The Tacoma Theatre, dubbed the "Finest Temple on the Coast" when it opened in 1890, was the vision of Tacoma boosters from as early as 1873, when Tacoma was selected as the western terminus of the Northern Pacific Railroad. Built on land originally occupied by the railroad's offices and designed by prolific theater architect J. M. Wood, the venue featured the largest stage in the region, with ample seating to match. Because of this capacity, Tacoma audiences were treated to visits to the Tacoma Theatre by a who's who of the entertainment world of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The venue was transformed in the late 1920s into a movie theater and served the community in this way, as the Music Box, until its tragic loss to fire in 1963. Although the building no longer stands, its influence on downtown Tacoma's development remains; the theaters that were built on either side of it in 1918 – the Pantages and Rialto – still stand and anchor the city's theater district.
"The Finest Temple on the Coast"
Much of downtown Tacoma's resurgence in recent decades has been built on the shoulders of century-old buildings, with examples ranging from the University of Washington Tacoma campus housed in rehabilitated warehouses, to the old Union Station finding new life as a federal courthouse. In Tacoma's Theater District, Tacoma residents attend cultural events in two restored 1918 theaters, the Pantages and Rialto. And yet Tacoma was once home to an even grander venue – the Tacoma Theatre – which some long-time residents may remember as the Music Box.
Work began on the Tacoma Theatre in 1888, but the vision for the theater dates back to 1873, when Tacoma was selected as the western terminus of the Northern Pacific Railroad. In 1874 the railroad established the Tacoma Land and Improvement Company and named Theodore Hosmer as its general manager. Hosmer and his family moved from Philadelphia to Tacoma that same year.
The railroad's offices were in buildings at 9th and C – the center of what is now the Theater District, but what was at the time a sparse hillside. It was while working in that office that Hosmer envisioned a grand theater for his newly adopted city – one befitting the thriving metropolis he believed it would surely become. Even as his health began to fail and he stepped down from his position with the railroad, Hosmer worked to ensure that the land was not sold, and gathered together a group of investors for the theater.
In 1888, the Tacoma Opera House Company was incorporated, funded by $10,000 donations from each of 10 prominent Tacoma citizens: John S. Baker, Allen C. Mason, W. B. Blackwell, W. H. Fife, W. D. Tyler, George Browne, Nelson Bennett, Gen. J. W. Sprague, C. P. Masterson, and C. B. Zabriskie. There was some debate among this group about the best location for the new theater, with Pacific Avenue already emerging as the downtown area's main thoroughfare. But Hosmer pushed for his beloved 9th and C location, where the building would sit prominently midway up the steep incline of 9th, and the group finally acquiesced. The investors decided to call the building the Tacoma Theatre so as to not limit its purpose to only opera. In its report of the theater's opening night in 1890, The Daily Ledger summed up Hosmer's vision for the project:
"It was long before the present magnificent edifice was planned that the project was first thought of. Tacoma was marked out as the City of Destiny, and there were men within its borders who foresaw the tens of thousands who would make their homes upon the shores of Commencement Bay. A beautiful theater, fashioned in most modern elegance, a fit place of amusement in the metropolis of the new northwest, was one of the things which it was known must be provided" ("Twas a Gala Night ...").
James M. Wood, a leading expert in the architectural design of theater buildings, was hired as chief architect for the project. Born in June 1841 and educated in New York City, he received his architectural training in Chicago. During the period from 1883 until 1892 Wood was described as "having designed and erected more large theatres, opera houses and hotels in the leading cities west of the Ohio River than any other architect" (Wood, Col. James M.). In addition to the Tacoma Theatre, Wood's work prior to 1900 included the Majestic Theatre in Boston; the Majestic Theatre in Grand Rapids, Michigan; the Opera House and the Temple Theatre, both in Detroit; the Lafayette Square Theatre in Washington, D.C.; the Broadway Theatre in Denver; the California Theatre and the Columbia Theatre, both in San Francisco; the Jefferson Theatre in Portland, Maine; the Markquam Grand Theatre in Portland, Oregon; and the New Lyric Theatre in Cincinnati, as well as many theaters in major Canadian cities such as Toronto and Ottawa.
The lot which Hosmer championed has an odd shape and, as is common in downtown Tacoma, sits on a hill, giving the building somewhat unusual dimensions: the front façade on South 9th Street was 67 feet; the back façade almost double that at 120 feet; the largest side, facing Broadway, was 174 feet; and the alley side (now Opera Court) was 165 feet.
The architectural style was described as Modern Romanesque, but true to the style of Wood and his team, there were many unique elements to the structure, both exterior and interior, so that it defied an exact definition. The exterior walls of the first story were rough-faced blue-gray sandstone from the Bellingham Bay quarries, while the upper floors were a vibrant red brick. The building also featured a modest amount of terra cotta tile embellishment around doorways and windows. One particularly notable feature was the port cochere (covered carriage entrance) extending 25 feet into the street, enabling horse-drawn carriages to pull up under cover as people entered the theater; the Tacoma Daily News was eager to point out that only in Tacoma and Paris were theaters grand enough to include such a feature.
Thomas Moses of Chicago was hired to paint dozens of scenery sets, which he did at night in the theater by gaslight, so he could see how the light fell on the sets as he worked. This plethora of scenery options ensured that the requirements of any first-class touring opera or vaudeville company could be satisfied. The scenes included, among others, a kitchen, prison, palace interior, oak-paneling interior, dark-paneling interior, fancy garden with fountain, river landscape, rocky pass, cut and stacked wood, an ocean set, ancient set, street arch, a modern street, and a snowy landscape.
A few days before the opening, in January 1890, the Tacoma Daily News provided a detailed description of what the theater's first audience would witness. It is fortunate that these accounts exist, as there are almost no extant photographs of the theater's interior. We can rely on architectural drawings and photographs to form a complete picture of the exterior of the building, but must apply our imaginations to the accounts of the time to envision the interior. Wrote the Daily News:
"Upon stepping into the entrance, the visitor will behold before him a picturesque box office, with its colored glass, and the next thing noticed may be the exquisitely decorated pink ceiling which reflects softly the streams of light. To the left of the box office are large swinging doors admitting to the outer foyer. The decorations of the walls, the ceilings, the panels, are superb. A glance is sufficient to show that the finest of decorators have toiled there. Handsome French carpets and rugs of Indian design cover the floor. The chandeliers glow with light and the carpet is so soft and thick that the tramp of the multitude going in sounds not louder than the steps of a child.
"There is a parlor for the exclusive convenience of all ladies attending the theater, the gentlemen having a smoking and lounging room in another quarter. The parlor is fitted with luxurious chairs and settees. Stepping between handsomely painted columns the visitor is in the inner foyer. It extends around the rear of the main auditorium, is handsomely carpeted and affords a fine view of the audience and stage. It is intended for a promenade and a general resting place between acts. At each end of the inner foyer a grand staircase leads up to the balcony.
"The main auditorium is a revelation of beauty and grandeur. Before the beholder is the wide proscenium arch, and one of the most unique and picturesque drop curtains it has ever been the pleasure of an American audience to behold. Above is a glorious chandelier which throws a bright golden glow all over the immense space. The walls are golden shades of yellow with tracings of blue, and the panels are raised relief work of the same general color and tone.
"The chairs and railings are upholstered in terra cotta brown, and long strips of carpet of Indian design stretch down the aisles and extend between the almost innumerable rows of chairs. The eight boxes are beautiful. They gleam with golden yellow and tracings of gilt and blue, and in form resemble pagodas. Their railings and handsome chairs are upholstered in terra cotta brown against a very pleasing background of blue curtains and hangings trimmed with gilt fringe and tassels. The deeper shades in the decorations are nearer the floor. As they approach the ceilings, the blue becomes softer and the yellow and gold seems to fade.
"The new Tacoma Theater presents a grand view from the stage and the body of the house. When filled with the brilliant audiences of next week the scene will be surpassingly fine" ("The New Theater ...").
The seating capacity was 1,200 -- 600 on the auditorium floor, 320 in the balcony, and 280 in the gallery. The stage dimensions – 70 feet wide, 42 feet deep, 56 feet high from floor to ceiling, and with an additional 20 feet of working depth below the stage – supported the claim trumpeted in the press that the Tacoma Theatre offered the "largest stage on the Pacific coast." It required a staff of eight strong men to handle the various curtains and scenery sets, handling more than 10,000 feet of rope line for the scenes, and 1,400 feet of steel wire rope for the drop curtains.
A production in 1905 is an example of the unique capabilities of the Tacoma Theatre stage. In October of that year, Tacoma hosted the first stage presentation of Ben Hur. The producers who adapted the original novel into a stage play would only take their production to theaters in which they could stage the chariot race with real horses. Over 100 actors and eight horses filled the theater's stage, and the performance was praised by audiences and critics alike.
The Early Years
It is difficult to overstate the importance of the Tacoma Theatre to the city during the first decades of its existence. After its opening in 1890, it would be another 28 years before the Pantages and Rialto theaters – neighbors on either side of the Tacoma – were built in 1918, and again another nine before the Temple Theater opened several blocks north in 1927. Several theaters were built in Seattle in this same era, but none had the staging capabilities of the Tacoma. Therefore, in addition to its use as an entertainment venue, hosting both local and visiting acts, the Tacoma Theatre also served as an important setting for community events, school graduations, and political conventions.
Even just a sampling of the more famous visitors to the Tacoma Theatre during its earliest decades reads like a who's who of the entertainment world of the time: Mark Twain, Harry Houdini, John & Ethel Barrymore, John Philip Sousa, Sarah Bernhardt, Al Jolson, and the list goes on. The theater was booked for multiple nights each week for 35 years, so there are undoubtedly many other significant events and visitors which have been lost to history.
The theater closed in 1925 for a dramatic transition: a conversion from stage venue to film venue. The interior of the theater was gutted, with the stage made smaller to increase the seating capacity from 1,200 to 1,600. The entrance was moved to accommodate a larger ticket booth. An elevator was installed, and of course a projection booth was added. The facility reopened in 1927 as the Broadway Theatre. The plan was also to remodel the exterior, covering the original brick with off-white stucco. However, while the exterior of the building was being cleaned in preparation for this change, there was much excitement among Tacomans about the beauty of the newly-cleaned red brick, and so the decision was made to leave the exterior of the theater largely unchanged.
The group that managed the Broadway Theatre ran into financial challenges, which led to its takeover by John Hamrick, a successful manager of many theaters throughout the region. Renamed the Music Box, the theater began hosting a combination of movie and stage events – featuring such significant musical guests as Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, and Benny Goodman alongside first-run motion pictures. Gradually over the decades, the stage events dwindled and the Music Box became exclusively a movie theater.
On April 29, 1963, the Tacoma City Council met to discuss their urban-renewal plan for what Tacomans now call the Theater District. The City had hired a prominent San Francisco architect to design a pedestrian plaza, and the Music Box was identified as a focal point for the project. The theater was virtually unchanged since its 1927 remodel, and thus remained a dramatic historic structure around which to renew the district.
The following evening, during a showing of Hitchcock's The Birds, a burned-out bearing in a ventilating fan sparked a fire. Because the fan room was isolated, located beneath the projection room high in the building, it took some time for anyone to notice either smoke or fire, and by the time the fire department was called, the fire was already out of control, quickly spreading to consume the entire roof of the building. Fortunately for the audience, there was no fire and relatively little smoke in the auditorium, so that the evacuation was smooth. The crowd of evacuated movie-goers, joined by those evacuated from the neighboring Rialto, watched from the street as firefighters made a valiant but unsuccessful effort against the fire, several of them escaping just in time before the roof collapsed into the building, the ornate plaster and chandeliers crashing down into the seats.
The following morning, the News Tribune described the tragedy in detail, praising the fire department for protecting lives (there were only three minor injuries during the evacuation and fighting of the fire), and sharing the history of the facility under dramatic headlines such as "Boiling Flames Blacken 75 Years of Tacoma Theatrical History," and "Charred Ruins Once Resounded to Voices of World Famous." The reports also highlighted the unfortunate irony of the timing of the fire:
"A dramatic redevelopment plan for downtown Tacoma, to include a Broadway mall, one new park and lots of new parking, was unveiled for the city Council and civic leaders yesterday by the city's consultants. Ironically, the San Francisco architects retained by the city had singled out the Music Box Theater as one of the architecturally sound buildings which downtown should be rebuilt around. The building was destroyed by fire a few hours later" ("Audience Safe as Celebrated Edifice Burns").
Legacy and Discovery
Although it has been absent from the landscape for decades, the Tacoma Theatre's impact on downtown Tacoma remains tangible. The 1960s plans for the redevelopment of this portion of downtown Tacoma, largely planned around the existence of the Tacoma Theatre, went forward. To this day, the Rialto and Pantages, originally the youthful neighbors of a grand old Tacoma Theatre, remain active venues for both local and visiting performances, anchoring a vibrant Theater District. A few more lines from the newspaper accounts of the Tacoma's opening highlight this lasting impact, and leave one wondering what could have been if not for the devastating fire:
"The beautiful theater had an opening which promises it abundant success. It is true that as the city continues to grow, other handsome play houses will be erected, perhaps in localities considerably removed from the Tacoma Theatre, but this house will always be a favorite, because it marked the beginning of good amusements on Puget Sound. Playgoers will appreciate the investment that was almost speculation for their benefit, and when the city shall have outgrown an auditorium seating less than 1,800 people, many of the old residents will have a fond place in their hearts for the first perfect theater in the state, and will not be inclined to desert it" ("Twas a Gale Night ...").
In 2018, retired Tacoma firefighter Matt Holm discovered 16mm film reels containing footage of the 1963 fire that destroyed the Music Box Theater. He reached out to Tacoma producer Mick Flaaen, who works to restore and share historic video footage through his "Tacoma Home Movies" project. In collaboration with Tacoma historian Michael Sullivan, Flaaen restored the footage and released it as a short documentary titled Fire on Broadway. Although many photographs of the fire and its aftermath exist, the video footage helps bring the story of the theater's demise to life for generations to come.