Both Change and Challenges are Nothing New for Tacoma’s Historic Theaters

The Rialto and Pantages over the years

By Jared Wigert, Tacoma Arts Live

Photo Courtesy of Tacoma Public Library and Bebe Lehrer Collection


The stages may be dark, and auditorium seats empty, but Tacoma’s Rialto and Pantages theaters have overcome closures and catastrophes dozens of times throughout their 100-plus years serving the South Sound community. Both theaters, opened at the height of the Spanish Flu pandemic, have survived the Great Depression, ownership changes, major renovations and much more, as they have become the cornerstones of downtown Tacoma.


The Rialto Theater, built in the Beaux-Arts style, was opened by John S. Baker and H. F. Moore on September 7, 1918. Considered “the ultimate photoplay house,” Tacoma's Rialto was part of a national movie house chain, showing early films and occasional one-person vaudeville acts. As a result, the stage space, orchestra pit and dressing rooms were at a bare minimum—creating an intimacy that remains to this day. The lobby was also considerably smaller than the current iteration; a fact many patrons may find surprising given the original capacity of 1,500 was more than double the present seating availability. The Rialto resembles Vienna's Redoutensaal, the first "shoe box" shaped orchestral hall. Much of the original ornate plaster decoration—particularly the eagles and cherubs—remain in good shape today and are the original pieces. The eagles over the organ chambers were patriotic additions in tribute of America’s involvement in World War I.


The theater underwent a major remodel in the 1950s to incorporate an onsite concessions area. Prior to that, candy and other items were purchased in adjacent stores (Rialto Candy Shop, for example). Storefronts used to be located on the 9th Street side of the building but were removed and plastered over with stucco. Most of the interior space once utilized by these stores was redesigned to accommodate much-needed restrooms and backstage dressing facilities.


After ownership of the Rialto Theater was transferred to the City of Tacoma, the 1991 restoration and renovation took only seven months to accomplish, at a cost of $2.12 million. The Rialto re-opened to the public on October 3, 1991.


Tacoma’s Pantages Theater has been an icon of the South Sound community for more than 100 years. Built on a block that was once the site of a saloon, Tacoma’s first library and Tacoma’s first department store, it was the fifth theater added to Tacoma’s thriving Theater District. Businessman Alexander Pantages built the first Tacoma Pantages Theater at the corner of 9th and Pacific. Eventually, he moved up the hill to 9th and Broadway when he convinced entrepreneur William Jones to back the building of a new office building/theater complex on the site of the former Gross Brothers store.


Pantages, a self-made entertainment tycoon, first made his mark in the Yukon during the Alaskan Gold Rush. There, he met and entered into a business and romantic relationship with “Klondike” Kate Rockwell, one of the legendary figures of that era. Flush with capital (much of it Rockwell’s, taken without her consent), Pantages built one of North America’s largest vaudeville circuits. To build his Tacoma theater, Pantages called on the services of Benjamin Marcus Priteca, a prominent Seattle architect and innovative designer who was responsible for the lasting beauty and superb acoustics of the Pantages Theater.


The team of Pantages and Priteca worked together from 1911 to 1936, building theaters all over the West—an almost perfect merging of interests and talents. Pantages employed classical Greek architectural motifs to highlight his own Greek heritage. Tacoma’s Pantages is designed in a Greco-Roman style. The elaborate plaster work and filigree not only add to the grandeur of the house but serve an important acoustical function as well, absorbing extraneous sound to create crisp, clear resonance within the hall. Construction began in 1916, and the new Pantages Theater, the second of the Pantages chain, opened in January 1918.


The Tacoma Pantages served as a live theater for only eight years before being converted to a moviehouse and being sold to RKO Pictures (headed by Joseph P. Kennedy), at which time the name was changed to The Orpheum. In 1932, the theater was purchased by Will Conner of Tacoma and was known as the Roxy until the 1980s, when its original name was reestablished as the Pantages Theater. A proposal to restore the Pantages as part of a revitalized downtown area led to the restoration beginning in 1978 after the city bought the theater. On February 12, 1983, the Pantages Theater officially reopened. Today it is the oldest of the Pantages Theaters still in operation.


The theaters continue to play a major economic and cultural role in downtown Tacoma’s Theater District. They are home to eight resident arts organizations: Northwest Sinfonietta, Puget Sound Revels, Symphony Tacoma, Tacoma Arts Live, Tacoma City Ballet, Tacoma Concert Band, Tacoma Opera, Tacoma Youth Symphony and Tacoma School of the Arts. Information on each organization, and links to their events and websites, can be found at TacomaArtsLive.org.



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