Mill Town Footlights by David Dilgard, Everett Public Library
© 2001 Everett Public Library (For a copy of Mill Town Footlights, click on the title above.)
Stately Centenarian: The Everett Theatre
Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety...
William Shakespeare: Antony & Cleopatra, Act II, Scene 2
|1902 Facade of Everett Theatre was an impressive composition in terra cotta, tile and stucco. (Curtis Studio photograph, April 1905, from the collection of the Evertt Public Library)
Every decent carriage in town had been hired well in advance. As the long-awaited hour approached, horse-drawn vehicles and streetcars converged on Colby Avenue laden with passengers unusually well-dressed for a mill town Monday night. From a lofty vantage point it may have seemed like a scaled down version of a Broadway opening. Certainly something similar to the excitement of the Great White Way had momentarily found its way to a modest Puget Sound industrial port.
Trolley bells and the rattle of hooves and harness cut the cool evening air as the throng passed under the elegant canopy and into the brightly lit building. It was a remarkably heterogeneous crowd. The dignitaries and socialites were liberally interspersed with mill workers and their families, an odd confluence of expensive tailored evening garb and off-the-rack suits of approximate fit, costly Parisian scent and dime-store cologne. Those who had jostled each other in the long ticket lines at Darling's Drug Store now rubbed elbows with notables from all over the state. A gaunt and ailing Governor John R. Rogers topped a long list of special guests who had come to Everett aboard the imposing steamship Queen with J.D. Farrell, president of the Pacific Steamship line. Almost a decade earlier the Queen had carried Henry Hewitt and Charles Colby on a pleasure cruise to Alaska, during which the pair formulated the initial scheme for the industrial city that became Everett.
The date November 4th, 1901 had been marked on local calendars for many weeks. Unquestionably the social event of the year, the opening of the new Everett Theatre was destined to stand for decades thereafter as a red-letter day in the community's history.
Egalitarian illusions fell away quickly as murmuring ticket holders moved through the shallow foyer and began to find their seats. An oddly inverted segregation prevailed. The working class scurried to perches high atop the second balcony while the upper crust descended into the proscenium boxes and orchestra seats, nodding their approval of the richly outfitted interior. From blue plush opera chairs and boxes lined in golden brown and deep blue, the guests of honor surveyed a theater thick with ivory and gold ornament and lit by frosted incandescent globes.
The drop curtain had none of the gaudy advertising people were used to seeing at vaudeville or stock company shows. Here instead, framed by trompe l'oeil drapery, was a splendid rendering of the Grand Canal in Venice, where a courtier serenaded ladies on marble palace steps as gondoliers poled slender craft past villas and gardens into a purple horizon. Half a dozen broad bands of gilded ornamental plaster radiated outward from the stage opening.
The curtain rose that night on "The Casino Girl," a road show version of a musical comedy which had been a success on Broadway a year earlier. Suchplot as there was concerned an American showgirl's romantic adventures in New York and Cairo, a story line just substantial enough to support the dozen songs that dangled from it. Sparkling performances are needed to put across that sort of show and Miss Clara Palmer and company simply failed to sparkle that autumn evening in Everett.The disappointing performance did not dampen the town's enthusiasm for its gleaming new showplace. After years of makeshift stage facilities Everett finally had a genuine, custom-built opera house, a prestigious playhouse as modern and fully equipped as any in the Pacific Northwest.
Down through the years Everett has had many theaters but only one substantial and enduring playhouse, large in scale and broad in the diversity of entertainment it has encompassed during a century of activity. As a new century begins all the theaters of the town's past are gone save one, but that one has stood literally and figuratively above all the others from the night it opened.
The theater was one of the first projects undertaken by the Everett Improvement Company, a corporation formed by railroad tycoon James J. Hill to represent his interests in the city. At the turn of the century Hill picked up the pieces of John D. Rockefeller's holdings in Everett and, through the skillful management of John T. McChesney, began anew the work of building an industrial city. While much of McChesney's effort went toward attracting lumber magnates to the waterfront industrial sites encircling the town, certain cultural developments were considered important as well, if only to enhance the community's image. The converted warehouse known as the Central Opera House, which had served local entertainment needs during the depression of the previous decade, was woefully inadequate as a symbol of civic stature.
|The original 1901 interior seated 1200 and had a lofty "peanut gallery" above the mezzanine. (Curtis Studio photograph, April 1905, from the collection of the Evertt Public Library)
McChesney formed the Everett Theatre Company in 1900 and as it's president awarded the architectural contract for the new playhouse to Charles Herbert Bebb. In doing so he assured widespread publicity and comment for the project. Few architects on the coast equaled Bebb's prestige and qualifications for such an undertaking. His credentials included four years as a construction supervisor on Adler & Sullivan's Chicago Auditorium, the grandest American theatrical commission of its decade. Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan were already figures of major importance when Bebb joined them after several years as a construction engineer with a Chicago terra cotta company. His experience in decorative moldings neatly fitted Sullivan's own interest in ornamental detail. Soon after completion of the Auditorium, Bebb came to Seattle to oversee a proposed Adler & Sullivan theater there. While that theater was never built, Bebb stayed on to become a noteworthy force in regional architecture, described at the time of his death in 1942 as "the dean of Seattle architects."
Bebb provided the Everett Theatre Company with a design for a $70,000 structure that would seat 1200 people, about a sixth of the entire population of Everett at that time. Facing 70 feet along Colby Avenue near the intersection of Hewitt, the building completely filled a peculiar, trapezoidal lot that was 119 feet deep and five feet narrower at the back than at the front.
Bebb's treatment of the Colby Avenue facade was clearly inspired by Henry J. Hardenbergh's American Fine Arts Society Building on West 57th Street in Manhattan, a widely acclaimed work of the 1890s. Hardenbergh had drawn upon the ornament of the early French Renaissance, specifically a mid-16th Century hunting lodge built for Francis I at Fontainbleau, but those origins were thoroughly obscured and transformed by the time they resurfaced in Bebb's Everett Theatre front. The result was formal, distinctive and imposing. More than once it has been described as a consummate period piece with strong evidence of Sullivan influence. The stucco facade featured finely detailed terra cotta moldings, an ornate entrance canopy of metal filigree and a tile roof with stepped parapet gables.
Shipments of foundation stone began arriving late in April of 1901. The actual laying of the cornerstone was a low-key affair, with Mercer Vernon, youngest son of Everett's postmaster, doing the honors. At the last moment Vernon was given some tools and put to work chipping out a cavity to fill with some ceremonial mementos. Several hours and a few blisters later, the youngster set the first stone into place.
On the 14th of June the business of booking performances began. Through the Klaw & Erlanger agency two melodramas, Humanity and Way Down East, were slated for dates in February and April of 1902. Over the summer, the calendar for the theater’s premiere season was gradually filled. On August 20th arrangements were made for the opening night offering, The Casino Girl. Though they often dealt with Klaw & Erlanger, kingpins of the “theatrical trust,” the Everett Theatre Company frequently arranged bookings directly with independent companies as well. Only half of the attractions for 1901, for instance, were actually booked through Klaw & Erlanger. Regardless, the Everett Theatre was sometimes the target of criticism by the community’s smaller, independent theaters and performance groups, who characterized the theater as part of “The Trust.” In spite of the facility’s broad popularity with the general public, it was difficult to avoid a ruling class image given the elegance of the facility and the fact that its proprietors were the most powerful single corporation in the community, controlling everything from the city's electrical system to its water supply. Coupled with the burgeoning trade union movement in the community, this meant that the theater was involved in labor unrest from the very beginning.
Slow progress had been made through May, largely due to problems with the delivery of barge loads of Chuckanut stone for the foundations. Brick masons finally began their work in June of 1901, but in the middle of July the strained relationship between the contractor and the local carpenters' union collapsed and work stopped.
The carpenters had faced down the contractor once before, when he had demanded a ten-hour day from them and they successfully held out for nine. But in addition to employing his own son, who was not in the union, he hired yet another non-union carpenter. Tensions increased. A verbal showdown with a foreman brought a stream of insults from the contractor and the carpenters walked off the job. The brick masons struck in support of the carpenters and everything came to a standstill.
A couple of nights later, on the 18th of July, Louie Smith was walking a horse back to the Wainwright stable three doors south of the construction site when he noticed that the scaffolding was on fire. He quickly called in an alarm, then took a friend and two buckets of water back to the blaze and put it out.
Apparently Smith simply told the firemen that the opera house was on fire. To most people that still meant the old Central Opera House a block east of the Everett Theatre. The fire department rushed to the Central, where fire chief Connor scrambled down the aisle during the last act of the evening's entertainment and leaped into the wings, searching in vain for something to extinguish. By the time he got to the right location there was little left to do but examine the bits of wood and paper, sniff the strong aroma of coal oil and diagnose arson.
Louie Smith remembered seeing two suspicious-looking strangers at the stable shortly before the incident. One of them wore carpenter's bib overalls. The contractor hired a night watchman but before long a compromise had been worked out by the building trades council. No arson charges were ever filed.
Machinery, decorations and lights were arriving almost daily by mid-September. The main floor was piled high with plaster moldings and as opening night neared every available craftsman was employed, with shifts of workers busy around the clock. The contractor became increasingly anxious about the arrival of the filigree portico canopy from the east. He busied himself with trips to Portland and Seattle, purchasing doors for the entry and securing the services of an Italian craftsman whose name he couldn't pronounce to repair some plaster ornament that had been broken in transit.
With the opening less than a month away the plasterers and carpenters demonstrated that union controversy was not always confined to labor versus management. The two unions had a falling out over which local should install certain plaster castings around the interior cornice work. When the contractor sided with the carpenters, seven plasterers walked out.
Once more the building trades council resolved the dispute and work resumed, with plenty of technical assistance from Seattle theater personnel. Installing the stage apparatus was J.A. Foster of Seattle's Third Avenue Theatre. He gave the press an informal tour of the nearly completed stage area. "I have with me W.L. Egan, property man of the Grand Opera House, and W.L. Ward, assistant carpenter from the Seattle Theatre, the most expert men I could procure in this line. You see in this great network of cordage 30,000 feet of rope, more than one ton, extending from the rigging loft 65 feet above to the stage floor. Here are 60 feet of bridges and traps, forming a full complement; it is possible with this arrangement to make any height or angle of runways desired. This is the latest thing known to stage carpenters. The stage will be the best lighted on the coast and is fitted with four border lights 36 feet long. The drop is what is known as a triangle curtain; it is operated by an endless rope. There are two fly floors and a paint bridge with working frame. We will have the stage in readiness by November 4."
Electrician Dave Alexander was eager to explain the glories of the slate switchboard, which he described as "...a beauty...it's duplicate cannot be found in the Northwest...These large levers control the lights so the entire house, back and front, may be instantly dimmed. By operating these small levers any light or group of lights may be dimmed. Color schemes in lighting are also perfectly arranged...From this board run the wires connecting with 1360 lights...The house has six bunch lights, two more than any other western house, and the stage is three feet deeper than any other in the Northwest, larger than the Seattle Theatre, heretofore the largest."
Colby Avenue Cavalcade
The lackluster performance opening night was by no means an indication of the quality of entertainment to come, indicating instead, perhaps, that Everett audiences were not to be thought of as a pushovers for whatever entertainment came their way. Over the years the community came to expect, and usually received, high quality fare, witnessing a procession of personalities on the Everett Theatre stage that reads like a Who's Who of American show business in the early 20th Century.
For the first three years the theater offered road show presentations almost exclusively, averaging about one booking a week. For a decade that began with the 1904 season, a mix of road shows and stock company productions prevailed. In the middle of 1914 there was a brief, ill-fated attempt to promote the theater as a vaudeville house, after which the old road show format was reinstated until 1918, when motion picture showings took precedent, with an occasional live presentation thrown in.
During the years before the First World War, Everett was a regular stopping place for road shows that one might not expect to see in a town of such modest size. Local folks were avid theater-goers who turned out in droves to see a good show and the Everett Theatre Company's bill posting and promotional office did a thorough job of advance publicity that drew patrons from all over Snohomish County. The theater itself was modern and well-equipped, not simply capable of staging almost anything but also a genuine pleasure in which to work, an unusually fine facility for a young industrial city like Everett.
Contributing factors to the abundance of name acts were revealed with the discovery of detailed Everett Theatre Company records for the years 1903-1907. Performers got most of the gate. It wasn’t unusual for 75 or even 80 per cent of the gross to go to the attraction. Secondly, the Everett Theatre Company picked up virtually all of the costs. They paid the orchestra and the stage crew. They covered the advertising expenses. For their own part, the Theatre Company dispersed complimentary tickets that must have been excellent public relations for the company. But it is clear from a review of the company books that not much money was made from the attractions side of the business.
However, McChesney had been clever enough to incorporate a second element into the Everett Theatre Company- a profitable outdoor advertising concern. Foster and Kleiser were given their walking papers and the Everett Theatre Company stepped in as the bill poster and sign leaser for the community. The advertising business appears to have been a consistent money maker, keeping the company healthy when the stage performance side was only breaking even.
It appears that mill workers were not always reverent recipients of theatrical fare. If a show was second rate, they could be downright unruly and they were hard on anything resembling pretentiousness. Once during a highbrow drama featuring Shakespearean actor Frederick Warde a rowdy member of the audience supplied loud smacking sound effects for a kissing scene. Warde stalked to the footlights, thrust out a threatening finger and commanded "You will not repeat that beastly insult!" No one did.
When Everett fell for a performer, it could be just as demonstrative in a positive way. International opera star Ernestine Schumann-Heinke swept the city off its feet several times, proving that she didn't have to play to highbrows or limit her performances to cultural hubs to put over bel canto.
One of the first truly big-name performers to appear at the theater was Richard Mansfield. His brilliant make-up for the roles of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, Ivan the Terrible and Monsieur Beaucaire proved an inspiration to the youthful Lon Chaney and put Mansfield on the suspect list at Scotland Yard during the Jack the Ripper atrocities. He was known to be a terror to theater personnel as well, haughty, demanding and brutally unforgiving of mistakes. Everett Theatre stagehands were blissfully stunned when Mansfield publicly praised their competence at the close of his Everett engagement in June of 1902.
"The Man of a Thousand Faces" himself once worked at the Everett Theatre, though in November of 1911 no one had heard of Lon Chaney. He was only an eccentric dancer with Max Dill's musical comedy company at the time. By the mid-Twenties, Chaney's film characterizations of Quasimodo and the Phantom of the Opera would pack the theater where he had once performed in obscurity.
Local audiences saw careers being made on the Everett Theatre stage. In the summer of 1906 a young vaudeville song and dance man named Al Jolson had just begun performing as a single. He hoofed and whistled his heart out that August but was left stranded in Everett when his manager skipped town with the box office receipts. Jolson's bitter complaints about the incident appeared in New York trade papers. Nine years later Jolson was back, leading a large company in a road version of his latest Broadway hit, "Dancing Around." His rendition of "Sister Susie's Sewing Shirts for Soldiers" stopped the show and Jolson paused to reminisce about the dire outcome of his previous visit. Perhaps as a result of his earlier experience in Everett, Jolson is said to have developed a habit of personally inspecting the evening's take and putting it in a safe place before going onstage.
Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle romped across the Everett stage long before the scandal that shook Hollywood and destroyed his career. Walrus-faced Mack Swain was Everett's guest for an extended period in 1906 with his successful stock company. Eight years later he and Arbuckle were appearing in Keystone comedy films with Charlie Chaplin. Swain went on to partner with "The Little Tramp" in Chaplin's 1925 masterpiece "The Gold Rush," in which he gave a memorable performance as a starving prospector who imagines Chaplin to be a giant chicken.
Other legendary figures arrived on Colby late in their careers. Lillian Russell, forever identified with the glittering 1890s and her signature song "Come Down Ma Evening Star," came to the Everett twice, with "The Butterfly" in 1907 and again in 1909 heading a production of "Wildfire." Anna Held appeared as "Ma'mselle Napoleon" in the spring of 1904, returning in "Follow Me" two days before Christmas in 1917. Eight months later she died of bone cancer at age 45.
Minstrel shows were very popular before the First World War and the Everett Theatre booked its share. Richards & Pringle's Famous Georgia Minstrels appeared during nine of the first fifteen seasons. Primrose & Dockstader performed the month after the playhouse opened and when they split up each returned several times more with his own troupe. Haverley's Mastodon Minstrels were also favorites. The Barlow Minstrels, Al G. Fields' Greater Minstrels, Gorton's Famous All-White Minstrels, the Hi Henry Company and William H. West's Big Minstrel Jubilee all appeared during a 15-year period that saw 21 professional companies booked for 40 appearances at the theater, not counting two amateur Elks minstrel shows and two shows staged by sailors from visiting ships.
The Four Cohans, led by the “Yankee Doodle Dandy” George M. himself, played the Everett Theatre on Tuesday, the 24th of May in 1904. The show was "Running For Office," a musical comedy with words, music, libretto, and direction by Cohan. Boasting a cast of 72, it had been a success on Broadway a year earlier and played to enthusiastic audiences in Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago. The show was publicized as a farewell tour for the Four Cohans as George was about to embark on a solo career.
Some unanticipated competition emerged after the show was booked. The dedication of the Masonic Lodge a block south of the Everett Theatre was set for the same night. This event diverted not only a substantial part of the potential audience for the Cohans but took the theater’s house orchestra as well. To make matters worse, a depressed shingle market had forced the closure of most local shingle mills only days before the show hit town.
Details of the Cohan engagement have survived in the records of the Everett Theatre Company. The box office statement, receipts, financial summary, and notes on distribution of complimentary tickets provide a detailed description of the business end of the event.
Attendance that May evening was 415, representing 379 tickets sold and three dozen given away. That amounted to a dismal third of capacity. As it turned out, the Masonic dedication drew about 300 people. None of the $2.00 box seats were sold. 121 orchestra seats had been purchased at $1.50 each, but most of the theatergoers that evening were in the cheap seats. 176 people paid from 50 cents to $1.00 to sit in the balcony and 83 people opted for the two-bit seats in the upper balcony or “peanut gallery.” The box office total for the event amounted to $335.50.
For this engagement the split was 75/25, which meant that the Cohan company took away $251.65. The signature on the Theatre Company form is that of manager Fred Niblo, husband of performer Josie Cohan and brother-in-law of George. Twenty years later Niblo was in Hollywood directing some of the most memorable motion pictures of the silent era, films like "Ben Hur,"Valentino's "Blood & Sand" and Douglas Fairbanks in "The Mark of Zorro." Of course these films were shown in Everett at the same theater where Fred Niblo once accepted some pretty disappointing proceeds for his brother-in-law's troupe.
The Everett Theatre Company's 25 per cent came to $83.85, but out of that they had to pay expenses. Because the house orchestra had been hired away by the Masons, a stand-in group under J. Scott Turney of the Red Men's Hall was brought in. They split $16.50 seven ways for their evening's work. The crew backstage, working under stage manager Bill Farleman divided $8.50. Local newspaper ads cost the company $9, $5 to the Herald, $3 to the Evening Record and $1 to the Labor Journal. $3 went to doormen and ushers, and Mrs. Boyer, the backstage maid, was paid her usual $1 fee.
When all these debts were paid the Everett Theatre Company had just $45.85 left, but the three dozen complimentary tickets they distributed must have had a cash value at least equal to that. The public relations value of free tickets seems always to have been a part of the Everett Theater equation for McChesney and his associates. And some of the "comps" were given in exchange for props or other amenities. For the Cohan engagement a dozen of the free tickets went to local newspapers, though no real review of the performance seems to have appeared.
A diverse selection of other entertainment notables graced the stage in the early years of the century. The sentimental Irish melodies of Chauncey Olcott proved irresistible when he performed in person in 1909. Pugilists Jim Jeffries, Bob Fitzsimmons and Gentleman Jim Corbett took to the stage when the ring ceased to provide for their needs, and though better acting had been seen locally, their efforts were warmly received.
Certain favorite plays returned again and again. Charles Yale's production of "The Devil's Auction" was a familiar attraction and each year saw new special effects added to the fantasy extravaganza. "Uncle Tom's Cabin," the first professional drama staged in Everett back in 1892, was frequently presented, often by Stetson's Big Double Company, which toured the country offering nothing else. Ethnic parodies like "Yon Yonson," "Ole Olson" and "Pete Peterson" were perennial favorites.
Lillian Mason led one of the summer stock companies at the Everett Theatre in 1909. Seventeen years earlier she had appeared at the city's variety box houses, eventually moving up out of the saloons and onto the legitimate stage. Another actress worked the formula in reverse. "Tex" Guinan, who played the Everett in 1911 and 1915 as a cast member in big musical productions, gained fame during the Twenties as a speakeasy proprietor.
Occasionally there was a dazzling succession of major attractions, like the two week period early in the summer of 1913 when Alla Nazimova, Maude Adams as "Peter Pan" and Eddie Foy and the 7 Little Foys appeared one right after the other. Helen Keller spoke the following year. Audiences missed a chance to see Anna Pavlova when her performance was cancelled in 1915 due to poor advance sales, but Ruth St. Denis danced on the Everett Theatre stage that year.
The drama of real life occasionally overshadowed the stage productions. One autumn evening a jealous young lady attacked her rival on the sidewalk in front of the playhouse. The victim had just attended an elaborate performance of the tragedy "Salaambo" but it was the melodrama that developed outside which made the front page of the Herald next day.
The labor problems that erupted during the construction of the theater were omens of things to come. From the outset Everett had an unusually monolithic power structure and in response to this a militant union movement developed. When the theater was completed a prominent painted ad for a brand of cigar made in Snohomish appeared on the building. It was soon pointed out that the cigar maker was non-union and complaints from local labor organizations eventually resulted in the removal of the sign.
When local stage employees organized in 1910, the Everett Theatre Company refused to meet their wage demands. In September the theater went to the top of the Labor Journal's blacklist and a union journalist chided manager Harry Willis, calling him "the suave little man who ran the Everett Theatre until the stage workers closed him down over the stupendous sum of five or six dollars a show." The theater stayed closed until mid-November, when the wage agreement was signed and Willis was replaced by Johnnie Pringle, a pro-union stock company manager. Pringle, who was the father of film star John Gilbert, proceeded to demonstrate just how lucratively the place could be operated while paying union scale, enjoying a prosperous eight-month run.
A more violent confrontation occurred on the evening of Tuesday, August 29th, 1916 when the theater figured in a skirmish that served as a prelude to the tragic "Everett Massacre." Thirty-five strike breakers from a local mill were marched by their employer to the playhouse to be entertained by the "Brilliant Oriental Mysticisms of Alexander, the White Mahatma." By the end of the performance about 150 strikers and their sympathizers had assembled outside and they proceeded to follow the strike breakers down Hewitt Avenue toward the bay. As they neared Grand Avenue violence erupted. In spite of gunshots and flailing clubs, local police rescued the embattled "scabs" before anyone was seriously hurt. An apparent response to the incident was the public declaration two days later that 200 citizens had signed up as volunteers to assist the sheriff in his suppression of "lawless acts." This core group, known as "The Committee," met the steamship Verona on November 5th, preciptating the bloodiest labor violence in Pacific Northwest history.
The theater reflected the trends of the times. Initially road show versions of musicals and celebrity productions dominated. When stock companies were in vogue, the Everett Theatre ran stock. When stock gave way to vaudeville, circuit acts were booked and for a brief period the theater was even known as the "Pantages Everett." This turned out to be an unauthorized use of the name by a relative of vaudeville mogul Alexander Pantages, who ended the venture with an injunction. Just as effective in inhibiting more extensive use of the theater for this purpose was the presence of Joe St.Peter's Rose Theater, a popular circuit vaudeville house across the alley from the Everett. Local audiences were affectionately loyal to the Rose, which kept a firm hold on local vaudeville activity during most of it's seventeen year career, 1910-27.
The Ascending Silver Screen
Movies became a part of the theater's fare at an early date. The first film attraction was a feature newsreel of a prize fight presented in February of 1906. Because of the primitive machinery and highly flammable film, movies were considered risky business. A jury-rigged projector and screen were set up in spite of objections from the theater's insurance agent. Though spared a fire, the management was humiliated by the failure of the projection machine just before the knockout. In 1909 another attempt was made to screen movies at the Everett- this time the insurance company's protestations caused the show to be cancelled.
Almost four years elapsed before the theater management tried again. Late in February of 1913 footage of the Pendelton Rodeo received enthusiastic audience response. That spring Lubin and Kalem productions were shown and in the fall Edison productions were booked for a three day stint.
The following year there were no less than eight film bookings, including a documentary on Antarctica with live narration and an early attempt at synchronized sound featuring Scot comic Harry Lauder. In May a series of vaudeville shows used short film chasers to close each performance.
But the watershed year for local cinema proved to be 1916. Late in June the Everett Theatre exhibited D.W. Griffith's "The Birth of a Nation," an historical extravaganza so popular that it was brought back at the end of the year for a return engagement. A second blockbuster, the Thomas Ince film "Civilization", followed in September. These features provided powerful evidence that movies were no longer mere novelties but had become major attractions in their own right.
In 1918 the Everett Theatre was leased by former grocer Charles Swanson. Movies were eclipsing vaudeville and stock, so Swanson had the old proscenium boxes boarded up, the angle being too steep for decent movie viewing, and from August of 1918 the theater served principally as a movie house. Celluloid images of Theda Bara, Douglas Fairbanks, John Barrymore, Mary Pickford, Charles Chaplin and Dorothy Gish supplanted most of the live acts. The following year Swanson incorporated the Star Amusement Company and the Everett Theatre became part of his near-monopoly of local theaters.
One of the early film offerings after the change-over was Paramount's "Riddle Gawne", a western starring William S. Hart, who had appeared in person ten years before as "The Virginian." Many famous personalities who played the theater as live acts in earlier days returned during the Star Amusement era, but they were almost always on the screen instead of on stage.
When a celebrity did arrive in the flesh, his reputation was often the product of his film career. Character actor Henry B. Walthall was a respected representative of the legitimate stage, but most of the Everett audience for his live performance in Ibsen's "Ghosts" in 1920 remembered him as "The Little Colonel" from Griffith's "Birth of a Nation" four years earlier. A visitor the following year was handsome screen star Wallace Reid, a box-office idol created on the clean-cut American boy formula who was soon to die from the ravages of drug addiction.
Live entertainment gradually disappeared from the stages of local theaters. Vaudeville eclipsed stock and the motion picture novelties that were initially little more than chasers on vaudeville bills grew into feature films that crowded live acts from the stage. During the first three years of its existence, the Everett Theatre had operated between 60 and 80 days each year, offering mostly road shows. This schedule increased to an average of 132 days per year between 1905 and 1911, when stock companies were prominently featured as a backup to road shows. Thereafter, yearly use dropped to about 50 days until Swanson introduced his heavy schedule of movie bookings. In 1919 the theater was open 362 days, showing film 347 of those days. Each film cost less than a live show to present and movies often drew crowds comparable to the most successful live attractions.
A Flaming Curtain
At dawn on the morning of December 11, 1923 the city garbage collector pulled his wagon into the alley behind the theater and noticed smoke coming from the basement. He phoned in an alarm at 6:50 a.m. For the next three hours three dozen firemen struggled to control the blaze.
|Looking north on Colby Avenue, December 11th, 1923, as firemen battle the Everett Theatre blaze. (From the collection of the Everett Public Library)
The fire apparently began under the stage near the orchestra pit and raced up the stage draperies to the wooden framing in the flies. It was an exceedingly dangerous fire to fight. Firemen who had battled their way back stage dodged falling counterweights and sandbags from the rigging loft, flames undermining the floor beneath their feet and the ceiling overhead. They were finally forced to retreat and concentrate on preventing the fire's spread.
Newly appointed Fire Chief C.E. Swanson's most vivid memory of the conflagration, however, concerned the awful effect it had on the city's fire loss record for the year. Up to that point it had been amazingly low, about 50 cents per capita. When the smoke cleared that figure had quadrupled.
By the time the ceilings collapsed the building was the focus of a liquid crossfire from three hoses on the roof of the bank building to the north, several more atop shops to the south, and a high pressure stream from across Colby Avenue.
|The devastation of the 1923 fire is shown in this view looking eastward toward the stage from the auditorium. (From the collection of the Everett Public Library)
Another squad of firemen dodged falling bricks in the alley at the rear, battling to prevent the flames from spreading eastward. In that direction lay the Rose Theatre, its marquees advertising a film called "The Midnight Alarm...the most sensational fire feature ever produced." Rose manager Joe St.Peter was forced to admit he had been upstaged.
The call-board backstage was lost in the flames. Autographed by dozens of celebrities over the years, it was a bittersweet symbol of more than two decades of rich theatrical history reduced to smoldering rubble.
There were rumors of arson but the insurance company saw no problem. Before the ashes were cold the Everett Improvement Company and Star Amusement announced plans to collaborate on the theater's reconstruction, declaring "We will rebuild at once."
A New Beginning
The theater had been essentially gutted, with wreckage from the upper sections tumbled in upon the main floor. However, except for the very top of the flies, the exterior walls were essentially intact. Even today bricked-up window openings and doorways dating from 1901 are clearly visible from the alley and rear of the structure. Hidden within are fragments of original ornamental plaster which still cling to these bearing walls.
While minimal demolition was done on the north, south and east walls, the entire west front was torn away to be replaced by a clean, formal Renaissance facade. Author of this new look was an elusive Seattle designer named Fitzherbert Leather. At various times employed as an illustrator, a publisher, an architect, a fruit exchange manager, vice-president of a promotional organization and accountant for an ad agency, Leather showed himself to be a deft manipulator of formal design elements. He discreetly incorporated garlands of terra cotta into the buff brick face, which was otherwise almost severe in its simplicity. Relieving the classical symmetry was a new entrance in the northwest corner. From the foyer a ramp to the mezzanine and balcony swept majestically upward to the south
Winter didn't delay the process of reconstruction. A contract for $106,500 was awarded in mid-February, though the final expenditure, including furnishings and equipment, approached a quarter of a million dollars.
|Fitzherbert Leather's 1924 interior retained the 1901 seating capacity of 1200 in spite of the elimination of the upper gallery. (1929 Juleen photo courtesy of Don Pringle from the collection of the Everett public Library)
A great deal of publicity was given the 68-foot steel girder which was to support the rebuilt balcony and mezzanine. While the original main balcony had rested upon posts set in the main floor, the new steel span, anchored to footings extending 23 feet below the auditorium floor, eliminated the need for sight-obstructing uprights. At 17 tons, it was reportedly the largest single piece of structural steel ever erected in the county.
The man in charge of raising it into place was George Wallace. He was working high on a scaffold on a Monday afternoon in mid-March when the chain hoist broke. Thirty thousand pounds of steel crashed downward. Wallace's left arm was severed by the chain and he plunged 30 feet into the basement. By some miracle he not only survived but walked to the ambulance. In spite of the mishap, the project proceeded on schedule.
Statistics deluged the local newspapers during construction. The building utilized nearly 250,000 pounds of steel, more than 50 tons of it to reinforce the concrete that comprised the auditorium and mezzanine floors and the new roof. Thirteen tons of steel went into the gridiron over the stage and, as noted, the balcony girder weighed in at 34,000 pounds.
A gilded proscenium arch measured 28 feet wide by 24 feet high. Audiences would bask in the warmth generated by a $22,000 Birchfield boiler. The second balcony, sometimes called the "peanut gallery," was a twisted shambles after the fire and was not rebuilt. The new main balcony extended 20 feet further toward the proscenium which was, in turn, shifted about 10 feet eastward to allow extra seating. The seating capacity remained at the 1901 figure of 1200.
At 30 by 68 feet, the reconstructed stage was a bit smaller than the original but still, in the words of the management, "suitable for any size or description of road show or legitimate production that has yet come west." Among the ten dressing rooms beneath the stage was an "animal compartment," a special shower stall with a tethering ring to accommodate performing beasts like seals and ponies.
Though ample provision was made for live stage performances, the feature presentation for the grand opening on Friday, August 29th, 1924 was a movie called "The Reckless Age." This reopening was considerably less formal than the corresponding event in 1901. The mayor and other dignitaries did participate in an official evening ceremony, but the theater had really been opened for a matinee at 1:00 the same afternoon and turn-away crowds opted for an early look. D.G. Inverarity, brought in by the Fox organization as interim manager and troubleshooter, was on hand to extend a personal welcome.
Opening night the stage crew found a very personal method of marking the event. They slid into the narrow space behind the main switchboard and penciled an inscription: "House opened Aug. 29, 1924. Carpenter M. Forslund. Electrician F. Tucker. Props E. Lemon. Flyman H. Olson."
All seasoned veterans, this crew embodied a substantial amount of local theater history. Milt Forslund, nicknamed "Swede," was working at the old Acme Theatre as early as 1912. He died at age 79 in 1966. Fred Tucker began as a stagehand at the Rose vaudeville theater during World War One, but his training in electrical systems helped establish him as stage electrician and eventually projectionist at the Everett Theatre. Ernest E. Lemon was a charter member of Local 180, Everett's stage employees union organized in March of 1910. He worked for the Everett Theatre as a bill poster as far back as 1904, but soon advanced to the role of properties manager. Harry O. Olson, also a charter member of Local 180, worked at the Rose Theatre as well as the Everett, in charge of the vast complex of ropes and weights that controlled the curtains and backdrops.
The ground floor facade of the "New Everett Theatre" was finished in gleaming glazed white brick with onyx baseboards. The color scheme inside was predominantly cream and gold tones with touches of blue and rose. "Electric gardens" flanked the proscenium arch above the gilded grillwork of the organ chambers.
The new auditorium was in fact an acoustically sophisticated elliptical shell fitted within the north, south and east walls of the original 1901 structure. The theater organ, with its arsenal of special effects, resonated through the building as if the structure itself was a part of the musical instrument. Not only was the organ the basic day-to-day workhorse which provided accompaniment for the movies, it was also used for musical prologues and was regularly featured in matinee concerts.
There were still live performances at the theater, most significantly imaginative prologues used to introduce the feature films. This proved to be the forte of the manager who took over from D.G. Inverarity a year after the reopening. Raymond E. "Chuck" Charles came to Everett from Portland, where he had been managing the Columbia for Universal West Coast Theaters. Half a century after the fact he still took great pleasure reminiscing about the splendid prologues he produced at the Everett, especially one South Seas number with simulated underwater choreography. Charles used children from the dance classes of local instructor Betty Spooner, dangling some of them from invisible wires behind artfully decorated scrim. When properly lit it made them appear to be swimming underwater with fish and seahorses.
Live feature presentations appeared at intervals as well. George Arliss performed as "Disraeli" shortly after the reopening and he was followed by the farewell tour appearance of ballet star Anna Pavlova in February of 1925. In August of that year a large production of Sheridan's "The Rivals" starring Mrs. Fiske and Chauncey Olcott was staged. But the theater essentially returned to the motion picture format initiated back in 1918. During the reconstruction process the Apollo Theatre on Hewitt Avenue served as the city's first-run movie house, but as soon as it was up and operating again, the Everett Theatre resumed its dominant position and began block booking major studio releases.
The local entertainment business, which had seen as many as eight theaters competing in 1915, had settled by the mid-Twenties into a stable group of movie houses controlled by Star Amusement. Three years after the Everett reopened, Star acquired the Rose vaudeville house, the sole surviving independent, and remodeled it into the Granada. In 1929 the Balboa was erected on Wetmore Avenue. Though it was just another theater at the time, this completed the trio of allied movie houses, the Everett, Balboa and Granada, that was to endure for nearly a quarter of a century.
The Fox Everett, 1929-1933
|A December 1929 promotion shows tire covers with advertising for theater coupons as Christmas presents. Note the vertical sign on the northwest corner of the building, added by the Fox organization in 1929. (From the collection of the Everett Public Library, courtesty of Don Pringle)
In April of 1929 control of the city's six movie houses, including the Everett Theatre, passed from the Star Amusement Company to Fox West Coast Theaters, Inc., part of the nationwide chain of entrepreneur William Fox. Charles A. Swanson, former president of Star Amusement, stayed on as local executive while the new proprietors invested $55,000 in a renovation and remodel project that included a vertical electric sign for the northwest corner and installation of a Fox Movietone sound system. The "Fox Everett Theatre" was thrown open to the public on October 23rd, 1929.
That reopening took place on the Wednesday before "Black Thursday," the day of the Wall Street Crash. Fox's financial fortunes slid from bad to worse and in the spring of 1933 "Fox" disappeared from the theater's facade. With the other survivors, the Granada and the Balboa, it became part of the newly formed Everett Theatres Company. Swanson served briefly as vice president of this organization before returning to the grocery business from whence he had come. Plagued by business troubles, he took his own life in 1937, a newspaper obituary describing him as the man who once "owned all the theaters in Everett."
Shortly after the Fox sign came down a new, more contemporary marquee went up, with a reader board extending along most of its length. This slender band with its myriad lights was surmounted by a bright, simple sign identifying the theater as "The EVERETT."
An enduring fixture from the Fox era proved to be manager William H. Hartford, who was destined to serve in that capacity at the Everett Theater for almost twenty years. Brought to Everett from Bellingham, where he had been operating Fox chain theaters, Hartford once served as manager of Seattle's Orpheum Theatre. His tenure at the Everett from 1929 through 1948 was easily the longest in the theater's history.
Colby Avenue Rivals
In the mid-Thirties the Everett Theatre received an impudent challenge from a small, slick, Moderne movie house which arose from the shell of a store building directly across the street. The Roxy opened in May of 1935 under the management of former Everett Theatre manager Chuck Charles. With the mischievous Charles at the helm, the 700-seat Roxy was to engage in gleeful rivalry with its more imposing counterpart across Colby for nearly forty years. Charles especially seemed to enjoy the role of apparent underdog, single-handedly taking on the Everett, Granada and Balboa.
During the decade of the Depression, the ammunition for this rivalry was an embarrassment of cinematic riches. Gable and Garbo. Cagney, Bogart, and Robinson. Tracy and Hepburn. Harlow. Dietrich. William Powell and Myrna Loy. Carol Lombard. Bette Davis. Cary Grant.
This was the era of the gala movie musical and Everett audiences embraced the genre. Busby Berkeley, Astaire and Rogers. Nelson Eddy and Jeannette MacDonald, Bing Crosby. And the wonderful Thirties comedies were well received, from Mae West and W.C. Fields to Will Rogers and the Marx Brothers.
Sometimes outgunned by blockbuster features at the Everett, the Roxy wooed and won the younger audience with horse operas starring Roy Rogers, Gene Autry and the Lone Ranger. Interestingly enough, both the Everett and the Roxy were scooped in March of 1938 when the Granada hosted Disney's "Snow White." It's uncertain just why the smaller house was chosen, but the picture's RCA-enhanced "Magic Voice of the Screen" sound system may have been more easily adaptable to the Granada's Vitaphone equipment and fixed screen than to the Fox Movietone setup at the Everett, where the screen was rigged to be raised and lowered.
Mickey Mouse was so popular that there was an Everett Theatre-based Mickey Mouse Club with its own newsletter as early as 1931. During the Thirties it became standard operating procedure to fill out any bill with a couple of the irresistible rodent's adventures. Manager Hartford advertised these mouse cartoon multiples as "Mickey Mice."
Thirties classics like "Grand Hotel" and "The Thin Man" drew crowds in spite of the hard times. The timeless Universal monster films "Frankenstein" and "Dracula" and RKO's "King Kong" were popular cinematic fare. Errol Flynn's memorable "Robin Hood" was especially well-received locally, in part because the screenplay was co-authored by Everett High alum Seton Miller.
When the Everett Theatre scored impressively with "The Wizard of Oz," which played September 8-13, 1939, the Roxy countered with Cagney and Robinson crime dramas from Warner Brothers. The breathlessly awaited local showing of Selznick's "Gone With the Wind" also took place at the Everett Theatre in March of 1940, three months after the Atlanta premiere and prefaced by a week's worth of ads for advance tickets.
It was a time of great movie stars and memorable movies and for local audiences the memories were fondly linked to the theater where they enjoyed those wonderful films.
Survival in the Post-War Era
With the cryptic irony that sometimes suffuses matters of economics and culture, local theaters somehow weathered depression and world war only to fall victim in a time of peace and prosperity to perils none could have anticipated. Perhaps most damaging of these was television, which has been blamed for the death of the Everett's two sister theaters, the Granada and Balboa, in 1953 and 1954 respectively. During the early Fifties there was a precipitous decline in movie attendance and the closures were part of a strategic restructuring that began in 1952 with a remodel of the Everett Theatre. This renovation prepared the venerable playhouse to function as a solo entity again, for the first time since it joined the Star Amusement group back in l9l9.
|The struggle to remain competitive brought a remodel by the prominent firm of B. Marcus Prieca in 1952. (Courtesy of Jim and Gretchen Shaffer)
Manager Willis Cooley announced that architects from the prestigious firm of B. Marcus Priteca would undertake the modernization for Evergreen Theaters, the organization that superseded the Everett Theatres Company. A great deal of expense and effort was expended in the vicinity of the proscenium. The "electric gardens" and plaster ornament that surrounded the stage opening were done away with, replaced by modern abstract wall reliefs and an elaborate set of draperies. The faithful theater organ was removed and sold to the Seattle School District. New seating was installed, reducing the capacity from 1200 to just over 970. The projection area was refurbished and updated with the latest Simplex projectors. Extensive reworking of the mezzanine included elimination of the ramp in favor of a conventional stair. A dazzling concession section appeared in the center of the ground floor foyer.
While little of the upper facade was disturbed, the ground floor level was extensively altered. The entry was shifted from the northwest corner to the center of the building, restoring the sort of symmetry present in the 1901 facade. Above this new plate-glass entrance with its freestanding octagonal ticket kiosk was an imposing neon marquee of triangular plan extending well out over the sidewalk. A revolving neon creation echoing the kiosk octagon and evoking star and planet motifs rose above the reader board of the marquee. More than a mile of tubing went into this remarkable display. Pink marble was used to face the entire lower facade. In its own way, this 1952 design work was as strikingly evocative a period piece as Bebb's 1901 west front.
|Drapes and abstract, futuristic plaster ornament replaced the old proscenium arch during the 1952 Riteca remodel. (Bob Benson photo from the Goldsworthy Collection of the Everett Public Library)
The gala opening, with a country western band, fireworks and a street parade featuring equestrian maneuvers by the Snohomish County Sheriff's Mounted Posse, took place on the evening of October 8th, 1952, a couple of days after GOP presidential candidate Dwight D. Eisenhower whistle-stopped Everett. Cinemascope, one of the innovations by which the movie industry hoped to win back customers in the early Fifties, was not a part of the 1952 renovation of the Everett but was retrofitted the following year. That same year the 3-D fad also turned up at the Everett.
In July of 1958 the theater came under the management of Dick Goldsworthy, an energetic promoter who matched the enthusiasm and ingenuity of the Roxy's Chuck Charles and the two men grappled good-naturedly until Goldsworthy's departure in 1963. Under Goldsworthy renewed energy was expended toward scheduling celebrity appearances and promotional events. This was the era of the Pepsi Bottlecap Auction and visits from television personalities Stan Boreson and Captain Puget. No Friday the Thirteenth was allowed to pass without a special horror movie event featuring blackouts, costumed monsters and coffins.
The Advent of Multiplex
It was apparent by the mid-Sixties that managers like Charles and Goldsworthy were a vanishing breed. By the time Chuck Charles witnessed the closure of the Roxy in the early Seventies, a theater he had managed for nearly four decades, the Everett Theatre was going through one or two managers a year. These managers were rarely around long enough to familiarize themselves with the situation, let alone engage in much promotional activity. As the theater passed from one entertainment corporation to another, generic management was increasingly the rule. And though a location in the heart of the central business district had once been a powerfully positive factor for the theater, it became a liability during the Seventies, when outlying shopping malls were draining the life from the old downtown.
|A quintessentially Fifties concessions area was part of the Priteca remodel, shown here in January of 1961. (Herald photo from the Goldsworthy Collection of the Evertt Public Library)
In 1973 the first of a series of multiplex cinemas were constructed at the Everett Mall, some five miles south of the city's core. If these new shoe-box movie houses represented the future of motion picture exhibition, they also cast doubt on the viability of theaters with a past. Before the end of the year the Roxy was sold, shut down and gutted, leaving the Everett as the only theater in the central business district.
Within a year or two of the Roxy closure, concern about the eventual fate of the Everett began to manifest itself in local circles. The State Office of Archaeology & Historic Preservation prepared nomination forms on the theater during the summer of 1975 and it was placed on the State Register of Historic Places. That same year the Everett Arts Commission began exploring the possibility of acquiring the structure for the community and in the spring of 1977 city council gave their approval to the idea of offering the owners, the Mann Theaters Corporation, $370,000 for the building. It was sold instead to Orewash Theaters, Inc.
In the summer of 1978, permits were secured by Orewash for a $90,000 remodel project that would see the installation of two movie screens in the balcony. Earlier that year another multiplex trio opened near the Everett Mall and the "triplexing" of the Everett Theatre was an apparent attempt to remain competitive. It also seemed to some to border on vandalism, though minimal permanent damage was inflicted. Before the remodel occurred, yet another unsuccessful plea for public acquisition was made. The modifications were completed early in 1979. The new three-screen arrangement allowed the Everett Theatre to function for another decade, though the neglected state of the building caused increasing comment and ticket prices dropped as low as 99 cents.
An Imperiled Heroine
Late in the spring of 1989 the heating plant ceased to function. The management continued to do business through the warm summer months but with the onset of September weather, the house went dark.
Once again there were stirrings of concern within the community, but no consensus emerged. Perhaps in part because of the sad example of the nearby Monte Cristo Hotel, an historic landmark which had languished in a derelict state for a quarter century in spite of periodic attempts to finance renovation, there was skepticism, even cynicism about the theater's viability.
And there was a counter proposal afoot, a plan to build a new stage facility as part of a civic center complex. By odd coincidence, successful rehabilitation of historic theaters was in evidence in just about every major community in Western Washington except Everett, but weeks rolled by and it became clear that city hall would not undertake an Everett Theatre restoration. Arson attempts inflicted minor damage to the building. Then, as the first anniversary of the theater's closure approached and the landmark seemed to dangle as perilously as the endangered heroine of an old melodrama, a group of concerned citizens organized the Everett Theatre Society. They boldly declared their intention to acquire and restore the landmark and return it to use as a live-performance theater and a cornerstone of Everett's historic urban core.
The struggles of the Everett Theatre Society over the next three years deserve a volume of their own. After countless small victories and major setbacks, heartbreaks, inspirations, blood, sweat and tears, they reopened the Everett Theatre to the public on September 10th, 1993 with the first of nine performances of Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean. Since that memorable, emotional evening, the Society has filled the building with plays and cinema and put the Everett Theatre firmly back into the center of the life of downtown Everett. The Society now holds title to the building and has marshaled a broad base of community support. A recent renovation, which unfortunately erased every vestige of the Priteca work from 1952, put the facility in remarkable condition for its centenary. While challenges still abound, the popularity and viability of this landmark institution have been powerfully demonstrated and its continued role as a downtown resource seems virtually assured.
As a place where generations of Everett residents have been entertained, the theater may well hold more fond memories for more people than any other building in the community. In a city where eight theaters once competed for patronage, it is the sole survivor of a rich and colorful theatrical history. Fortunately for Everett, the versatile, durable grande dame of Colby Avenue has always been the most important one of all.
The Everett Theatre
|2008 Exterior View
The Historic Everett Theatre, now over 106 years old, has evolved from a place that needed remodeling, producing lower budget, non-royalty theatre pieces, and scattered rentals, to The New Everett Theatre. In keeping with the history surrounding the theatre, the Board of Directors decided to complete the revitalization of the historic theatre by taking again the name of The New Everett Theatre.
The New Everett Theatre is fully remodeled, with seating for 834, which produces and co-produces contemporary and classic theatre, as well as, community events and rentals. With a full schedule of productions and rentals we provide a place for over 300 community volunteers to practice their craft and to participate in all aspects of the theatre experience.
The New Everett Theatre is a vital piece of the arts revitalization of the downtown Everett corridor. It is a busy, exciting place for the community to gather, show their talent and volunteer their time. In our 2007-2008 season we will be presenting a full schedule of our own productions and we will co-produce with other arts organizations including; Driftwood Theatre, Sky Valley Performing Arts, Seattle Comedy Underground, Everett Women's Film Festival, Everett Irish Cabaret, and Animaticus Foundation to name a few.