Cirque Playhouse (Seattle, 1950-1981)

  • By Peter Blecha
  • Posted 4/30/2011
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9762

Seattle’s Cirque Playhouse forged a special place in Northwest history during its three decades of almost-continuous operation. Founded and led by Gene Keene (1919-1988), the Cirque staged hundreds of different shows between 1950 and 1981. The Cirque filled a certain cultural void in the years prior to the existence of other resident groups, including the Seattle Repertory Theatre, A Contemporary Theatre, and Black Arts/West. But because it focused on providing light entertainment -- popular musicals and comedies -- rather than "the classics," the Cirque weathered the scorn of the University of Washington’s famed Drama Department director Glenn Hughes (1894-1964), and various theater snobs. Despite this -- and the fact that the Cirque moved locations a few times during those decades -- it won the hearts of many area theater fans by bringing notable stars to town for extended engagements and by offering up-and-coming local talents a fine place to hone their craft. In the end, the company would be acknowledged as "the oldest and longest-running professional theater in Seattle," and, in its final 1970s incarnation, as the only remaining "professional dinner-theater on the West Coast."

Keene on Theater

Eugene "Gene" Keene and his family first arrived in Seattle from their home in Butte, Montana, when he was a 14 year old. A few years later the amateur photographer began attending the University of Washington where he studied English -- and drama under the legendary Glenn Hughes (1894-1964). He was a drama critic for the University of Washington Daily, and also became the School of Communications’ first radio major. One way or another Keene -- who once humorously described himself as "a shameless ham" and "the abominable showman" -- had his heart set on a showbiz career (Beers).

During World War II Keene served in the United States Army in Okinawa, Japan. Then, in 1949 he and a mostly volunteer group of like-minded thespians gained access to Capitol Hill’s old Broadway Hall (Broadway and Madison Street) and began remodeling the upstairs auditorium. The group styled itself as First Central Staging, and its debut performance of the 1934 chestnut, Springtime for Harry, occurred on January 12, 1950.

Cirque Playhouse

Within two years the growing popularity of First Central Staging’s presentations allowed Keene and company to move up to a Central District location where he was able to rent a large old automobile repair shop (3406 E Union Street). According to one actor who worked the Cirque, Keene, who not only directed plays and occasionally acted in them as well, was a classic jack-of-all-trades:

"Gene and his group gutted the interior and built a 275-seat ("in-the-round") theatre from scratch. Gene could, and did, everything. He designed and built sets. He designed and hung lights. He was also an accomplished printer. There was a printing press in the back room. He would design and print all advertising for the theatre" (Barnett, email).

Once that remodel was completed in 1952, the enterprise was renamed the Cirque Playhouse. Perhaps the eventual fate of the Cirque (French for "circus," rather than "circle" which many people assumed, based on the round stage) as a dinner-theater -- was already being set by 1953 when Keene debuted a series of after-theater supper parties and receptions there. Certainly by 1960 he was talking publicly about his goal of founding a "larger theater, possibly with a restaurant attached" (Beers, p. 9).

In reality, the Playhouse was situated in a challenging location -- the business strip along that portion of E Union Street was essentially a transitional zone between neighborhoods of widely disparate economic and racial patterns. Social tensions caused some people to have misgivings about even visiting the area, and narrow streets and limited parking options were additional hurdles. Yet Keene managed to build up a loyal following for the Cirque -- in part because Seattle had limited theatrical offerings at the time, but also because the theater mainly focused on presenting popular favorites: light comedies and foolproof musicals.

Stars Out Tonight

In 1959 the Seattle Municipal Arts Commission acknowledged the contributions to local culture made by Keene and company:

"In the field of theatre, the Arts Commission takes cognizance of the continuing growth of quality and quantity of productions at the Cirque Playhouse. This local repertory group has certainly grown in stature by supplementing their own excellent semi-professional cast with nationally known actors imported from Broadway or Hollywood. Their performances have provided the best theatre for many years staged by a local repertory group" (Cirque program, 1959).

Keene once stated that the key to the Cirque’s long success at drawing crowds was its reputation for putting "well-known performers in well-known shows" (Adcock). Among the 271-some different plays that the Cirque would stage over the decades were such audience pleasers as A Raisin in the Sun; A View From The Bridge; Accommodations; Auntie Mame; Bell, Book and Candle; Bus Stop; Charley’s Aunt; Death Of A Salesman; The Fantasticks; Fiddler On the Roof; Finian’s Rainbow; Glad Tidings, The Glass Menagerie; Gypsy (about Seattle’s own vaudeville star, Gypsy Rose Lee [1911-1970]); Inherit The Wind; The King and I; My Fair Lady; The Odd Couple; Seven Year Itch, South Pacific; Sugar; and Zorba.

The impressive list of Hollywood stars who trod the boards at the Cirque includes Don Ameche, Eve Arden, Lynn Bari, Eddie Bracken, Coral Browne, Sid Caesar, John Carradine, Imogene Coca, Hans Conreid, Bob Cummings, King Donovan, Stuart Erwin, Nanette Fabray, Sterling Holloway, Edward Everett Horton, Marsha Hunt, Tab Hunter, Stuart Irwin, Van Johnson, Howard Keel, Ruta Lee, Mercedes McCambridge, Roddy McDowall, Rita Moreno, Greg Morris, Alan Mowbray, Pat Paulsen, Zasu Pitts, Vincent Price, Caesar Romero, J. K. Simmons, Queenie Smith, Ann Southern, Arnold Stang, Keenan Wynn, and Gig Young. As noted, the Cirque also nurtured locally based actors of some renown, including Jesse Nores-Haas (1888?-1991) [the wife of Saul Haas, founder of KIRO-TV and radio], Roberta Byrd Barr, and Peter Graham Ashbaugh, as well as talents like Douglas Q. Barnett (b. 1931), the future founder/director of Seattle’s Black Arts/West theater group.

Cirque at Century 21

The 1960s rocketed to a fast start in Seattle: it was in 1962 that the city hosted a six- month-long (April 20-October 20), Space Age-themed world’s fair called the Century 21 Exposition. Among the many entertainment options that the millions of visitors could attend were performances of Vern Snyder’s Teahouse of the August Moon by the Cirque Players at the new 800-seat Seattle Center Playhouse (201 Mercer Street). That production was especially notable because the play's author was an old army buddy of Keene’s, and the Cirque’s leader had reportedly even served as the main inspiration for a key character in the play, Captain Frisby.

Producing the show in this large venue had understandably excited Keene about the possibility that his Cirque Resident Company might be able to step up to this next level of professionalism:

"It should be remembered that initially the City of Seattle said the Playhouse would be used for ‘community’ groups after the fair ended. The Cirque was among a cadre of groups angling to use the Playhouse once the fair ended" (Barnett, email).

The competition for the space was soon won by a major, new, still-in-the-planning-stage theatrical group -- the Seattle Repertory Theatre (founded in 1963) -- and the Cirque remained in its modest Union Street building. With the town all revved up in the post-fair period, its arts scene soon became much more competitive, yet there was still room for the Cirque with its accessible fare; the Rep with its classical oeuvre; the avant garde productions -- beginning in 1965 -- of A Contemporary Theatre (100 West Roy Street); and the emergence of Seattle’s first militant-minority oriented crew, Black Arts/West.

Black Arts/West

The ongoing civil rights struggles of the 1950s and early 1960s led to a proud new consciousness among the nation’s African American population. In late 1966 the radical Black Panther Party for Self Defense was formed in Oakland. Inspired by that development, a handful of young black Seattle activists formed the very first chapter based outside of California. The building (1127 34th Avenue) that they rented for their first headquarters happened to be located right around the corner from the Cirque. As tensions in the area increased with various protest demonstrations, fire-bombings, and general street crime on the rise -- the Cirque’s largely white audience base began to refrain from attending its shows.

Meanwhile, Seattle’s theatrical scene -- long dominated by white actors -- was about to be challenged by a few ambitious minority actors. One, Douglas Barnett, seeking to help "establish a Black presence in the theatrical community," decided to launch the New Group Theatre, a bootstrap team with no home base that instead performed in area churches, schools, and universities (Barnett, via Hatch).

Then came 1969 and -- after 17 years at Union Street location -- Keene finally, on February 16, decided to abandon the Cirque’s troubled site and relocate somewhere new. preferably in the heart of downtown. Keene's vacating of the Union Street premises opened up new opportunities for Barnett, who was able to negotiate a lease, take occupancy on April 1, 1969, and found the soon-to-be nationally acclaimed Black Arts/West Theatre.

Going "Uptown" Downtown

Meanwhile, Keene struggled to stabilize his operation: In 1969 and 1970 the Cirque Players -- a troupe based on a core group of six actors -- were homeless, mounting summer shows for the Seattle Parks Department and also in Port Townsend. Then, on April 2, 1971, Keene reestablished the Cirque downtown as a weekends-only dinner theater in the Georgian Room of Seattle’s swank and venerable Olympic Hotel (411 University Street).

The Olympic gigs kept the Cirque in people’s minds -- at least up through the autumn of 1972 when they too fizzled out -- but the company really needed a facility where it could present shows more often than just weekends. In the autumn of 1973  a new opportunity arose: It turned out that the large, old Ideal Bowling alley building (131 Taylor Avenue N) -- conveniently located very near the Seattle Center campus -- became available for lease. Keene regrouped, raised funds, and founded the Cirque Dinner Theatre, Ltd. company.

After a $110,000 remodel, the 500-seat Cirque Dinner Theatre debuted as the "only professional dinner-theater on the West Coast" (Beers, p. 9). For a while business was so good that Keene launched a satellite operation, The Cirque at the Whale’s Tale, south of Seattle at the Des Moines Marina.

The Cirque Critiqued

It was a less-jaded era back during the Cirque’s heyday: Locals simply loved seeing "stars," and so arts critics were fairly merciful to the Cirque. But in time -- and as the theatrical scene matured -- they couldn’t resist taking some pot-shots, which (like the earlier disdain of his mentor, Glenn Hughes) hurt Keene deeply. The Seattle Times, for instance, once snarked that the Cirque specialized in shows starring "what charitably could be called veteran actors" -- that is, actors "between engagements" (Johnson, March 1982). As the company’s general manager and executive chef, Lucky Collyer, later bemoaned to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:

"the media never gave us much of a break, you know. The critics come looking for an art form and knock you if that’s not what you are. Well, the Cirque was just a fun night out, light entertainment after a heavy dinner."

Keene concurred:

"That’s what the Cirque was all about. The draw was well-known names. But over the past few years we had competition for that entertainment dollar. The 5th Avenue [1308 5th Avenue] and the Music Hall [706 Union Street] offered something similar, the big names ... . I don’t think it hurt us when the Rep and ACT came along. They were much more serious. We weren’t trying to be a moral force or anything. We sold shoes and they sold shirts, so to speak. We weren’t really competing" (Adcock).

Coming Full Circle

And thus, as all good things must come to an end, on December 30, 1980, Gene Keene opted to sell his stock in the Cirque -- which The Seattle Times would acknowledge as "the oldest and longest running professional theater in Seattle" (Beers, p. 8). After 31 years of presenting theater to Seattle audiences he confessed forthrightly,"I'm pooped. I’ve had enough of this"  (Adcock). And he had, moving to California with his wife, Jan.

Two investors -- Bob Nethery and Ed Shelton -- had stepped up to buy out Keene’s holdings (along with those of Secretary-Treasurer Shirley Capriotti), and on February 5, 1981, the theater opened anew with  the musical, Sugar. Five additional plays were presented over the following year, but financial woes continued to mount, and after the company gave its final performance (of Accommodations) on January 1, 1982, the Cirque Dinner Theatre finally folded. Its props, costumes, and restaurant gear, were sold off at public auction.

The Cirque’s building, over subsequent decades, continued to morph into a varied series of entertainment venues including Dr. Buzzard’s Emerald City -- a short-lived catch-all (“multiple use participatory entertainment”) business concept that was to include “a roller-skating rink, restaurant, hot-tubs, sauna, tanning room, weight training equipment and video games” (Adcock); a Jesus People coffee house; an all-ages disco, Skoochies (ca. 1983); a heavy metal and hip-hop teen club The Oz Nightclub (ca. 1990); then a succession of urban dance clubs branded as DV8, then Club Amp, and then Club one3one.

Yet for many locals that building will always be, in their memories, the Cirque.


Sources: HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, “Cirque Playhouse (in Seattle) begins 31 years of live performances on January 12, 1950” (by David Wilma), http://www.historylink.org/(accessed on February 27, 2011); Lou Guzzo, “John Carradine Gives Cirque Show lift,” The Seattle Times, August 7, 1958, p. 44; Dorothy Brant Brazier, “Cirque to Fete 10th anniversary,” The Seattle Times, January 3, 1960 Sec. 7 p. 5; “Cirque 16 Years Old,” The Seattle Times, January 13, 1966, p. 16; Rolf Stromberg, “Cirque Playhouse: Last Act,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 14, 1969, p. 28; Rolf Stromberg, “Cirque to be Black Arts / West,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 3, 1969, p. 4; Carole Beers, "Gene Keene and The Cirque," The Seattle Times Sunday Magazine, January 12, 1975, pp. 9-10; “Gene Keene’s First 25 Years,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 12, 1975; “The Cirque at the Whale’s Tale,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 4, 1978, p. A-8; Wayne Johnson, “Cirque Loses Building Lease, Will Sell Assets,” The Seattle Times, March 16, 1982, p. B-1; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History,“The Seattle Repertory Theatre Affair” (by Douglas Q. Barnett), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed on March 1, 2011); Douglas Q. Barnett, interview with James V. Hatch, Black Thought and Culture website accessed on February 24, 2011 (http://solomon.bltc.alexanderstreet.com/cgi-bin/asp/philo/bltc/getvolume.pl?S16183); Douglas Q. Barnett, email to Peter Blecha, March 1, 2011, copy in possession of Peter Blecha, Seattle; Wayne Johnson, “Jessie Nores-Haas, Seattle Actress Who Inspired Theater Community,” The Seattle Times, December 4, 1991 (http://community.seattletimes.nwsource.com); Clark Humphrey, Loser: The Real Seattle Music Story (Portland: Feral House, 1995), 97, 156; “Seattle Black Panther Party History and Memory Project,” Seattle Civil Rights & Labor Project website accessed on February 24, 2011 (http://depts.washington.edu/civilr/BPP.htm); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History,“Cirque Playhouse closes in Central Area of Seattle after 19 years on February 16, 1969” (by Alan J. Stein), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed on February 27, 2011); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History,“Gene Keene ends 31 years of theater production in Seattle on December 30, 1980” (by David Wilma); http://www.historylink.org/(accessed on February 27, 2011); Wayne Johnson, “Cirque President Hopes New Money Plan Will Buoy Theater,” The Seattle Times May 24, 1981, p. F-13; Joe Adcock, “Cirque Blazed Trail for Seattle Theater,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, June 6, 1982, p. E-4; Wayne Johnson, “Cirque Postpones Show Opening, The Seattle Times, January 12, 1982,p. C-3; Cirque Playhouse, Bus Stopprogram, ca. 1959, in Peter Blecha Collection; Cirque Playhouse, Glad Tidings program, ca. 1967, in Peter Blecha collection.

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