Exactly 100 years ago this Sunday, about 7,500 people crowded into a brand new, modern “photoplay” palace named the Clemmer Theater.
Today, we call it the Bing Crosby Theater. On opening day, Feb. 22, 1915, Spokane Mayor C.M. Fassett made a welcoming speech; soprano Madame Othick trilled “The Star-Spangled Banner”; an organist thundered away on the 3,000-pipe organ; and “America’s Sweetheart,” Mary Pickford, materialized larger than life onscreen in “Mistress Nell,” a drama about royal mistress Nell Gwynn.
“The bumper attendance surpassed the expectations of management,” noted a reporter on the scene.
Those 7,500 people didn’t, of course, show up all at once. The Clemmer seated about 750 people, plus a few dozen standees, so attendance was spread out over nine showings from 1 p.m. to 11 p.m.
Spokane had been watching this “high-grade” motion-picture house go up for nearly a year. Mining magnate August Paulsen had commissioned architect Edwin Houghton to design it as a lavish neo-classical movie palace, advantageously located right across the street from the swanky new Davenport Hotel. In the midst of construction in summer 1914, Paulsen leased the theater to a man he believed would operate it to his high standards: Dr. Howard S. Clemmer.
Clemmer was, improbably, a dentist. But not just any dentist. Clemmer was “one of the pioneering motion-picture men” of the city, according to reporters. He was the son of John H. Clemmer, who had opened two of Spokane’s first moving-picture houses, the Casino Theater and the Clem Theater. When the elder Clemmer died, Dr. Clemmer inherited these two theaters, dropped his dental practice, and became Spokane’s movie mogul.
A representative of Paramount Pictures said “we have watched Dr. Clemmer carefully,” and “feel certain that with his progressive, clean-cut business methods and beautiful new theater … he will do our productions full justice.”
Clemmer was also a colorful local character. In 1914, he created a sensation by organizing the “Clemmer Red-Head Club,” open to all redheaded boys in the city. He said, as a redhead himself, he was acutely aware that a “redheaded boy is a peripatetic, perpetual and pathetic fuse,” prone to provoke laughs from other boys. He gave all club members a registration button, good for free treats.
When the Clemmer opened, The Spokesman-Review remarked upon the “peculiar coffered sounding board over the orchestra pit, … an acoustic aid used for the first time in any theater.” This coffered acoustical vault was, in fact, one of the theater’s unique features and it would later be one of the reasons the theater was listed, in 1988, on the National Register of Historic Places.
The theater also became part of popular entertainment history; namely, as a training ground for one of the century’s most popular entertainers. Bing Crosby was hired in 1925 as part of an act called “The Three Harmony Aces,” to provide between-movie songs and patter on the Clemmer’s stage. Crosby played that gig for almost five months. Within a year, he was in Hollywood and within five years, he was world famous.
The Clemmer didn’t stay the Clemmer much longer. Here’s a chronology of the theater’s evolution:
• 1915, opens as the Clemmer Theater.
• 1930, renamed the Audian Theater.
• 1932, renamed the State Theater.
• 1988, renamed the Metropolitan Performing Arts Center (The Met).
• 2006, renamed the Bing Crosby Theater.
When it became The Met, it switched from being primarily a movie house to being a live performance venue. It went through some hard times. Then, in 2012, Jerry Dicker, a developer and staunch supporter of the Spokane arts, bought the Bing because he “didn’t want to see a beautiful place fall apart.” He partially remodeled the lobby and added a stylish, modern lounge on the third floor. Today, the Bing, as people call it today, is thriving.
Yet through all of these changes, the theater remains essentially unaltered from its 1915 origins. The nomination form for the National Historic Register notes that its infrastructure has been thoroughly modernized, but “fundamentally, most of the theater’s architecture has remained intact.” The features that impressed those first visitors – the landscape murals by Ivar Petersen, the lobby rotunda and the ramped concourse to the balcony – look virtually identical today.
If Dr. Clemmer could have seen into the future, he would have been surprised, to say the least, to see the likes of Pearl Jam, Screaming Trees and Alan Ginsberg playing his theater. Yet one thing would have struck him as exactly like 1915: The happy crowds streaming into the lobby.
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