The Bouncer of the Coliseum

The Bouncer of the Coliseum

I have mentioned the Coliseum Theater in Seattle in two former posts, filed in the “Memories” category, but have not yet spilled any ink (nor emitted any electrons) describing it. When it opened in 1916, it had the distinction of being the first theater in Seattle (if not the entire country) specifically designed for showing film. The secret was in the floor. The design called for a curve to the floor of a sufficient pitch that one had a clear sight line over the people in the row in front of you – not unlike the theory behind the stadium type seating that revolutionized movie theater design in the 1990s.

Another strange detail about its design – was the lack of stage space – it was tall and wide, but had no depth. The screen was mounted on that shallow back wall. (I understand from my research that this was a choice by the owner at that time – Alexander Pantages, who, though his was a vaudeville circuit, intentionally cut down on the scale to save on the number of musicians and stagehands he had to hire).

By this time – the mid-70s, there were no muscians (except for those neon ones up on the revolving sign above the marquee), and there was one lone stagehand. Or half a stagehand, as they shared one with my theater the Fifth Avenue up the street. (Again this was the redoubtable Walt Coy).

Gone for the moment were the big Hollywood productions from the Coliseum’s screen. Instead the invasion of violent Hong Kong Kung Fu flicks and blaxploitation bombshells exploded daily in its auditorium. As a consequence the company thought it prudent to have a bouncer on hand to control any instances of patrons imitating the bad behavior of their favorites up on the screen. Into this latest incarnation of the Coliseum stepped my bride of just a few months.

[Aside – My uncle Bud was then the manager of the theater. She had worked for him when he was assistant to my Dad at the GCC Renton Village Cinemas. He knew what a great cashier she was, and hired her, no nepotism required.]

The box office in which my wife spent most of her time, was out in front of the entrance, situated at the corner of Fifth and Pike. It was literally all by itself – an island – cut off from the rest of the building. One gained entrance by stooping over and waddling through the low half door – the only way in or out.

All went well until the night the projector broke down. My uncle announced to the patrons inside that the problem could not be fixed and that they could repair to the box office and there receive passes for another day. They soon surrounded my wife, sitting in the glass fishbowl that was the box office. None of them wanted a pass. They all loudly demanded their money back. Strangely, to a man they all argued that they were from out of town and only in for the night, and would not be coming back any time soon. It felt to her like a riot was about to break out.

Before that could happen, the Coliseum bouncer stepped in. His name was Bobby, a black, ex-prizefighter from Chicago. (The rumor circulating the district had him on the lam from the Windy City, hiding out from a vindictive mobster). I had heard of the description “caulifower ear” before, but had had no concept of what that even meant – until I saw Bobby – and that vegetable like appendage attached to his head. Even then it was an afterthought to your consciousness, as he had an overwhelming presence. To call him “solid” is an understatement – more like a brick wall in motion. Yet for all his power and mass (and cauliflower ear), he had the sweetest and gentlest temperament.

He soon had things in hand, and when through, escorted my wife from the Coliseum to my theater.

My wife was shaken, understandably. And I did not object nor try to dissuade her when she decided to resign the next day. (She soon found a job at Virginia Mason Hospital, where she was the one weilding a knife when surrounded by carrots and celery).

We still paid an occasional call to the Coliseum. Shortly after this time, its bill of fare changed and a couple of back to back blockbusters settled in. That is where we caught The Towering Inferno, followed six months later by Jaws. The Coliseum was the only place to see them in the Seattle area.

And still under the protection of Bobby.

Down in the Canyons of Seattle

Down in the Canyons of Seattle

We were canyon dwellers in Seattle, and spent the majority of our time in the one canyon called Fifth Avenue. Out where our apartment was located the canyon was a little more open, but as we trudged off to work the canyon walls grew steeper and the shadows lengthened. My wife’s place of work came first on the trek up the arroyo. She cashiered at the Coliseum theater, a gleaming white Roman-like structure at the corner of Fifth and Pike. (Bruce Lee was mixing it up with Chuck Norris in “Return of the Dragon”). My theater was farther up the avenue past our opposition, SRO’s Music Box theater, at this juncture running the first run hit, “Chinatown”, the Jack Nicholson starrer, directed by Roman Polanski.

[Aside – though I was gone from the UA Cinema, I remained in contact with the cinephile’s there. Pat and Wendy, Karl, Stephen and Billie caught the film at the Music Box, too. We all liked it. Except Billie. For some strange reason she took umbrage to the red and green Lucky Strike cigarette packages, an Art Director’s touch that lent an additional layer of authenticity for the rest of us.]

On the first day I walked under the marquee, it was lettered with the title “Uptown Saturday Night,” a comedy starring Bill Cosby and Sidney Poitier. Oddly, it was double billed with “The Getaway” (the Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw version, directed by Sam Peckinpah and written by Walter Hill).

I have a lot of memories linked to the entrance of the Fifth Avenue theater. At break times I relieved the cashier in the octagonal box office, which sat smack dab in the center of the entrance. I took tickets at the ornate doors behind and in line with the box office. I changed the posters in the large shadow box frames lining the sides of the entrance. And I watched one building come down, and another go up.

By the time we changed our bill of fare (two thrillers – “The Black Windmill,” directed by Don Siegel; doubled with “The Day of the Jackal,” directed by Fred Zinneman) some big changes were underway across the street. The Fifth Avenue sat across from the White Henry Stuart Building. Both were within that section of Seattle known as the Metropolitan Tract. This valuable acreage of real estate is owned by the University of Washington, having been the former campus of the school (prior to 1895). The decision had been made to demolish the White Henry Stuart building in order to put up a newer and bigger structure. Now as the wrecking balls moved into place and began battering away at the canyon wall in front of us, we were introduced little by little to views of the setting sun on Puget Sound. The pounding continued throughout our run of “Airport 75” (directed by Jack Smight), and the pile drivers added their tune somewhere along the line to our Christmas film, “The Front Page” (directed by Billy Wilder, assisted by Howard Kazanjian). By the time John Cassavetes’ film “Woman Under the Influence”  moved in, we were treated to the spectacle of a non-ending convoy of cement trucks adding their contents to the continuous pour that resulted in that “golf-tee” like structure that is the base of the Rainier Tower. And two huge cranes worked in tandem as the new building sprouted up forty stories.

At one of these change of billings, I was almost seriously wounded by a falling plate glass window. No, it did not wing in from across the street. I was changing posters in that afore mentioned shadow box frame. The posters were enclosed behind two huge pieces of sliding plate glass. A cylindrical lock slid on and off a bayonet-type piece of metal that was attached to the plate glass that slid behind the other. I had just unlocked and removed the lock, and was gripping the plate glass in front to slide it open when that glass cracked in half. All the weight of the upper portion of the window came down on top of my right thumb, glanced off, and crashed back into the box frame, instead of falling towards me and chopping me off at the ankles.

The incident gave me pause to reflect. I had the smallest of wounds on the knuckle of my thumb, a mere quarter inch long (and a tiny scar that lasted a decade or so). It left me with a deep sense of gratitude. A thankfulness for God’s protection from injury. Something I will always remember.