Fox Theater - Music Hall Theatre, Seattle Washington

Date added: February 25, 2022 Categories: Washington Theater
Auditorium viewed from west aisle, looking NNE. East galleon is seen in full. The arrangement of chairs and dinnerware was in preparation for the public auction of the theatre's furnishings on Sept. 10, 1991. This photograph was taken on Sept. 5, 1991.

Documentation on the construction history of the Music Hall Theatre remains somewhat sketchy. It is clear from recorded transactions, that the Real Estate Improvement Company, headed by W. D. Comer, engaged in assembling property for the future theatre project from as early as May, 1926. By December of that year, when the concept of the Mayflower Theatre was first made public in The Seattle Times and in the Washington State Architect, architect Sherwood Ford's name was already linked to the project. Comer and Ford had collaborated at a slightly earlier date on the development and design of another project, the Marcus Whitman Hotel in Walla Walla, completed in 1928.

Construction on the Mayflower Theatre moved quickly at first. According to reports of the city building inspector, reinforced concrete walls began to rise in July of 1927 and were completed with the pouring of the main roof in January, 1928. By March of that year, construction of the elaborate suspended plaster ceilings had commenced under the direction of William Elliott, architectural modeler. Plaster was applied to metal lath, followed by a sound-proofing layer of celotex, finish plaster, and paint. This work progressed over the course of the summer.

According to building inspector records, the Mayflower project appears to have come to a halt, even as it neared completion. After regular weekly and sometimes daily entries, no inspections were recorded between July 24, 1928, and March 11, 1929. This period of inactivity corresponds to financial difficulties experienced by the Real Estate Improvement Company. Oral tradition among local theatre enthusiasts suggests that the Music Hall Theatre project itself was the center of a financial scandal, and that architect Ford was implicated and sent to jail. No documentation of those stories has come to light.

Early corporate records of Clise Properties, Inc. instead cite the insolvency of W. D. Comer and Company, and refer to monies owed to bondholders on another project, but never paid. That project was the Marcus Whitman Hotel, and it was apparently Comer himself who served time in the state penitentiary for fraud.

The Real Estate Improvement Company, despite its serious financial problems, remained intact until after completion of the theatre. Successful financial backing of the project was achieved with the signing of a lease between the Real Estate Improvement Company and Washington State Theatres in February of 1929. Construction was underway again by mid-March, and the Mayflower opened instead as the Fox Theatre, just over a month later, on April 19, 1929.

There is debate among local theatre historians over whether an original design based upon English sources, and reflected in the name "Mayflower", was transformed over the course of construction into the predominantly Spanish Renaissance scheme associated with the finished structure. It is unlikely that any such modification occurred, for several reasons. The theatre was largely complete at the time work was halted, including exterior cast-stone detail and interior suspended plasterwork. Inspection reports indicate only that, in the final months before opening, exit lights were installed, seats put in place, a fire curtain hung, and the projection booth expanded and equipped. Further, there is no evidence to date that the name "Mayflower" influenced design decisions in the early phases of the project. Extant drawings from the office of architect Ford, and exterior cast stone drawings from the Pacific Stone Co., dating back to 1927, all depict the theatre substantially as completed in 1929.

In the same vein, there has been further speculation that Ford's associate Don Clippinger may have re-designed the decorative detailing during the project's financial difficulties of 1928. This too is unlikely. No evidence has yet been found to suggest that Clippinger worked in any way other than the usual fashion as a project architect under Ford. While both Ford's and Clippinger's names are listed in the theatre's opening night program, Ford is given full credit in professional literature of the day as the architect of the building. In all probability there was full continuity in the design process, despite the project's financial vulnerability.

For 62 years the Music Hall operated variously as a vaudeville house, a movie palace, and a dinner theatre under changing names and managements. Owing to periods of financial stress, particularly during the Depression, there were months when the theatre remained dark. The following chronology of theatre names, tenants, dates, and uses is compiled from the corporate files of Clise Properties, Inc. and Music Hall Theatre, Inc.

Mayflower Theatre 1926-1928 Washington Theatre Enterprises
Fox Theatre 1929-1932 Washington State Theatres
The Roxy 1933-1934 Jensen and Von Herberg
John Hamrick's Music Hall 1934-1956 Cascade Theatres Corporation/John Hamrick Theatres, Inc.
Music Hall Theatre 1956-1965 The Olympic Incorporated/The Edris Company
Seventh Avenue Theatre 1967-1977 Sterling Theatres Co.
Jack McGovern's Music Hall 1977-1983 N & M Enterprises, Inc.
Music Hall Theatre 1983-1984 Evergreen Entertainment Inc.
Emerald Palace 1987-1988 My Emerald, Inc.

Officials William Fox and H. B. Franklin of the Fox Film Corporation and Fox West Coast Theatres, the parent company of Washington State Theatres, were prominently featured in the publicity surrounding opening ceremonies at the new Fox Theatre in Seattle. The opening night attraction was the musical comedy "Broadway Melody" starring Bessie Love, Charles King, and Anita Page. Billed as the first "all talking, all singing, all dancing" motion picture of its day, the film drew a crowd of 5000 patrons who formed a line around the block in anticipation of the noontime opening. That evening, Kleig lights flooded the corner as movies were taken of the crowd itself. Over the next few years as the Fox, the theatre hosted a wide variety of live entertainment ranging from the Don Cossack Choir to Yehudi Menuhin. In March of 1932, Billy Rose presented the musical "Crazy Quilt" starring Fanny Brice.

Renamed the Roxy in 1933, another popular opening night featured the motion picture "Grand Hotel," with George Jessel and Norma Talmadge on stage. But John Von Herberg's lease on the Roxy was short-lived. Minute books for the Mayflower Theatre and Commercial Building that year note the lack of patronage and decided financial losses experienced by the tenant.

In the midst of the Depression in the spring of 1934, local operator John Hamrick (who also managed the Blue Mouse and Music Box Theatres in Seattle) signed a long lease on the theatre and renamed it John Hamrick's Music Hall. When the Seattle Post-Intelligencer announced this encouraging development, it quoted Hamrick as follows:

I have always regarded the theatre at Seventh Avenue and Olive Street as Seattle's most beautiful theatre edifice, both interior and exterior. The playhouse retains with its large seating capacity the intimate atmosphere which characterizes my present holdings and in which I take particular pride.

During the 20-some years that followed, major theatrical events made their debut on the stage of the Music Hall Theatre. In 1935, the Seattle Civic Opera Association produced Verdi's "The Masked Ball" under the direction of Sarah Albert Truax, a successful Seattle actress. The following year, influential Austrian director-producer Max Reinhardt presented his acclaimed production of Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream." The cast included Dick Powell, James Cagney, Joe E. Brown, Olivia de Havilland, Victor Jory, Mickey Rooney, and Billy Barty. The Seattle Symphony held special performances and two full seasons at the Music Hall in the early 1940s. The orchestra performed with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, presenting "The Nutcracker" on stage in 1942. Manager John Hamrick brought a full range of entertainers to the theatre, including such stars as Jeanette MacDonald, Helen Morgan, Jerry Colonna, and Bob Hope.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, under the Edris Company (assignee of John Hamrick Theatres, Inc.), the Music Hall featured concerts staged by local promoters, touring musicals, and first-run motion pictures. On May 21, 1967, John Danz of Sterling Theatres opened a newly-refurbished Music Hall as the Seventh Avenue Theatre, and operated it as a movies-only facility for the next ten years.

he theatre closed to the public in 1977, only to open again in 1978 under a new lease with local restauranteur and nightclub-owner Jack McGovern and his partners William F. Niemi, Sr. and William Niemi, Jr. Remodelled extensively at that time as a dinner theatre, McGovern's Music Hall offered Las Vegas-style "follies" staged by Greg Thompson and starring Oulie Miller. McGovern also brought in headliners Peggy Lee, Diahann Carroll, Johnie Ray, Frankie Avalon, Cyd Charisse, Tony Martin and the Mills Brothers.

In 1983, McGovern's Music Hall closed its doors in the face of escalating financial losses. Two subsequent tenants, Evergreen Entertainment (with Paramount Theatre owners Norm Volotin and Eulysses Lewis) and My Emerald (Janie Carr), sought to revive dinner theatre in 1983-'84 and 1987-'88, respectively. Both ventures failed and, from June of 1988 until its demolition in 1991-'92, the Music Hall Theatre at Seventh and Olive remained dark.

In 1988, Music Hall Theatre, Inc., owner of the property, applied to the city of Seattle for a master use permit to demolish the unprofitable building and to establish future use of the site for construction of a hotel. An Environmental Impact Statement was prepared in 1989, assessing the impact of site redevelopment. Because the theatre had been recommended for designation as a Seattle City Landmark in 1974, the Seattle Landmarks Board attempted to forestall its demolition through the Controls and Incentives provisions of Seattle's Landmarks Preservation Ordinance No. 106348. Local preservationist groups, such as Allied Arts and Historic Seattle Preservation and Development Authority, also worked to preserve the building and, in 1990, sponsored its nomination to the National Register of Historic Places.

In April, 1991, after much public debate, the Seattle Hearing Examiner recommended against imposing controls on the theatre's features and reversed a decision of the Landmarks Board to deny a Certificate of Approval to demolish the structure. Subsequently, the Seattle City Council supported the Hearing Examiner's decision. On September 10, 1991, the owners held a public sale by auction of all fixtures, furnishings, and architectural details. Last minute negotiations between the owners and potential buyers of the theatre continued until September 25, but ultimately proved unsuccessful. Demolition of the Music Hall Theatre proceeded in early October, and continued through February of 1992. Contractors for the demolition were the McFarland Wrecking Company. John McFarland personally supervised the careful removal of the theatre's exterior cast-stone work, and retained most of it for resale to the architectural/construction community.