Turning Point 10: Close-Up on Seattle's Early Film History

  • By Eric L. Flom
  • Posted 6/15/2001
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9310
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In the tenth essay in HistoryLink's Turning Points series for The Seattle Times, contributing editor Eric L. Flom rewinds the history of Seattle's long love affair with the movies back to the opening scenes. He tracks the city's first moving picture exhibitions, the explosion of early movie houses around the city, and the competition between vaudeville and film for the dimes and nickels of theatergoers. The article was published on June 15, 2001.

The opening of the 27th Seattle International Film Festival on Thursday, May 24th, 2001, was yet another reminder that the local film scene is an embarrassment of riches.

Over the years, SIFF’s reputation has grown along with its size -- today it stands as one of the largest and most innovative film festivals in the world. Together with Seattle’s numerous smaller festivals (showcasing African, Jewish, or Gay and Lesbian films, for example), the diversity of local film offerings is staggering, not to mention the sheer number of screens on which to see them. Even for those who aren’t much inclined to leave the couch, there’s always Scarecrow Video in the University District, one of the most comprehensive video and DVD rental stores in the United States.

Seattleites today have a strong affinity for motion pictures, but a look at the city’s early film history shows that this trait is hardly new.

The First Picture Shows

Although virtually all of the earliest motion picture companies were located in the New York area, Seattle wasn’t left in the dark when it came to demonstrations of early film technology. In December 1894, just nine months after it debuted in the East, Thomas Edison’s peep show novelty the kinetoscope got a weeklong exhibition in the Occidental block. Later, once the actual projection of motion pictures had been perfected, a number of touring shows brought their films and projectors to the Pacific Northwest. Most notable was an engagement of the “veriscope” projector at the Seattle Theatre in August 1897, which headlined with scenes from that year’s heavyweight fight between James J. Corbett and Robert Fitzsimmons.

While other touring shows played Seattle at the turn of the century, the city soon had a handful of regular movie houses — later dubbed nickelodeons — to call its own. By 1902, Edison’s Unique Theatre had opened on 2nd Avenue, while Le Petit Theatre operated around the corner, at 222 Pike Street.

Early venues such as Edison’s Unique and Le Petit had relatively short lifespans, but it wasn’t long before Seattle’s first more-or-less permanent movie houses began to appear. With names like the Bijou, the Odeon and the Dream (reportedly the first house in the United States to install a pipe organ for musical accompaniment), the growing popularity of motion pictures with Seattleites was plainly evident. By 1908, in a six-block span of 1st and 2nd Avenues, there were no less than eight storefront theatres in operation, and even more in the works. "The cheap moving picture houses are at last invading Seattle in numbers,” one local dramatic critic lamented that year, “and soon the main thoroughfares will be lined with them. Three or four are now being made ready on Second Avenue, between Madison and Pike Streets.”

Challenging the Legitimate Stage

After 1910, increasing sophistication in motion picture production and distribution not only made movies more popular with the public, but also a more profitable venture for local exhibitors. This coming of age was demonstrated in 1911 when the Alhambra, a stock and vaudeville theatre which opened two years earlier, was converted exclusively to show motion pictures.

Undertaken by C.S. Jensen and John G. von Herberg, the move was the first serious attempt in Seattle to put films on equal footing with the stage, at the time the city’s largest form of popular entertainment. In some respects, the effort failed — Jensen and von Herberg would convert the Alhambra back to a vaudeville house within five years — but the gamble was nonetheless a sign of the times. The motion picture was here to stay, and it was attempting to compete for the same audiences as traditional stage plays, vaudeville and stock theatre.

If theatres alone are an indication of popularity, then Seattle really took to the movies between 1910 and 1915. When James Q. Clemmer opened the Clemmer Theatre at 1414 - 2nd Avenue in 1912, it was the city’s first large venue constructed solely for presenting motion pictures. In 1914 Jensen and von Herberg built the Liberty Theatre across from the Pike Place Market, which boasted a seating capacity of 1,700. Two years later they topped themselves by opening the Coliseum at 5th and Pike, dubbed the finest motion picture house west of the Mississippi when it debuted.

By the end of 1915, no fewer than 80 new movie theatres had flung open their doors during the preceding five years. In Seattle, there was no denying that motion pictures had become a formidable challenger to the legitimate stage.

Coming Soon to a Theatre Near You

The damage that motion pictures wrought against the city’s stage venues was not simply because they were cheaper or more popular, but because they were also becoming more accessible. Once the downtown and Pioneer Square areas were saturated with first-run houses, exhibitors began opening modest second-run theatres throughout Seattle's growing neighborhoods.

Ballard seems to have lead the way in this respect, with at least three motion picture houses (the Ballard, Crystal and Tivoli) running as early as 1910. Much the same was occurring in other neighborhoods: By 1912, there was the Queen Anne Theatre, the Olympus in West Seattle, and the Valley in Rainier Valley, to name just a few.

Only a handful of these early neighborhood theatres became permanent fixtures in the community (in Ballard’s case, only the Ballard Theatre operated through World War I), but it was a development that changed the recreation habits of Seattle audiences. Provided one didn’t mind seeing a second-run feature, the convenience of the local picture house often won out over a streetcar ride to one of the larger downtown venues. Over the next few decades, many of the city’s once-glorious picture palaces were closed or torn down altogether as a result of this shifting pattern in local audiences. At the same time, later additions to the neighborhood movie theatre trend continued to flourish, with several still in use today — venues such as the Neptune in the University District (opened in 1921), the Paramount in Wallingford (1922, now more widely known as the Guild 45th), and the Uptown in Queen Anne (1926).

This year the Seattle International Film Festival celebrates its 27th year, but in some respects the Festival’s continued success stems from the ongoing love affair that Seattle audiences have had with the movies. What was apparent to the city’s pioneer motion picture exhibitors still holds true today: Films may come and go, theatres may come and go, but Seattle’s interest in cinema has hardly diminished.

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