Scottish-born Seattle resident Benjamin Marcus “Uncle Benny” Priteca, America’s most celebrated architect of movie palaces in the 1920s, designed the building’s adjacent apartments and office suites.
The Rapp brothers began with a substantial handicap: the land for the new theatre was situated on 9th Avenue, blocks from the center of Seattle’s theatre district, and the land was no more than a ravine with a creek flowing to nearby Lake Union. After filling in the land, Paramount Pictures compensated for its new theatre’s remote location by building the largest, most spectacular, most opulent movie palace Seattle had ever seen.
On March 1, 1928, the Seattle Theatre opened. The Seattle Times heralded the occasion with enthusiasm:
"Never has such a magnificent cathedral of entertainment been given over to the public. Indescribable beauty! Incomparable art! The stage productions will be of the most lavish design, brilliant in their lighting effects and gorgeous in their settings.
ALL SEATTLE WILL BE THERE! Show divine at 9th and Pine … an acre of seats in a palace of splendor. It’s yours . . . you’ll love it . . . Everybody’s welcome, everybody’s wanted . . . Every Washingtonian will be proud of its stately magnificence, its gorgeous decorations, its spacious foyers, its wide aisles, its commodious seats, its symphony of lights. See the Mammoth Show! In all the World no place like this!"
Eager customers responded on opening night, lining up eight abreast outside The Seattle. After paying the 50 cent admission fee, they entered the grand lobby. There patrons encountered a lavish interior decorated in the Beaux Arts (also called French Renaissance) style of the palace in Versailles. They were awed by the four-tiered lobby, French baroque plaster moldings, gold-leaf encrusted wall medallions, rich paint colors, beaded chandeliers, and lacy ironwork. Their feet sank into hand-loomed French carpeting as they walked past walls adorned with delicate tapestries and original paintings in gilded frames. Heavy, expensive draperies fell at the windows, and hand-carved furniture upholstered in the finest fabrics lined the first-floor lobby.
|Before entering the auditorium, customers were entertained by the rare gold and ivory Knabe Ampico grand player piano in the lounge area just above the foyer.|
Patrons were escorted to their places in the nearly 4,000 seat auditorium by what the program booklet praised as an “alert, tactful, well trained” corps of ushers who provided “courteous, unostentatious service.” The program promised “no fuss, no senseless genuflections, but . . . welcome, quiet, considerate and alert attention on the part of each of these ushers — in other words, a gracious host making you feel that his home is yours, suavely, expeditiously, sincerely and without affectation.”(1)
The house lights dimmed, and the Seattle Grand Concert Orchestra began to play selections from Faust. Then customers watched Memories, a silent film the program touted as a “Technicolor novelty.” They viewed a newsreel, then enjoyed listening to Renaldo Baggot and Don Moore, “Ron and Don, The Organ Duo,” perform “brilliant organ interludes” from the giant “thousand throated,” custom-built Wurlitzer, “an instrument of enchantment” that could simulate many orchestral instruments, “now reverberating in harmonious thunder, now whispering in gentle melody.” The Wurlitzer performance was followed by “A Merry Widow Review,” a nationally acclaimed stage show from The Paramount Theatre in New York City, accompanied by Jules Buffano and The Seattle Theatre Stage Band. The show featured “catchy songs, tantalizing melody, and snappy and graceful dance steps by a bevy of girls.”
The program booklet explained that the stage show was made possible by an elaborate backstage area, which was equipped with “electric elevators, ample windows, and telephones,” and the “last word” in lighting and “advanced stage inventions and appliances” to produce “startling and beautiful stage effects, almost without limitation.” These effects could include clouds, stars, rainbows and snow.
The booklet also assured satisfied customers, who typically spent four hours at the theatre, that they could look forward each week to new entertainment in a similar format, including stage shows and movies. The first few motion pictures would feature Lon Chaney, Joan Crawford, and Clara Bow.
The Seattle Theatre offered its first “talkie,” Varsity, in early December of 1928, and Seattle customers responded to the innovation with the same enthusiasm as the rest of the country. The movie industry produced almost no silent films after that time.(1)
On March 14, 1930, The Seattle Theatre changed its name to The Seattle Paramount Theatre, reflecting its connection to The Paramount Theatre chain. Vaudeville acts seen at The Seattle Paramount Theatre originated in New York and appeared at Paramount theatres in many other cities.
Performances at The Paramount followed the format of opening night, offering several shows and movies each day. However, as the Depression deepened, fewer patrons could afford theatre. Beset with financial woes, The Paramount temporarily closed in June 1931, and reopened on October 29, 1932.
Upon reopening, The Paramount hired Gaylord B. Carter as its chief organist. Carter’s performances brought him national acclaim, aided in large part by The Paramount’s outstanding organ. It was the biggest and most impressive orchestra-unit organ built in 1928, and included an entire grand piano and drum set built into the side panels of the auditorium, together with hundreds of pipes, bells, chimes, whistles, and horns. It cost over $100,000 to install (it would cost over $1 million today) – a good investment considering that it was used daily for years.(1)
During one memorable week in April 1935, the Marx Brothers performed their stage version of “A Night at the Opera,” testing jokes on Seattle’s audiences for possible use in the movie, released later that year. Tickets for the Marx Brothers show, which The Paramount presented three times a day, cost 25 to 55 cents. “It was the most delightful thing I ever saw,” says Seattle resident Ben Emerson.
Sometime between 1935 and 1937, the Fox Evergreen Corporation purchased The Paramount and continued to present first-run, full-length films.
The Paramount presented vaudeville shows less frequently as the decade progressed. Patron Mary Bassetti reports that by 1937, customers did not know whether a live show would contribute to an “afternoon of glorious make-believe.”
She tells of a visit to The Paramount one Saturday:
The movies finished, the light came up, and my pal Leona and I started to gather our things for the long trolley ride back to West Seattle.
Suddenly, the lights dimmed, a spotlight exploded center stage, and a flamboyant master of ceremonies announced a vaudeville show! Oh, delicious surprise! We experienced a moment of unmitigated joy to realize we didn’t have to face reality quite yet. With pokes and giggles, we settled back into the plush seats to be transported by lively tap-dancing, glitzy satin, sappy songs, and high-flying Indian clubs – all dessert to our adolescent sensibilities.
Patricia Scott recalls going to The Theatre see Humphrey Bogart in To Have and Have Not on August 14, 1945. When the Japanese surrendered, the house manager stopped the movie to announce that World War II had ended. He distributed passes for everyone to see the show another time, and Ms. Scott joined downtown workers and shoppers as they rejoiced in the streets outside.
Some of the rare remaining live acts in the 1950s included familiar names. Danny Kaye performed at The Paramount in 1952. In 1953, The Theatre offered a production of “John Brown’s Body,” starring Tyrone Power, Anne Baxter and Raymond Massey. Betty Hutton appeared at The Theatre later that year. Danny Kaye returned in 1955, and Ella Fitzgerald sang there in 1958.
Unfortunately for The Paramount, the trend toward building suburban theatres accelerated during the 1950s, and The Theatre’s financial standing slipped. In an effort to make The Paramount’s entertainment more attractive, Fox Evergreen leased The Theatre to the Stanley Warner Cinerama Corporation. The Theatre began showing “Cinerama” films on September 1, 1956. Sixteen hundred seats were removed to accommodate three projection booths at the rear of the main floor, and The Paramount installed a curved, extra-wide screen to show a 1950s version of an IMAX production. By January 26, 1958, The Theatre had discarded the “Cinerama” format, perhaps because the wide screen tended to cut the movie into thirds, separated by shadows.
Mickey Rooney starred in a comedy show at The Theatre as late as 1961.
The Paramount resumed showing traditional full-length films, although by 1960 they were mostly second-run. Nevertheless, The Theatre tried to retain its dignity, continuing to hire ushers (including 20 year-old Bruce Lee, who later became a martial arts cinema star) and showing new releases whenever it could – notably Psycho in 1960 and all the James Bond adventures of the period. The Paramount closed for long periods in the 1960s, including a time in 1965 during which nine magnificent paintings, still in their original gilded frames, were stolen from the lobby. One Friday night in 1967, only 13 people came to see Gone with the Wind — a poignant demonstration of The Theatre’s decline. However, The Paramount limped along as a movie house until 1971.
In 1971, the Clise Corporation purchased The Paramount and began working with Pine Street, Inc., a production company. Pine Street believed that The Theatre’s acoustics would be perfect for rock, soul, and jazz concerts and brought live music back to The Paramount, renaming it Paramount Northwest.
A Seattle resident remembers that point in The Paramount’s history. “The first time I visited The Paramount was also the night of my first rock concert! I saw The Guess Who there in 1972. Later I bought the record album, The Guess Who Live at The Paramount, and I could see myself in the crowd shot!”
Although The Paramount Northwest retained little of The Theatre’s original luster, the National Park Service and the United States Department of the Interior recognized the building’s architectural and historical significance, placing it on the National Register of Historic Places on October 9, 1974. A plaque attesting to this honor still hangs at the northwest corner of the façade.
In 1976, West Coast Theatres, Inc. began managing The Paramount and continued to offer live music, primarily geared toward the young people of Seattle. The ongoing concert boom in Seattle benefited The Theatre’s owners, but the building remained in disrepair. As Bruce Brown wrote in Argus Magazine in November 1977, “Electric guitars thunder while The Paramount fades.”
In mid-1981, Volotin Investment Company bought The Paramount.
The Paramount was busy, but touring companies found its facilities inadequate. In spite of the 1981 updates, the sound system and lighting remained deficient, and dressing rooms were dingy. The Theatre lacked simple amenities, such as an adequate number of restrooms, a functioning air conditioning system, and access for disabled patrons. The dilapidated backstage area was too small for storage and had no elevator for transporting equipment to the stage. Maneuvering props and equipment to the stage was dangerous. Crews had to use the steep “Kamikaze” ramp; heavy loads occasionally careened out of control, forcing crews to scatter.
The Theatre slid into debt during the 1980s, making repairs impossible. The Volotin Company began selling off The Paramount’s assets. For example, at one auction The Company sold a significant amount of The Theatre’s furniture and equipment, as well as the Knabe Ampico player piano. Dick Schrum, an accomplished musician who had played the Wurlitzer organ for The Paramount in the 1960s, bought the piano.
These fundraising efforts did not solve The Theater’s financial problems. Volotin therefore initiated a search for someone to buy The Paramount. When no buyer materialized, Volotin filed for bankruptcy protection in late 1987.
In early October 1990, a number of investors stepped forward, leaving Volotin with only a small interest in The Paramount. Despite the influx of cash, The Theatre continued to lose money.
Nevertheless, performances at The Theatre continued.
Ida Cole, then a Microsoft vice-president, heard of The Paramount’s financial difficulties from her friend Chip Wilson. Deeply impressed by The Theatre’s grandeur and concerned about its future, Ms. Cole established the non-profit Seattle Landmark Association in 1992 to save, restore and operate local historical theatres. In February 1993, she bought The Paramount for $9.6 million.
Once Ms. Cole owned The Paramount, she and Mr. Wilson, a former promoter and producer, began planning a major overhaul of the facility. By July of 1993, Ms. Cole had hired the international architectural firm of NBBJ to design the project and Sellen Construction of Seattle to implement it. She applied for the necessary city permits and acquired adjoining property to accommodate the expansion of the stage and backstage areas.
Ida Cole hoped to restore The Paramount to a “kissable” building, one where “everyone was welcome and felt comfortable, the people’s theatre.” She promised that all work would “be done within the context of protecting the irreplaceable historical aspects of the building,” and she was true to her word.
The Paramount reopened on March 16, 1995, launching the new touring production of “Miss Saigon.”
Then, in 2001, as a fitting tribute to The Paramount’s restored grandeur, the family of Dick Schrum agreed to display the Knabe Ampico player piano in its original location in the lounge area just above the foyer. The family still owns the piano, but Ida Cole refurbished and agreed to maintain it so long as it remains at The Theatre.
On Friday, December 20, 2002, Ida Cole transferred ownership of The Paramount Theatre to Seattle Theatre Group (STG), the new name for the Seattle Landmark Association. Ms. Cole told The Seattle Times that she had enjoyed restoring the building but wished to divest herself of the enormous responsibility of owning The Paramount. As a parting gift, she personally reduced the mortgage on the building from $14.5 million to a more manageable $8.5 million, bringing the total amount of money she had invested in The Paramount to $30 million. In recognition of her outstanding contribution, the auditorium was officially named after her at The Theatre’s 75th anniversary celebration on March 1, 2003.(1)
7/21/72 Grateful Dead (Paramount Northwest Theater)
7/22/72 Grateful Dead (Paramount Northwest Theater)
9/29/77 Grateful Dead (Paramount Northwest)
10/28/78 Early and late shows Jerry Garcia Band (Paramount Northwest Theater)
1/13/84 Jerry Garcia Band (Paramount Theater)
1.)^Peltin, Nina, The Paramount Theatre:"Show Divine at 9th and Pine", http://stgpresents.org/paramount/