On Christmas Eve, 1933, actress Katherine Cornell and her road company are delayed by floods in Eastern Washington, en route to an 8:30 p.m. performance of The Barretts of Wimpole Street at Seattle’s Metropolitan Theatre. Arriving late, they uphold the fine theatrical tradition that “the show must go on," and give a memorable performance in the wee hours of December 25.
A Class Act
A sold out theater awaited Cornell’s troupe at the appointed hour, but management informed them that neither the actors nor the stage scenery had arrived. Some people decided to wait next door in the Olympic Hotel, while others took in a picture show in downtown Seattle. Only a few people gave up and went home. At no time was the theater deserted, as some folks napped in their seats, or stepped outside for a smoke.
Cornell and company finally arrived at 11:20 p.m., and although her contract allowed for postponements due to “acts of God” (such as a flood) the actors were determined to provide their loyal audience with some Christmas cheer. Word went out to the people waiting in the hotel that the show would go on.
While the actors readied themselves backstage, Cornell’s manager announced that the curtains would be opened so the audience could watch the stagehands set up the scenery. This process took an hour. The play didn’t start until 1:00 in the morning and lasted until 4:00 a.m.
A Hard Act to Follow
The cast gave a stirring performance. Besides Cornell, other actors included Basil Rathbone and a 17-year-old Orson Welles (1915-1985), a prodigy who would soon achieve fame with his 1938 radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds and then his critically acclaimed film Citizen Kane (1941). Although a few people nodded off during the last act, due to its lateness, the audience was thrilled beyond description.
It was a night to remember, and the Christmas morn production became a piece of Seattle theatrical history that was talked about for many years. In the 1950s, the Metropolitan Theatre was torn down to make way for the Olympic Hotel’s University Street entrance, and in 1957, hundreds attended the dedication of the new entryway. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer noted that although many welcomed the new addition to the hotel, there was one old gentleman in the crowd who grumbled that the great Katherine Cornell would never stand for the loss of the old Metropolitan Theatre.