instruments/ wa/seattle5th-ave.html); "The 5th Avenue Theatre History," 5th Avenue Theatre Website, (http://www.5thavenuetheater.org/ historyandphotos.shtml); Misha Berson, "Feting the 5th: The 5th Avenue Theatre Celebrates 75 Years of Entertainment," The Seattle Times, April 25, 2002; "Blockbusters!" (advertisement), Ibid., August 8, 1982, p. 112; Wayne Johnson, "Persistence and Excellence Were the Mark of Theaters That Survived," Ibid., December 29, 1982, p. 17; Misha Bernson, "5th Avenue Theatre Honors Teen Actors," The Seattle Times, June 12, 2003 (http://community.seattletimes.nwsource.com/); Misha Bernson, "Successful 5th Avenue Theatre Shares The Wealth," The Seattle Times, July 9, 1995 (http://community.seattletimes.nwsource.com/); "5th Avenue Theatre Gets a Little Retro Branding," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 24, 2009 (http://blog.seattlepi.com/seattlearts/2009/11/24/); "Production Archive," 5th Avenue Theatre website accessed March 13, 2012 (http://www.5thavenue.org/about/about-the-5th#production-archive); "History of Theater Under the Stars," TUTS website accessed March 13, 2012 (http://www.tuts.com/AboutUs/History/tabid/64/Default.aspx); "5th Avenue Milestones," 5th Avenue Theatre website accessed March 14, 2012 (http://www.5thavenue.org/about/timeline); "Restoring the Marquee," 5th Avenue Theatre website accessed March 14, 2012 (http://www.5thavenue.org/about/about-the-5th); "The 5th Avenue Theatre," Seattle Foundation website accessed March 14, 2012 (http://www.seattlefoundation.org/npos/Pages/The5thAvenueTheatreAssociation.aspx?bv=nposearch); "5th Avenue Theatre Renovation Begins," Puget Sound Business Journal, August 8, 2002 (http://www.bizjournals.com/seattle/stories/2002/08/05/daily32.html).
Note: Originally written in April 2002, this essay was substantially expanded in March 2012.

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