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5th Avenue Theatre

5th Avenue Theatre

The 5th Avenue Theatre (often referred to as 5th Avenue or the 5th) is a landmark theatre building located in Seattle, Washington. It has hosted a variety of theatre productions and motion pictures since it opened in 1926. The building and land is owned by the University of Washington and was once part of the original campus. It is operated as a venue for nationally touring Broadway and original shows by the non-profit 5th Avenue Theatre Association. The theatre, located at 1308 Fifth Avenue in the historic Skinner Building, has been listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places since 1978.

Planning and construction

The president and general manager of Pacific Northwest Theatres, Inc., Harry C. Arthur, believed Seattle to be a place of growing importance in the motion picture industry in the mid-1920s, and consequently as the place to invest for the long term. Arthur's company absorbed a competing chain of 40 theatres by 1926, and sought further expansion. A large holder of the theatre company's stock and debt was C. D. Stimson who sat on the board of directors of both Pacific Northwest Theatres and the Metropolitan Building Company, developer of what became known as the Metropolitan Tract. Stimson promoted the establishment of a theatre district like that which had developed around a theatre he had built in Los Angeles, California. The planned Skinner Building with a theatre owned by Arthur's company would complete the Stimson development of the Metropolitan Tract.

The architect, Robert Reamer, had joined the Metropolitan Building Company after World War I and as their house architect designed the Skinner Building and the 5th Avenue Theatre. In creating the 5th Avenue Theatre, Reamer was joined by his colleague, Joseph Skoog, of Reamer's office and Gustav Liljestrom, of the S. & G. Gump Company of San Francisco.

Construction began in October 1925 with construction taking 11 months and costing $1.5 million.

Grand opening

The theatre celebrated its grand opening on September 24, 1926, with an opening unit program that included both film and live vaudeville performances. The opening program included the silent film Young April, Fanchon and Marco's stage presentation The Night Club, and Lipschultz and his Syncopated Soloists. Oliver Wallace, a popular local musician and composer, returned from Portland, Oregon, to be the accompanying organist for opening night. Wallace had been the first theatre organist in a Seattle motion picture house.

Opening night was also marked by festivities outside the theatre. Seven blocks of downtown Seattle around the theatre were closed to street car and automobile traffic. Lured by free street car, bus, and taxicab rides, thousands of people packed Fifth Avenue between Seneca Street and Pike Street, University and Union Streets. 

In the street outside the theatre a street carnival took place. Living up to the moniker for the theater's marquee, "the Magic Sign of a Wonderful Time," spotlights scanned the night sky, banks of Klieg lights illuminated the streets outside the theater, and flares were shot from the roofs of nearby buildings. Additionally, dance bands were placed at the closed intersections to provide entertainment and, using giant screens to project the words, a sing-along was orchestrated on Fifth Avenue in front of the theatre. An estimated crowd of between 50,000 and 100,000 people participated in the events.

Decline and restoration

Following the grand opening, the theatre served as a venue for vaudeville and film, and following the decline of vaudeville as a movie palace until the 1970s. With the economic recession, the advent of television, and movie complex development in the suburbs, crowds dwindled and the theatre struggled to stay open. It was forced to close its doors in 1978 along with the nearby Orpheum theatre. A variety of re-use possibilities were proposed for the theatre including a Chinese restaurant, a triplex movie theater, an office building, or a shopping center. The city of Seattle was unable to protect the theatre as a designated landmark because of its unique position on the site of the original territorial university grounds owned by the state of Washington.

In 1979, 43 business leaders formed the non-profit 5th Avenue Theatre Association and underwrote a US$2.6 million loan to save the theatre. Among these was Ned Skinner of the shipbuilding family who was an active patron of the theatre. Architect Richard McCann oversaw the restoration efforts.

Several changes were made during the renovation. The vertical marquee which had marked the theatre's presence from 1926 to 1980, was removed, the orchestra pit and auditorium seating were rebuilt, the dressing rooms moved, and the technical systems updated. However, the furniture, fixtures and interior signage were retained. Even the paint was carefully restored to its original luster. The renovation made it suitable again for live performances and filled Seattle's need for a touring Broadway musical venue. Renovation work was completed without federal, state, or local funds.

June 16, 1980, marked the theater's rebirth and a new chapter in Seattle's arts community. At the Grand Opening Gala for the renovated theatre, actress Helen Hayes christened the stage with a kiss and declared the 5th "a national treasure." Beginning on July 3 the 5th presented Annie, the first touring Broadway musical to appear at the theatre. The sold-out show ran for 10 weeks with a total of 77 performances.

The 5th Avenue Theatre continues to thrive with the assistance of many generous donors and volunteers.

Post-1980 history

Since the renovation, the 5th Avenue Theatre has become one of Seattle's most established theatres. In 1989, The 5th Avenue Musical Theatre Company was established as the resident non-profit theatre company.

On February 28, 2001, the Nisqually earthquake rocked the 5th Avenue Theatre. At the time, actors were on stage rehearsing the musical 1776. The theatre suffered minimal damages with no structural damage from the quake. Earthquake repairs included removal and replacement of 72 plaster ceiling supports and the repair of numerous cracks and damaged decorative plaster pieces in the ceiling. Contractors had to install scaffolding tall enough to reach the highest interior crevice in the ceiling eight stories up—the first time that area had been reached in 75 years. The chandeliers had to be lowered for repair and maintenance. As part of the repair work, Turner Construction provided services for seismic upgrades to the Skinner Building.

In November 2009 a new vertical marquee, similar to the sign that was removed as part of the 1980 renovation, was installed. The marquee was made possible through a donation from Christabel Gough, daughter of Broadway producer and early 5th Avenue promoter Roger L. Stevens. The new sign features a design inspired by both earlier marquees and the theatre's interior, uses LED lights for energy conservation, and includes a revolving "5th" sign at the marquee's top.

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