Act I. The people of the frontier town of Spokane grow restless. It’s so boring living in the middle of nowhere. The Scenic theater, Spokane’s first “motion picture house,” opens in 1903 on First Avenue between Stevens and Washington streets. The people rejoice, and buy popcorn.
Act II. Upward of 30 movie theaters pop up downtown, and filmed “photoplays” displace live vaudeville shows. The future of Spokane cinema is bright, and a movie studio builds the $1 million Fox Theater, with seating for 2,300 people. “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” sells 40,000 tickets in a week. But modernity has other plans. The advent of television helps keep people at home. The once-grand theaters are cut up into shops, demolished for parking lots or resort to playing porn flicks.
Act III. In the final act, two of the city’s historic theaters are spared the wrecking ball – the Fox and what’s now called the Bing – and find new life with live entertainment. People, again, rejoice. And they still go to the movies.
Before recliner seating and 3-D glasses, before drive-in theaters, before television and even before radio, people in Spokane went to the movies.
Whether at the Clemmer, the Cineograph or Hippodrome, Spokanites paid their dime for an hour or so of entertainment. It’s hard to imagine the dozens of choices moviegoers had in downtown theaters 100 years ago, let alone the grand opening of the Fox that drew 20,000 people to admire the rich decor and richer celebrities on hand. But it’s all true.
Before the turn of the 20th century, Spokane had numerous theaters for live shows. The Auditorium Building and Theater, situated where Nordstrom now sits, was under construction by A.M. Cannon and John J. Browne when the Great Fire of 1889 struck – but survived unscathed.
It opened in 1890 with the performance of “Manon” by the Carlton Opera Co., called “the greatest event in pioneer history” by local papers. With seating for 1,400 people, three tiers of boxes, a balcony and ushers in “evening clothes,” the theater was the gem of Spokane during its time. It was torn down in 1934 for a vacant lot and, later, Payless.
Theaters for opera, vaudeville and other live entertainment proliferated downtown: the Spokane Theater, the Post Street Theater and the Pantages.
But the times were changing.
Years of proliferation
The first movie ever played in Spokane was “The Great Train Robbery,” when a “road attraction improvised a theater” and showed the film on the side of the road – the south side of Sprague Avenue between Howard and Wall streets – in 1903. For the low price of 10 cents, viewers saw the 12-minute silent Western as well as another short film showing horse-drawn fire wagons racing through the streets.
That same year, the Scenic opened, signaling the beginning of the end of vaudeville.
“There was a transition between the movies and the vaudeville shows,” said Jim Kershner, who writes for The Spokesman-Review about local history. “They would have vaudeville shows some nights and movies some nights.”
During this time, a Seattleite named Eugene Levy took over the Spokane Theater where he promised “three vaudeville acts and three reels of pictures,” and the Chronicle credited him with introducing the “photo-play idea” to the city.
Robert Hyslop, in his architectural history of Spokane, “Spokane’s Building Blocks,” said “the year of proliferation” for downtown movie theaters was 1909. Hyslop doesn’t credit Levy with bringing movies to town, but instead to theater building entrepreneur and architect Alfred Jones, who built the Scenic and the Arcade.
By 1910, the city had 18 theaters, according to a city directory. Of those, 12 were strictly “motion picture theaters,” including the Bijou, Cineograph, Dreamland, Lyric, Majestic, Unique, Class A and Casino. Unlike today’s endless parade of movie trailers and two-hour long epics, a movie experience came in chapters.
“The average show lasted from one hour to an hour and a half with the program consisting of a 15-minute news reel; a 15-minute short subject and a half- to three-quarter-hour feature,” the Chronicle wrote in 1967.
Taking the lead during these early days was John Clemmer, who owned the Class A and Casino. He gave up dentistry for the movie business, and his “Red Head Club” allowed any red-headed child in for free.
Between 1911 and 1913, The Spokesman-Review carried announcements of planned theater openings across town, including a string by the Gem Amusement company, which said it was building one at East Sprague Avenue and Napa Street, on Division Street near Indiana Avenue and in the “thickly settled part of this city at the south end of the Cannon Hill district.” They said they would “probably” build one on North Monroe. None of these were built.
Of course, not all was well, and the popularity of movies drew scrutiny.
On June 2, 1910, the city floated plans to create a board of censors for movies, and the suggestion for such a board came from the mayor’s “Boy and Girl Problem” committee. Every movie would have to be approved by the board before being shown in Spokane, and the board had the power to excise scenes from films it deemed inappropriate, a power it would use many times in the years to come.
On Jan. 25, 1915, the Liberty Theater opened its doors at 718 W. Riverside Ave. While it competed for ticket sales with the Clemmer, now the Bing, Hyslop writes that the Liberty was the “downtown picture house” and was the first to show movies with sound.
Spokane’s first “talkie” was “The Jazz Singer,” shown in 1927 at the Liberty. The theater used the Vitaphone system, which required huge disk records on turntables to be synced up with the film.
The Liberty theater building still stands, but looks nothing like it did then. Its facade was bricked over in 1996 and is occupied now by Gibliano Brothers, a piano bar.
Also at this time stood the Empress, “the Cinderella of the Spokane theaters,” according a 1978 article. Built by Jones, the father of Spokane movie houses, and first called the Washington theater, the cinema on the south side of Riverside just east of Washington charged 5 cents for admission.
When the Depression came, theater ownership changed hands, but the movie houses largely remained in business.
The Empress, however, struggled. According to a 1932 story in the paper, the theater had become “shabby, down at heel, dirty and neglected.” It stopped showing movies and instead featured “cheap vaudeville and cheaper musical stock.”
The economic downturn following the stock market crash in 1929 was hard for many reasons. But it didn’t stop people from buying tickets, and it couldn’t stop the magisterial Fox theater from coming to town.
Word of a “million-dollar movie palace” had been buzzing around Spokane since 1927. It was going to be one of those big city theaters, a beautiful Art Deco monument to film that could fit 2,300 people.
The market crash slowed the theater’s construction, but, by 1931, construction was nearly complete and moviegoers were ready for showtime.
“The architectural style is so unusual, so bizarre and so futuristic that the casual passerby catches his breath in surprise and wonder,” a Spokesman-Review article said on opening day.
On Sept. 3, 1931, 20,000 people jammed into the streets surrounding the theater after a parade, in which five Fox movie stars were on hand to view the theater’s first film, “Merely Mary Ann.”
Kershner, who wrote a history of the Fox for HistoryLink.org, said the Fox symbolizes the very highest peak Spokane’s theaters would see.
“It was huge,” Kershner said. “It was such a big thing to go to the movies, they needed that space.”
In 1938, the Fox showed Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” selling 40,000 admissions in seven days, a record for the theater. The following year, “Gone With The Wind” broke that record.
And though the theaters weathered war and the worst economic event in American history, the boom times following the war would be their undoing.
Don’t touch that dial
In 1941, 7,000 TV sets existed in America. Fifteen years later, that number stood at nearly 50 million.
What followed this turn toward at-home entertainment is no surprise.
The American Theater opened Christmas Day 1910 on the southeast corner of what is now Spokane Falls Boulevard and Post Street. It became the Post Street Theater, then the Post. It sat 1,600 people. It was demolished in 1972 to make way for the River Park Square parking structure.
The Class A theater cycled through different identities since it was built in 1900: the Bandbox, the Clem and the Egyptian. In 1953, it stopped showing movies and was cut up to house stores before being torn down in 1971 for the construction of the Washington Trust Building.
The Lyric Theater was raised in 1911 and remained for decades, only being renamed in 1942 as the “Downtown Tabernacle.” By 1952, the theater was gone, and the only remaining “Lyric” remnant was its shoe stand. Now, the site is a surface parking lot.
The Majestic was built in 1910 on the east side of Washington, south of Main. It sat up to 500 people, and charged 10 cents. The theater was named the Diluf for one year, in 1936, then the Rainbo, which lasted until 1953. That year, it was torn down for the Pigeon Hole parking facility, a garage that slotted cars using an elevator hoist. Now, it’s a surface parking lot.
The Pantages began with live entertainment and 1,300 seats. It was renamed Orpheum Theater in 1930, and began showing movies in 1932. On Aug. 5, 1958, The Spokesman-Review ran a photo of the Orpheum being demolished, captioned, “Kerplunk!” The building was “rumbling to a finale. Workmen are leveling the building to make room for a parking lot.” It was to have 80 spaces, and the lot was later replaced by the Parkade.
The Unique Theater was constructed in 1909, playing “automated vaudeville.” In 1952, it was renamed El Rancho and it too was torn down for the Parkade in 1965.
By 1975, the once varied and diverse landscape of historic downtown movie theaters was diminished to four. The Fox stood, but was partitioned into three theaters to compete with suburban movie palaces with multiple screens. The Clemmer had been renamed the State.
The Rex was called El Rey and played porn on Spokane’s skid row. When it closed its doors in 1983, columnist Chris Peck celebrated its demise in The Spokesman-Review.
“A few dozen lonely losers filed out into the January night, the one cashier/projectionist turned off the soft drink machine and that was it,” Peck wrote. The building was demolished in 1990.
The Ritz also became an X-rated movie house. Originally built in 1890, it was called the Palace theater for a decade. In 1910, it operated as a movie theater for a couple of years. After serving as a “noodle grill,” a “chop suey and noodles parlor” and wholesale meat department, it was again a theater in 1924, finally called the Ritz. Following World War II, the old theater alternated between “the European sophisticated cinema and the pornographic flicks,” according to Hyslop. It closed in 1974. The building stands, occupied by Rocky Rococo Pizza and Pasta.
Kershner said he doesn’t shed a tear for most of these lost theaters, and tacks it up to the changing tides of time.
“They were trying to compete with the cineplexes in the suburbs and the malls. It just didn’t work,” he said. “Architecturally it would’ve be a real tragedy to tear down the Fox. Maybe the other theaters weren’t as architecturally significant, I don’t know. But it was just inevitable. There just wasn’t that much business.”
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