By Eric Wilson-Edge
Years ago Babe Ruth stood on this stage and cracked fly balls to an expectant crowd. FDR walked into the spotlight to throngs of supporters and skeptics. Charlie Chaplin stumbled into our collective conscious here, the Pantages Theater in Tacoma.
The seats are empty in this moment, only a handful of people are around. I’m with David Fischer, the Executive Director of the Broadway Center for the Performing Arts. Fischer is my de facto tour guide but something tells me he really enjoys this part of his job.
A former actor, Fischer is at home on the stage. He loves this place and what it represents. The Pantages was built in 1918. It would be fair to call the theater part of a chain. Alexander Pantages opened as many as 90 theatres across the United States, most of them in the west. Only a handful remain.
Legend has it Pantages got his start in show business during the Alaska Gold Rush. Soon after arriving in the “Last Frontier,” the Greek immigrant realized he wasn’t cut out for mining. Thankfully, he had a copy of the San Francisco Chronicle in his back pocket. Other miners offered to buy the paper – current news was gold in Alaska. In a moment of sheer brilliance, Pantages offered to read the entire paper out loud in a bar for only twenty-five cents a person.
Fischer tells me the Pantages originally hosted vaudeville acts like Charlie Chaplin, WC Fields and Fanny Brice. “It was what television is today,” says Fischer. “You’d plop down a nickel and you’d have your entertainment for the afternoon or evening.”
Things started to change with the introduction of “talkies.” Instead of paying performers, a theater could bring in a film and play that for several weeks at a time. Some vaudevillians were kept around as warm ups for the motion picture. “Then somebody got the wise idea to have a short film open up for the big one,” says Fischer. “And why don’t we do something fun and light and have a mouse in it.”
In 1937 the Pantages was sold to RKO and became the Roxy Theater. Ownership changed hands several times in the intervening years. Then something curious happened. The shopping mall drew people out of downtown areas and into the suburbs. Older buildings like the Pantages were swept into the one-size-fits-all phrase “urban decay.” This philosophy resulted in the destruction of once iconic structures like Penn Station in New York.
The Pantages would have suffered a similar fate if not for a group of local activists. They lobbied politicians and raised money to keep the Pantages alive. The theater reopened in 1983 as a public/private enterprise. The first entertainer – comedian Steve Allen.
Two other theaters – The Rialto and Theater on the Square – form a kind of entertainment district around Broadway. Each venue offers a unique experience from classical music to spoken word to traditional plays. “We are the largest unified and centralized performing arts center between San Francisco and Seattle,” says Fischer.
Hundreds of thousands pass through this area generating roughly $18 million dollars in revenue every year but there’s more to the Pantages than profit. “We are held together as a set of citizens and community by a whole bunch of different strands,” says Fischer. “This strand invites empathy, invites understand and connectedness between us.”
For this reason, The Broadway Center for the Performing Arts offers diverse set of programs. There’s music, lectures, musicals and education programs. One of Fischer’s favorite projects brings bullies and their victims together to help break down boundaries and make connections.
Fischer does his best to explain what I’m seeing. He has an architecture background, the different shapes and colors have names for him. As I stand on stage I can’t help but feel overwhelmed. I’ve never had this view before. It’s easy to picture the “Bambino” lobbing baseballs into the seats or laughing at the antics of Chaplain. This is an old building, complete with flashing marquee, but it feels new because the show still goes on.