Originally published in the Queen Anne/Magnolia News on October 20, 2011.
The Uptown Theater has been a neighborhood anchor since 6:30 p.m. on the evening of Wednesday, May 26, 1926, when the 749-seat silent movie house opened. Today, the building contributes significantly to the historic fabric of our Queen Anne community.
The theater is the work of Victor W. Voorhees, one of Seattle’s most prolific architects of the first half the 20th century and who, like most of Seattle’s early designers, had no training in architecture. This black box of a theater had plenty of room for an orchestra, a piano player or other musical accompanists of the era and giant 35mm projectors whose lamps generated so much heat that they had to be vented through the roof.
That booming 1920s epoch we remember for its flappers, Charleston dance and bathtub gin sometimes makes us forget that Seattleites were rooted in their neighborhoods where multiple taverns, social clubs and movie houses entertained local residents. Our neighborhood had the Uptown in lower Queen Anne and the Queen Anne Theater (originally the Cheerio) on the top of the hill where the Gilbert Apartments are now. The Cheerio borrowed the Queen Anne name in the late 1920s following the demolition of the 1911 theater located at Boston and Queen Anne Avenue.
Of nearby neighborhood theaters, only Magnolia’s 34th Ave West many are gone. but Ballard’s Bay, West Seattle’s Admiral, the University District’s Varsity and Neptune all survive. (An earlier version of this article included the Guild and the 45th in Wallingford, but they have been demolished). In the good old days before TV, Seattle neighborhoods coalesced around going to the movies, and every kid spent wintry Saturday afternoons at double features.
John Hamrick built the Uptown, which was his fifth Pacific Northwest film venue. He opened the cinema with a flourish showing The Sea Beast, starring John Barrymore and (his wife) Delores Costello, but not before Carl Weber’s live orchestra played John Philip Souza’s The Stars and Stripes Forever.
Architect Voorhees designed a rather simple building with grand and somewhat Baroque scrolls flanking the second story windows. A row of four windows now hidden behind the 1953 marquee by B. Marcus Priteca (the West Coast’s most important early 20th c. movie house designer ) were the façade’s most prominent feature. Visitors today see no signs of the second story toilets, the waiting room behind those four windows, or the barbershop once located on the south edge of the modern ticket booth.
In 1984, the restaurant on the corner of Republican Street and First Avenue North (Do you remember Tony’s Italian Restaurant or it’s more famous successor Le Tastevin?) was demolished and replaced by two additional theaters with 473 seats. The southern and eastern façades were preserved and now serve as a sheltered place where moviegoers queue up. At the same time, architect Voorhees’s original theater shrank by some 234 places making room for a bigger lobby, lobby level bathrooms and a candy and popcorn counter.
The Uptown is one of many American movie houses around the country bearing the name. Here in our Queen Anne neighborhood, the theater shares its name with the commercial district it anchors. It is yet one more signal of the theater’s importance and why its preservation is such a thrill.
Today, dressed up with fantastically restored neon lights, a new paint job and some deep, deep cleaning, the Uptown reenters our neighborhood’s life under the daring leadership of the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF). SIFF not only produces the largest and best film festival in the world, but is now dazzling us with a variety of year-round programs at the Uptown, the Egyptian on Broadway and in its new headquarters in the Film Center. It is located in the former Alki Room on the Seattle Center campus at the corner of Second Avenue North and August Wilson Way (formerly Republican Street).
Over and over again we see nonprofit cultural organizations giving new life to our historic commercial districts. SIFF’s work at the Uptown, supported in part by the Queen Anne Historical Society (yet another not-for-profit cultural organization making things happen in historic Queen Anne) is a striking example.