On September 24, 1926, Seattle's newest and most glamorous theater, the 5th Avenue, opens its doors to the public. In an era marked by the debut of several posh entertainment venues, the 5th Avenue has by far the most elaborate opening ceremony ever conceived for the benefit of Seattle audiences. Inside, feature attractions include the Fanchon and Marco stage revue, The Night Club, and the silent film Young April. But there is as much celebrating out on the streets as in the theater, courtesy of a management-organized street festival that brings thousands into Seattle's downtown.
Splendor with an Eastern Theme
Costing in excess of one million to construct, the 5th Avenue Theatre formed the centerpiece of the new Skinner Building, located on 5th Avenue between Union and University streets. Its construction was largely the vision of Harry C. Arthur, then President of Pacific Theatres, Inc., and a rising star in theatrical management. The venue was originally designed to showcase “unit programs,” or shows that featured motion picture attractions and stage productions equally on the same bill.
Despite the Skinner Building's rather conservative exterior, the interior of the 5th Avenue marked it as one of the most lavish theaters on all the West Coast. From plans by architect Robert C. Reamer (and 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, with inspiration taken from three of China’s notable architectural achievements: the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heavenly Peace, and the Summer Palace.
The Hype Machine
In addition to all the attention being lavished on the interior of the new 5th Avenue, it is not surprising that Pacific Theatres sought to make the opening of the house an event for the ages. To ensure that the opening was on par with Harry C. Arthur’s grand ambitions, Harold Horne was hired to help plan and promote the venue’s debut to the public.
Horne, a Harvard graduate with a flair for advertising and promotions, quickly enlisted not only the theater’s staff, but also outside civic groups such as the Chamber of Commerce and the Metropolitan Merchants Association to help with his task. Together they planned to make the opening of the 5th Avenue the most splashy theater debut yet seen in the city’s history.
Playing on the notion that the opening of any theater was a community event, and recognizing that only a limited number of Seattleites would be able to attend opening night, Horne and his associates set about planning two separate functions -- one for inside the theater, and one for outside.
Inside, the action would be made up of the requisite speeches, music, stage, and film attractions. For outside, Horne put forth the idea of organizing a huge street fair, drawing upon local citizens to provide part of the energy and excitement for the evening. Horne’s plans for downtown were ambitious, as was the scope of his advertising campaign (largely consisting of newspaper announcements). The effort extended to local papers in communities of up to 100 miles in every direction, an attempt to draw people from all around the Puget Sound area to Seattle’s newest and grandest theater.
Dancing in the Streets
Horne’s plans would more than live up to mantra coined for the venue’s marquee, “the Magic Sign of a Wonderful Time.” With plans for huge Klieg lights (providing a reported two billion in candle power) lighting up the area, spotlights scanning the night sky, and men with flare guns firing from nearby rooftops, there would be no missing the fact that something extraordinary was happening downtown on the evening of September 24th.
“It will be an occasion without precedent in the city’s history,” announced the Post-Intelligencer that morning:
“With the entire neighborhood of the theatre literally aglow with light and festive banners, music will be furnished by five bands, and on the plaza between Fourth and Fifth Avenues there will be public dancing. The carnival will begin at sundown, and the theatre will open at 6 o’clock, offering three complete de luxe [sic] programs during the evening, starting at 6, 8:30 and 11 o’clock, respectively” (“Glittering Street Carnival Tonight”).
Aided to no small degree by free streetcar service to the festival area (a deal brokered between 5th Avenue management and the City of Seattle), crowds packed an estimated seven city blocks for the carnival event. Estimates put the gathering at anywhere between 50,000 to 100,000 people in total, with barely room to move on 5th Avenue between Pike and Seneca, 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. “[It was as if] the populace of Ballard and Georgetown, Ravenna, Alki and the whole Rainier Valley emptied itself into seven city blocks,” commented the Post-Intelligencer (“Show Crowds Pack Streets as Sardines”). A reporter from The Seattle Times concurred:
“The huge crowd not only filled the places set off for it, but overflowed into the whole downtown district. Scarcely a café, dancing place or theatre failed to do a rushing business. It is doubtful that any Friday night in Seattle’s history saw more people circulating through all the downtown streets than were here last night.
"The density of population in the center of the activities was such that street cars were diverted from Union and rerouted over Pine and Pike Streets in order to get regular commuters to their homes" (“Throng Sees Theatre Open”).
Despite the crowded conditions outside the theater, dancing was the order of the evening, even though the bands (strategically placed throughout the Metropolitan Tract) tended to drown each other out for most of the night. Another prominent feature of the evening was orchestrated by R. H. Vivian, musical director of the downtown YMCA, who led a massive sing-along directly in front of the 5th Avenue. (So that the crowd could follow along, the lyrics to each song were projected onto six large screens hung across the street from the new theater on the White-Henry-Stuart Building annex.)
Although the new theater itself was the main focus of attention, businesses throughout the downtown area benefited from the grand opening ceremonies. “Sandwich shops in the carnival zone sold out,” reported the Post-Intelligencer. “Popcorn wagons, posted on the outskirts, did a land office business. Vendors of New Year Eve noisemakers cleaned up.” Things weren’t all bad for downtown Seattle’s other movie theaters, either. Nearby venues such as John Hamrick’s Blue Mouse Theatre played to capacity houses throughout the evening, benefiting from the overflow of people who had virtually no hope of seeing the show at Hamrick's newer, more luxurious rival.
Inside the 5th Avenue
With all the lavish carvings, tapestries, and paintings rich with Oriental symbolism, those inside the 5th Avenue on opening night “fell under [the theater’s] spell even before the lights began to change,” according to Marian Badcon of the Post-Intelligencer (“New Theatre Casts Spell Over Guests”). However, there was much more than simply the décor to enjoy for those lucky people who managed to get in for opening night.
Instead of a welcome from the stage by members of the 5th Avenue management and local dignitaries, a typical feature for most theater openings, the formal greetings were actually a filmed affair. When the house lights suddenly dimmed without the usual pomp and circumstance, audiences were immediately treated to the screen image of Mayor Bertha Knight Landes, who congratulated (albeit silently) not only Pacific Theatres but also the City of Seattle on the completion of such a fine theater. This was followed by shots of Harry C. Arthur, who bowed a thank you to the Mayor and to the audience, after which he introduced several members of the theater staff, including resident manager James Q. Clemmer. The local scenes were followed by shots of the Christie Bathing Beauties, who bid a special hello to audiences at the 5th Avenue directly from the back lots of Hollywood.
The filmed introductions were followed by the musical portion of the evening. For opening night, longtime Seattle organist Oliver Wallace, at the time appearing at the new Broadway Theatre in Portland, agreed to travel northward for a special appearance at the helm the 5th Avenue’s four-manual, 18-rank Wurlitzer “Special” organ. Wallace, later to compose the scores for several of Walt Disney’s animated classics (he would win an Oscar for his 1941 work, Dumbo), had spent years in Seattle as an organist at the Dream, Clemmer, and Liberty Theatres, and was an audience favorite.
Wallace’s brief concert was followed by the 5th Avenue’s house orchestra, the largest in the city, which introduced a medley of Oriental-themed music. The orchestra was under the direction of George Lipschultz, formerly of Loew’s Warfield Theatre in San Francisco, a graduate of the Chicago Conservatory of Music who had previously worked with famed composer Victor Herbert.
Lipschultz was followed by the 5th Avenue’s headline attractions. First up was The Night Club, an hour-long singing and dancing extravaganza produced by Fanchon and Marco, and which featured roughly 40 stage performers. Then came the film Young April, advertised as a Cecil B. DeMille production but actually directed by Donald Crisp. The film, starring Joseph Schildkraut and Bessie Love, was a romantic comedy about a young girl who discovers that she is heir to the throne of a small European country, and is suddenly thrust into a confusing world of political, diplomatic, and social intrigue.
An Unqualified Success
Whether one was outside or inside or the new venue, the opening of the 5th Avenue Theatre was a stunning success, an event that brought Seattle together as few others had to that point in the city’s history. In a front-page editorial the following morning, the Seattle Star embraced the sense of community that the opening, and particularly the street fair, brought to the city.
"Seldom, if ever, has Seattle witnessed such a happy multitude as that which jammed the streets for blocks in the vicinity of the Fifth Avenue theater when it was thrown open to the public last evening. There were countless thousands who failed to gain admission to the magnificent new playhouse. But they, with the help of the outdoor entertainment provided by [Mr. Harry C.] Arthur and his associates, made their own fun and such fun it was!
"Men who wrestle all day with the big affairs of a growing metropolis learned how to sing “By By Blackbird” [sic] in the big community sing; folks who thought they had passed the frivolous age couldn’t make their feet behave when the street dance started.
"It was a great, big, happy family having the time of its life, with rowdyism swept into the discard by an aspiring wholesomeness.
The Star congratulates you, Mr. Arthur. It thinks the Seattle city administration should follow your lead and hold community parties just like this one at regular intervals. More gatherings like this would make Seattle a bigger, happier city ('Let’s Play!')."
The city played host to a number of gala theatre openings during the late twenties, including the Seattle Theatre (later known as the Paramount) in 1928 and the Fox (later known as the Music Hall) in 1929, but the debut of the 5th Avenue Theatre was far and away the grandest of them all. Never before -- and arguably, never since -- has the opening of a single structure in Seattle garnered more attention and praise than the opening of the 5th Avenue. Today (2002), on the eve of its Diamond Jubilee, it is, as actress Helen Hayes remarked in 1980, “a national treasure.”