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Working the Fifth Avenue

Working the Fifth Avenue

Collage made from photos on the Fifth Avenue website.

As I mentioned in my last Memories post, I left the UA Cinemas and began a job as assistant manager for Mann’s Fifth Avenue in Seattle. It wasn’t an exercise of my own will that I left the UA. I was dismissed. The Manager Bill Shonk was being promoted, so the company brought over the manager from their theater in Spokane as his replacement. Russ (a Danny DeVito look- and sound-alike) didn’t take a shine to me, so he fired me to bring on his assistant from Spokane. Actually as it turned out, he had other plans, he needed a confederate to facilitate his thievery. It is heartening to know that what is hidden does not stay that way, but in the fullness of time will be revealed.

Anyway, I was on to other pastures, and the Fifth Avenue theater was a fantastic “pasture,” or perhaps a better analogy would be “rice paddy.” The Fifth Avenue, as most of the “Pleasure Palaces” built in the 20s and 30s, was designed with a exotic theme. In this instance, Imperial China. Like Grauman’s Chinese theater in Hollywood, the movie goer was treated to sumptuous surroundings – from the entrance to the lobby to the auditorium. And many critics consider the Fifth Avenue theater in Seattle to have “out Chinesed” Grauman’s. A story circulated that the Chinese dignitaries at the opening in 1926 marveled at the authenticity of the decor.

(Aside – I have seen depictions of the court at the Forbidden Palace in some films, and I had “deja vu” for the lobby at the Fifth).

My new boss was Johnny Bretz, a movie theater veteran, who began his career back in the thirties. He had started out at the Egyptian theater as a doorman and moved over to the Neptune as assistant manager. Both theaters were in the University District (near the UW), and at that time (1974) were art houses. In the 1960s he was a purchasing agent and auditor for the Evergreen State Amusement Corporation (a subsidiary of 20th Century Fox) with 18 theaters in Oregon and Washington. He moved onto the Fifth Avenue after Mann Theaters of LA acquired the assets of National Theaters Corp (Fox West Coast).

My first day, Mr Bretz took me on a tour of the theater, showing me the lay out, where the doors were to check and lock at closing, and where the lights were to turn on and off, etc. He briefed me on details regarding the concession stand, which sat between the two main aisles into the theater from the lobby. Then into the theater proper, the decor inside was splashed in red and gold and green and blue. Coming out from underneath the cover of the mezzanine and upper balconies I saw the main lighting fixture, a golden dragon with an ornate lantern suspended from its teeth. A white globe was anchored beneath the lantern. Quite impressive. He explained that the globe, according to the Chinese motif (and legend) was a “pearl.” We went right down to the front of the auditorium and over to the left side, and climbed a short stair up to the stage. He brushed aside the curtain and led me back stage. As we went along that stage wing with all the paraphernalia of a theater stage – switches for stagelights, ropes and counterbalances, it reminded me of those old movies like “42nd Street” and “The Zeigfield Follies.” That notion was reinforced when he led me downstairs and through the dressing rooms and a chorus room. The picture would have been complete if a crusty old stage hand stood nearby puffing on a stogie. (Well, actually, I met that character later, only minus the stogie).

While downstairs, Mr. Bretz instructed me in the mechanics of the theater’s air conditioning system. It was a water cooled affair. By my spatial sense, I judged it to be under the center of the stage and running perpendicular to its longitudinal axis. A huge lever switch was thrown and a enormous drum at the back whirred and hummed to life. The movement of the air thus created was forced over and around some radiator like structures with cold water coursing through them. And the resultant cool air was propelled onward and upward in the ducts to their apertures in the auditorium.

On another occasion I visited another area of the structure. The theater itself is located inside the Skinner Building, an eight story office building. It comprises the first five floors. Office space fills up two of the floors above that, and another was given over to a ball room. It wasn’t Mr Bretz who took me up to the fifth floor, I believe that it was the afore-mentioned stage hand (more about him in future posts). He unlocked this most ordinary of doors and ushered me into a remarkable space. The fifth floor housed the magnificent terra cotta ceiling of the theater. It was not as beautiful as what could be seen from below. Lots of steel bars – horizontal and vertical – ran this way and that, around which and to which the terra cotta had been formed and fixed. You could make out the shapes of things, but they were in reverse. The biggest part of the structure was the dome section under which you knew the dragon lurked and from which the lantern hung. To see all this you tread a very narrow catwalk. Surprisingly there were holes in the terra cotta through which you could see the auditorium four stories below. It was a little unnerving, for that material seemed oh so fragile. Come time to retrace my steps, I remember with pleasure discovering an old poster resting on the terra cotta – too far out for me to reach, but close enough to admire – the image of a curly-topped Shirley Temple in “The Little Colonel” looked back at me. (I checked, the film did indeed play at the Fifth, opening on March 12, 1935).

The Fifth Avenue was a little farther away from our apartment than the UA, but at only six blocks there was still no need to fire up the Roadrunner.

About rwoz2

Poet, historian, writer for stage and screen. Responder to Jesus (Romans 5:8)

2 responses to “Working the Fifth Avenue

  1. Larry ⋅

    Your blog contains two names from my memories as well. I have been a projectionist in Seattle since the very early 1980’s. I worked at the King, across the street from the UA 70/150 and occasionally at the UA as well for an extra shift. Bill Shonk and I both lived on Phinney Ridge at the time and we both often rode the same #5 bus home as the two theaters tended to close for the night at about the same time. Walt Coy was a character. He finished out his projectionist career in the early/mid 1980’s at the Omnidome on the waterfront. He passed away not long after. It’s very possible that I ran some screenings for you at the Northwest Preview Theater at 1020 John Street if you were still a booker in the late 80’s through the late 90’s

    • rwoz2

      Thanks for perusing my blog and commenting. My family and I left Seattle in 1980 for a job in Portland OR, which I will get around to chronicling in a little while – so I must have just missed you 😉
      Did you read my entry – Burning Hellzapoppin’? That is also about Walt Coy.

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