Picture Palaces in Seattle Fox Theater - Music Hall Theatre, Seattle Washington

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The construction of grand movie palaces in Seattle was part of a nationwide trend toward exhibiting film entertainment in increasingly luxurious surroundings. The architectural intention of palace design was to rival the fantasy of the motion picture itself. Theatres increased significantly in scale and plan, and seating capacities grew to well over 1000 patrons. As a city with an extraordinarily strong theatre heritage, Seattle boasted the largest and most elaborate such palaces in Washington State. Seattle made an especially early contribution to the palace genre with construction of the Coliseum Theatre (1916), promoted widely as the first in the country designed exclusively for the showing of movies. Nationally, the peak years of picture palace design occurred just prior to the Depression, from 1925 through 1930. The Music Hall Theatre, designed in 1927 and completed in 1929, fits within that brief golden age.

The movie palace era was characterized by the full involvement of major studio chains, nationally-known promoters and entrepreneurs, and significant architects and artists. Highly successful businessmen John Cort, John Considine, and Alexander Pantages all began their nationwide vaudeville and film circuits in Seattle. Architects E. W. Houghton, R. C. Reamer, and B. Marcus Priteca based their practices in Seattle, designing hundreds of major theatres throughout the Northwest, the West and across the U.S. and Canada. Seattle's Music Hall Theatre was boosted into existence by association with William Fox, of the Los Angeles-based studio and theatre chain. For architect Sherwood Ford, not himself a theatre specialist, the Music Hall proved the showpiece of his career.

Typical of picture palaces nationwide was their increased scale in the central business district. Incorporation of the theatre within a larger commercial complex was common. Offices, retail spaces, and apartments often surrounded or encased the theatre itself. In Seattle, this practice was followed in the design and construction of the Moore Theatre (1907), the Pantages (1915), the Fifth Avenue (1926), and the Paramount (1928). The Music Hall was, in contrast, built as a free-standing structure on a corner block, its ornate exterior and prominent fly tower clearly announcing its internal function. Ground-floor retail shops along both Seventh Avenue and Olive Way were the only associated commercial space.

Picture palace interiors of the period were consistently oriented toward the consumer. The circulation of large crowds was a major design consideration. Spacious lobbies with flowing staircases, glamorous lounges, smoking areas, and crying rooms were standard, while house and stage support functions were generally well-hidden from the patron in subterranean or backstage areas. Seattle's Coliseum Theatre featured a Turkish men's smoking room and a Mother Goose nursery, and the Paramount its own "salon de musique." The Music Hall Theatre was notable for its small but elegant mezzanine lounge, and its generous suite of art-deco styled ladies' rooms.

The latest in technology was always employed to heighten the desired fantasy of the movie palace interior. Lighting, organ effects, stage mechanics, and sound systems reached their zenith in the film palaces of the period. The Music Hall was a state-of-the-art house in that regard. Its orchestra pit featured three hydraulic lifts capable of elevating the entire orchestra to stage level in three separate sections. The custom-designed, four manual pipe organ rose from the orchestra pit and revolved at any angle to position the organist before his audience. Through its coffered plaster ceiling, massive chandeliers could be fully raised from sight or lowered to light the proscenium.

The decorative style of the movie palace was always its chief character-defining feature. Often the degree of decorative elaboration progressed from exterior to lobby to inner auditorium, providing gradual immersion into the fantasy world within. Styles varied widely from expressions of traditional classicism to exotic idioms and eclectic mixes. Illusionistic effects created through lighting, color, and decorative finishes were common. Carpeting, furnishings, and artwork were chosen to reflect an atmosphere of opulence. In Seattle, the Chinese-inspired Fifth Avenue Theatre has been called the city's "most extravagant and unique eclectic fantasy." The Paramount Theatre is noted for its cool French baroque elegance and its golden bas-relief ornament. The Music Hall will be remembered for its Spanish ambience with a distinctly nautical flavor, expressed through the free use of shouldered arch forms, rich faux-bois finishes, and seafaring motifs.