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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

How one Spokane couple desegregated the Pantages chain of vaudeville theaters

1919 - Theater impresario Alexander Pantages built this Greek revival theater, designed for both vaudeville and movies, in 1917 on Howard St. in Spokane. It was a stop on the "Pantages circuit" where national acts rotated through on a weekly basis. Later, the theater went out of business in 1929 and reopened the next year as the Orpheum, mainly showing movies. The building was torn down in 1958 and the space used as a parking lot until the Parkade was built in 1966. Libby Collection/Eastern Washington Historical Society Archives (Libby Collection/Eastern Washing / SR)

Samuel Moore and Sadie Miller went to a show on a Sunday afternoon in downtown Spokane.

It was just before 5 p.m. on Sept. 15, 1918, when they arrived at the Pantages Theatre, a new vaudeville house on Howard Street that featured continuous live shows every Sunday from 2 to 11 p.m.

An ad in The Spokesman-Review told of that day’s offerings, which included, “‘Oh, Charmed,’ A Musical Comedy in One Act, With Blanche Boone and Ina Mitchell”; “Austin & Bailey, Colored Artists Supreme”; and “Pantagescope. Third Episode. ‘HANDS UP.’ – ‘The Phantom and the Girl.’ ”

Moore, 33, was a janitor at a meat-packing company in Spokane and had registered for the military draft three days before, as World War I raged toward its end. His date, Miller, was 18 and still lived at home with her mother, Nolie, on Garland Avenue.

With their 30-cent tickets in hand, the two headed to the lower balcony. Empty seats filled the theater. As Moore and Miller made their way to a couple of unoccupied seats, they were confronted by an usher, who “rudely stopped them” and threw his arms out to block their passage, according to information given to a Spokane Superior Court jury nine months later.

The section was off-limits to them, the usher told them, for one simple reason. They weren’t white.

“You cannot be seated here for the reason that you are negroes and the house does not cater to colored patronage,” the usher told them, according to court documents. “It is the rule of the house, and we are instructed by the management not to permit negroes to be seated in this part of the theater, you’ll have to go further back.”

The usher’s blockade “attracted the attention” of other people in the theater. Moore was “greatly humiliated” and became the object of “ridicule and contempt, greatly distressing” both him and Miller, according to 100-year-old court documents. The two left without a refund. But it was far from the end of the matter.

Moore sued for the discriminatory action and won. The theater chain, which stretched from Los Angeles to Kansas City to Edmonton, scrapped its racist seating policy in reaction to Moore’s suit. Moore and Miller got married, had children and divorced. Their kids grew up in Spokane, and some moved away. As vaudeville was supplanted by film, the Pantages cycled through names and became a movie theater. Decades later, the theater was demolished for a parking lot.

Before all of that, though, was one Sunday afternoon.

A life in documents

Samuel Simon Moore was born in South Carolina, that much is sure. The day, and even year, of his birth is less clear.

When he registered for the draft on Sept. 12, 1918 – just three days before his date with Sadie – he claimed Jan. 2, 1885, as his birthday. Subsequent records, like his World War II draft registration and death certificate, give different dates.

Regardless, he said he was 33 at the time of registration, and he listed Sadie Miller as his nearest relative, though they wouldn’t marry for five months.

Though his final decades are told through documents, his early life is unknown. Not much can be found about his first three decades, part of which may have been spent in post-Reconstruction South Carolina, where the racist Jim Crow laws severely restricted the civil rights and civil liberties of African Americans. Why he came to Spokane is a mystery.

But at the time of his date with Sadie, a sketch of his life emerges.

The 60 cents Moore paid to Pantages surely came from his wages, which he earned working for Armour & Co., one of the nation’s largest meat-packing companies.

Moore cleaned and maintained Armour’s offices in downtown Spokane, 123 S. Wall Street, an old brick building that still stands and is occupied by Europa Restaurant & Bakery. At the time, he lived about a mile away, at 315 E. Sprague Ave., at the time a quick streetcar ride away, near Sprague’s intersection with Grant Street.

Armour, which was headquartered in Chicago, employed about 50,000 people nationwide at its peak. Along with being known for processing all parts of the animal – “everything but the squeal” – it was notorious for its low-wage jobs and anti-union policies. It commonly hired immigrants and African Americans to break the strikes of workers attempting to unionize.

Moore was African American, but as a low-wage janitor, he probably wasn’t a strikebreaker. Even if Armour had unions then, Moore would surely have been barred, because nearly all white-controlled unions in this era excluded African Americans from joining, as Albert Broussard details in his book, “Black San Francisco: The Struggle for Racial Equality in the West, 1900-1954.”

Moore’s wage isn’t known, but a 1917 report by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that a janitor in the meat packing industry made about $13.50 per week. There’s a chance Armour paid him less, considering his race and the company’s attitude toward workers. What’s more, in 1918 a federal negotiator appointed by President Woodrow Wilson ordered the nation’s meat-packing industry to shorten the workweek from 60 to 48 hours. But if Moore did work full-time in contemporary terms, he made about 34 cents an hour – about the cost of admission for a vaudeville show.

Two hours of work for two tickets to the show. Sounds like date night.

An immigrant’s story

The Pantages Theater in Spokane was built in 1917, the year before Moore and Miller went out.

The theater was just the latest outpost of the growing, successful vaudeville theater chain being built by Alexander Pantages, a Greek immigrant who first made his fortune in the Klondike gold rush.

It was there, in gold-rich Dawson, where he made his first Spokane connection.

Much like Moore, Pantages’ exact birth year is unknown. But by the time he made it to the northern territories of North America he was in his early 20s. Before that, he ran away at age 9 while in Cairo on one of the regular trips he took with his father and found his way to Central America, where he helped dig the Panama Canal. He eventually worked in theaters in San Francisco.

Pantages followed the “gold stampede to the Yukon,” according to a 1973 University of Washington master’s thesis about Pantages’ life by Dean Tarrach. He quickly showed his facility to make money. As he stepped off the boat in Skagway, a “news-starved miner” saw the Seattle Post-Intelligencer newspaper Pantages had wrapped his mukluk boots in.

“I’ll give you $5 for that newspaper,” the miner said.

“I’ll give you $10,” a second miner shouted.

Pantages didn’t sell it. Instead, he spread the word that he would read aloud from the paper that night at a dance hall, and charge $1 for admission. At 8 p.m., 350 people showed up.

Pantages found work as a waiter, bouncer and bartender, and with the realization the miners were desperate for news and entertainment he began staging plays at the restaurants and saloons where he worked.

Before long, he took over management of the Orpheum theater in the Yukon town of Dawson, where he met Kate Rockwell, perhaps the most famous dancer and vaudeville star of the gold rush, better known as “Klondike Kate, Belle of the Yukon.”

Rockwell spent childhood summers in Spokane after her parents divorced and her mother married her divorce lawyer, Francis Bettis, who would later become a judge and Spokane city councilman. The family lived in a grand house on Third Avenue, and Rockwell was smitten by the traveling troupes of performers who swung through the city, which persuaded her to move to New York City and then to the Klondike.

By the time she met Pantages, she had money, from her family and from her successful stage career.

As the gold rush dried up, Pantages and Rockwell were not only partners in business but in life. Later, Pantages said he made $8,000 a day during his five years in Dawson, yet he still borrowed a large sum of money from Rockwell to build the Crystal Theater on Second Avenue in Seattle in 1902. He quickly left Rockwell for a young violinist and never repaid her.

As the theater’s manager, booking agent, ticket taker, janitor and projectionist, Pantages kept his overhead low. In 1904, he opened his second theater, the first to bear his name.

By 1917, Pantages owned dozens of theaters in North America and his circuit of performers was the envy of other vaudeville impresarios. His theaters were branded with his name, and had a particular architectural style: white glazed terra cotta, neo-classical and grand. He was well on his way to being worth more than $25 million and owning “the largest independently owned circuit of motion-picture and vaudeville houses in the United States,” according to a 1966 article in the Pacific Northwest Quarterly.

People loved it.

“At their point in history, vaudeville theaters filled a place all their own,” Tarrach wrote in his thesis. “They were comfortable, well-lighted, and well-managed. The acts were colorful, unusual, often interesting, entertaining, and were arranged on a constantly increasing merit basis. The various bills were followed with enthusiasm and interest by the public. The theaters were filled daily by an adoring audience, who were willing to pay ten cents for an hour’s enjoyment.”

Pantages knew this, and described what his theaters offered after Seattle police tried to shut down those that were open on a Sunday.

“People come to my theaters Sunday afternoon and stay all afternoon,” he told the Seattle Times on July 26, 1908. “I know the people, the working people. Sometimes I say to them, Bill or Francis, if you don’t go to the theater on Sunday, what you going to do? And they say, ‘Nothing, there is nothing to do.’ You see they want it. … Nobody wants to close theaters Sunday, nobody except ministers.”

Of course, it was a Sunday when Moore, the very definition of “working people,” came to relax with his girlfriend. At this time, Pantages still kept the theater – sections of it anyway – closed to people like Moore, based simply on the color of their skin.

Moore takes up the fight

Five months after they tried to go to the Pantages, Samuel Simon Moore and Sadie Esther Josephine Miller got married.

The date was Feb. 24, 1919, and the two listed a shared address: 543 E. Garland Ave. The home belonged to Sadie’s mother, Nolia Montgomery Miller.

A marriage was not the only legal matter that Moore undertook. In the fall of 1918, Moore had hired two lawyers, F.W. Girard, a Spokane-based lawyer, and Charles A. Aten, whose office was in downtown Spokane’s Paulsen Building.

Together, they sued Pantages under a section of the state’s Penal Code of 1909 titled “Protecting Civil Public Rights.”

Coming 56 years before the federal Civil Rights Act that provided similar protections, the state’s code book read: “Every person who shall deny to any other person because of race, creed or color, the full enjoyment of any of the accommodations, advantages, facilities or privileges of any place of public resort, accommodation, assemblage or amusement, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor.”

The section itself was an update of the original state constitution, ratified when Washington joined the union in 1889.

Moore and his lawyers sought $5,000 in damages. Moore was “greatly humiliated,” and suffered “public ridicule and contempt” as well as “great mental anguish and distress.”

The case, S.S. Moore v. Pantages Theater Co., was assigned to Judge Bruce Blake.

The theater, represented by its manager E. Clarke Walker, denied any wrongdoing. First Walker and the theater said they could not be sure that Moore was African American. In their first court filing, the theater’s representatives said they “deny any knowledge or information sufficient to form a belief as to whether or not the plaintiff belongs to the African or negro race.”

In their second court filing, they took a different tack, saying that a “colored man presumably of African descent” bought a ticket, and they had the right to refuse service to anyone for any reason. They argued that they tried to refund Moore’s tickets, but Moore “refused to accept the said sixty cents and immediately left the theater.”

On June 18, 1919, 11 of 12 Spokane jurors agreed with Moore, and awarded him $200. The lone juror against the verdict, Martin Johnson of Cheney, said he dissented because he believed Moore deserved more.

“I wanted the damages to be $1,000 at first,” Johnson told the Spokane Daily Chronicle directly after the verdict. “I dropped to $300, but did not agree with the $200 verdict. I did not think that was enough.”

One article was written about the entire trial. It was on the front page of the Chronicle – “Must Let Colored Men Sit Beside White Men.” The Chronicle hadn’t covered it until the verdict came in, and The Spokesman-Review didn’t write it up at all.

Although Moore didn’t receive the $5,000 he sought, what he did get was significant. Again, it’s unknown how much Moore was making as a janitor, but if he was earning $13.50 a week, the $200 delivered to Moore by the jury was equivalent to more than three months of pay.

Clearly, the award was significant, but not as significant as the verdict itself, which had repercussions beyond Spokane.

Moore’s suit, and his victory, led the Pantages theater chain to change its policy. It would no longer segregate its patrons based on the color of their skin.

This wasn’t known the day of the verdict, but the unnamed Chronicle reporter knew the judgment had legs.

“The judgment is of widespread importance, for it means that negroes can not be segregated from white in any place of public amusement in the state of Washington,” the Chronicle reported.

The following years had a different plan for how African Americans would be treated by their fellow citizens and government, not to mention how the African American experience was represented on film.

As vaudeville gave way to movies, one of the first big pictures to storm theaters was D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation,” which came out in 1915 and is credited with reviving the defunct Ku Klux Klan. The film distorted history, and Spokane’s censorship board tried to stop the movie from showing in town under a clause that allowed to block films with “a tendency to arouse race hatred.”

The movie played anyway, and in 1921 the Spokane chapter of the KKK was organized. It had more than 100 members. The Rev. C. A. Rexroad, a pastor at the Corbin Park Methodist Episcopal Church, was the chapter’s “grand cyclops” and helped it to grow.

“In 1924, under Rexroad’s leadership, the Spokane Chapter of the Ku Klux Klan held a large initiation ceremony on Five Mile Prairie,” read a recent article in Nostalgia magazine. “One hundred and fifty new members were initiated while they stood at the base of a ninety foot tall cross engulfed in flames.” According to The Fraternalist, a pro-Klan newspaper, over 4,000 klansmen and 3,000 visitors attended the ceremony.

Life moves on

By 1920, Samuel and Sadie Moore had a baby named Geraldine, according to the census. He was still working as a janitor, and they were still living with her mom. More daughters followed in the coming years, first Maxine, then Nolabelle.

On Nov. 22, 1928, Sadie died. She had spent her last 38 days at the Edgecliff Sanitarium under the care of Dr. Frank Miller, the hospital’s medical director who filled out her death certificate.

Cause of death was pulmonary tuberculosis, but syphilis contributed to her death. She was 28 years old. A box on the death certificate asked if she was “single, married, widowed or divorced.” She was described as “separated.”

Samuel lived a much longer life, but the years add questions.

In 1942, he registered for the draft again, this time at the age of 54 – or so he claimed. Again, his birth year shifted, this time to 1888. By this time, he was living in the Rainier Apartments on 14th Avenue in Seattle. He was unemployed, and the “person who will always know where you are” was his daughter, Maxine, according to the form.

Sixteen years later, Samuel Moore died at the age of 76. He too had been in the hospital, King County Hospital for 12 days, and died at 5:40 a.m. The cause of death was post-traumatic epilepsy due to a “gunshot wound to the head (old),” according to his death certificate, which was “sustained during altercation” in 1935.

The same year Moore died, 1958, the old Pantages Theater in Spokane was demolished. Since 1929, when Pantages sold off his theater chain to the Radio-Keith-Orpheum circuit, the theater had been called the Orpheum. It kept the name but cycled through different owners until 1958 when it was razed and operated as parking lot called Pete’s Parking. Eight years later, the Parkade parking garage was built, and the site of the old Pantages is now the Parkade plaza to the garage’s south.

Following the single Chronicle article in 1919, Moore never had another article written about him, at least not one easily found.

He didn’t live long enough to see what would come of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s.

He didn’t live to read about the KKK bombing of the Bethel Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, in June 1958, or about the sit-ins at Southern lunch counters that July to protest businesses that still segregated their patrons.

But he did desegregate the nation’s largest theater chain 50 years earlier, and he did get to read about that.