Early History Elusive
Unfortunately, for someone who contributed so much to the city's cultural history, he is also someone whose personal background has remained elusive. From the biographical source material now available, information about him tends to be sparse and, at times, conflicting. Sayre, for instance, liked to keep his age a secret; when he passed away in January 1963, his age was given variously from 84 to 87. (The Social Security Death Index, however, lists his date of birth as December 31, 1877. He had just passed his 86th birthday at the time of his death.)
This much is known: Sayre's father, James M. Sayre, served in the Union Army during the Civil War, apparently as a Captain. His mother, Maria Burrows Sayre, on the other hand, was a field nurse for the Confederacy -- the two apparently met after the war when Northern armies were stationed throughout the defeated South. Sayre himself was born in Washington, D.C., and the family came to the Pacific Northwest sometime around 1890. While attending Seattle High School, one of Sayre's first jobs was folding programs at the Opera House, which presumably exposed him to the theatrical world that became his lifelong passion.
At the turn of the century, J. Willis Sayre left Seattle for the Philippines to fight with the First Washington Volunteers, battling the insurrectionist movement in one of the United States' newest territorial holdings. He eventually rose to the rank of Sergeant. Later, Sayre actively lobbied local officials to name Volunteer Park, located on Capitol Hill, after the local men who went to fight in the Philippines.
Prior to his departure, he had been employed by theater manager John Cort (1861-1929) as an advertising director for some of Cort's local houses, and upon his return, Sayre appears to have rejoined Cort's staff. At the same time (or possibly before his military service) he began a career as a dramatic critic
An Epic Adventure
Ironically, the most notable accomplishment of Sayre's early journalistic career was not in reviewing stage plays, but in the field of travel. Emulating Jules Verne's Phileas Fogg, in 1903 J. Willis Sayre took advantage of the recent opening of the Trans-Siberian Railway to circle the globe in 54 days, 9 hours and 42 minutes, a record-breaking journey that was completed without the benefit of special travel arrangements. In other words, he traveled as any other citizen would, at the mercy of standard boat and train schedules.
Sayre was adamant about this point -- when he neared the end of his journey, in St. Paul, Minnesota, he specifically avoided a train chartered by friends and local supporters that would have carried him directly to Seattle, and instead lost several hours traveling the standard Northern Pacific route out of Chicago. As late as 1933, when local papers were celebrating the 30th anniversary of his accomplishment, Sayre was openly critical of those who had topped his achievement, most of whom had utilized special travel arrangements (including chartered aircraft) to better the record. "It seemed obvious to me," he once wrote in the Post-Intelligencer, "that ... a trip around the world became merely a question of who had the most money to spend on it" (Sayre).
His own journey in 1903 was certainly a learning experience. Expenses on the Trans-Siberian Railway, including tickets, were paid directly to attendants in cash -- Sayre had no doubt that some, if not all of this money was secreted away by railway employees. In Manchuria, the train had to make an unexpected stop while a herd of camels was chased off the tracks. In Germany, Sayre was thrown off a train for not having obtained the correct paperwork in Poland, and had to double back to get the necessary information.
At times he spent his money unwisely. "There were little mistakes in connection with the trip, in [Sayre's] opinion," wrote The Seattle Times in 1923, "one of them being that of traveling first class on the trains of Europe and Asia. The popular saying in European transportation circles at the time, he found, was that 'only fools and Americans travel first class.' It proved a lonesome business. On one occasion in European Russia on a long and crowded train [Sayre] was the only first-class passenger, with a day coach and sleeper all to himself. The only difference between the first and second class was the color of the car" "Seattle Man ... ").
Upon J. Willis Sayre's return to Seattle, he was given a hero's welcome, and his story was recounted in The Saturday Evening Post. During a year in which the Post serialized excerpts from new novels by Frank Norris (The Pit) and Jack London (Call of the Wild), the Seattle Mail and Herald called the inclusion of Sayre's round-the-world exploits "a credit to the magazine publishers" ("The Scribe").
Sticking with the Arts
In late 1907, Sayre turned up as the theatrical critic for one of Seattle's more established weekly papers, The Argus, followed by a stint with the Seattle Star beginning in 1909. Eventually, however, he returned to a former employer, The Seattle Times, where he edited the paper's theatrical department, adding motion picture duties later on.
J. Willis Sayre appears to have stayed with the Times through World War I, after which he gave up formal journalism to concentrate on work as a publicity agent. Between 1924 and 1936 he worked variously as an independent promoter of stage shows and films, authored a number of books, including several on aspects of early Seattle history, and developed a handful of motion picture scenarios and stage plays. (For many years his book This City of Ours was a standard history text in Seattle public schools.)
Balancing Journalism with Promotions
An interesting aspect of J. Willis Sayre's career as a promoter and newspaperman was how these professions blurred together on several occasions. When Sayre continued his association with manager John Cort after serving in the Philippines, for instance, he seems to have promoted Cort's houses and, as a journalist, critiqued the shows presented therein. Similarly, when Sayre became manager of the Seattle Symphony in 1908, he continued to write for various Seattle publications and to review Symphony events, which earned considerably more space than previous writers had given the musicians.
Sayre's career included other instances of the blurring of publicity and reporting. Between 1910 and 1930, while he worked mainly for The Seattle Times, Sayre managed to put in 15 years as the director of advertising and publicity for local motion picture men C.S. Jensen and John G. von Herberg (1880-1947), who owned, among many other movie houses in the Pacific Northwest, the Liberty and Coliseum Theatres in downtown Seattle. Later, in 1932, Sayre took a similar position with another local manager, John Hamrick, who also had a string of local photoplay houses. It isn't clear when he left this position, and he may have still held it in 1936 when he signed on with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
While the exact dates of his employment with specific exhibitors isn't readily available, over a 30 year span Sayre is known to have handled publicity and advertising for a variety of local houses, promoting stage, film, and concert presentations. These included the Palm Garden and Grand Opera House (both owned by John Cort), the Lyceum, the original Orpheum, Star, Alhambra, Majestic, Mission, Liberty, Coliseum, Fifth Avenue, Rex, Strand, Pantages, Blue Mouse, and Music Box Theatres.
With respect to journalism and promotions, it is certain that Sayre was pulling double duty at more than a few points in his career -- not only editing the theatrical department of one of Seattle's daily papers but, at the same time, helping direct the advertising for some of the very shows addressed in his columns. Although today this would be viewed as a conflict of interest, Sayre conducted his business openly, and his various employers were apparently not troubled by the arrangement.
A Return to Journalism
In 1936, J. Willis Sayre returned to the newspaper world when he joined the staff of the Post-Intelligencer as a temporary employee. However, it wasn't long before he was helming their theatrical department, a position he held until he retired in 1954, after suffering a small stroke.
In a testimonial dinner that year sponsored by the Washington State Press Club, Sayre's colleagues celebrated his journalistic longevity by printing a special version of the paper, the Post-Intelligencer's headline boldly proclaiming "Sayre Finds Fountain of Youth." At his retirement, he was held to be the dean of all American dramatic reviewers -- Sayre had been present on opening nights for more than 53 straight years, breaking the record previously held by the late New York critic J. Ranken Towse.
Sayre lived in Seattle until 1959, when continuing health problems prompted a move to Santa Cruz, California. It was there, in January 1963, that he passed away. He was 86 years of age.