The Stagehand of the Fifth Avenue

The Stagehand of the Fifth Avenue

Walter Theron Coy

Union agreements required that the Fifth Avenue Theater employ a stagehand. I was not aware of this fact,  when I met Walter Theron Coy my first week on the job. I was behind the concession stand concentrating on something else completely when I looked up to see an elderly man emerge from out of the auditorium. It caught me off guard. He was rather shabbily dressed, giving him an unkept appearance. He put me at ease by explaining who he was and what he did around the theater.

His cherubic Irish face, resonant voice, infectious laugh and an enormous mass of keys jangling on his hip made for a memorable introduction. Gaelic charm oozed out of him as well as a stream of patter that he later confessed to be straight out of the days of vaudeville. (At the age of 13 or 14 [1921 or 1922] he had been a candy butcher who operated evenings among a group of three Seattle vaudeville theaters. Incoming acts came to rely on him for intelligence on what routines had been employed by the outgoing performers, so they could adjust theirs accordingly). And prior to high school he even performed on stage, singing popular songs of the day accompanied by the theater organist.

[Aside – In his autobio, Walt states that he learned a lot about show business from the consumate pipe organist Oliver Wallace at the Liberty Theater down on First and Pike. Wallace later went on to work for Walt Disney, writing music for shorts and then features, from “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” up through “Lady and the Tramp”].

The more I talked with him over the weeks that followed, the more his life experiences surprised and impressed me. By the time he was in high school, he was playing drums or banjo in speakeasys around town. His love of the banjo led him to share stories about the Banjo King, Eddie Peabody, (aka the Banjo Maniac and the Rajah of Rhythm) who had headlined many of the vaudeville acts at this same Fifth Avenue Theater, from 1927 through the early 30s.

But what really raised my eyebrows was his tales about working as an extra and a cameraman in Hollywood. He had gone down to LA when he turned 20 to try to break into “pictures.” He was an extra at the Chaplin studio on one of Charlie’s films. His description of the action made me think that it was his WW1 comedy “Shoulder Arms,” but upon reading his autobio almost a decade later it proved to be something else altogether (stay tuned for my Research post this Monday).  He then lined up for extra work over at the FBO Studios (owned by Joseph P. Kennedy) for director Erich von Stroheim, who was hard at work on the infamous “Queen Kelly,” starring Gloria Swanson.

Walt found getting work as an actor a tough go. So he switched to the technical side of the business. He had always been adept mechanically, having built his own radios when a youth. He joined the Naval Reserve in Seattle to learn more about radios and sound equipment. (And to fly, for he liked planes). He made a trip down to LA and called on Gordon Sawyer, the head of the sound department at the Samuel Goldwyn Studios to learn all about sound reproduction on film. He used this knowledge to build and sell bootleg sound systems to small theaters throughout the Northwest. (The systems by Western Electric were all by lease only, and unaffordable given the small amount of business these towns generated).

Sometime in the 1930s, Walt joined Local 659, the Hollywood cameraman’s union. He served on the camera crew for Paramount’s production of “Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch” with W. C. Fields and Zasu Pitts.

He wasn’t often down in Hollywood to my calculation, for he had many businesses in the Seattle area that he ran – a printing business in the early thirties, a film exhibition company (one theater to begin with) which he acquired in 1937, and the Seattle Motion Picture Studio, a commercial film enterprise that made sound films – advertising, novelties and gimmick offerings. During the Depression, he kept fingers in a lot of pies, for he said, you never knew what would keep you afloat.

At the time I met him (1974), his studio was closed, but he still had some of his gear. He had sound equipment, of course, but he also had a 16mm self-blimped Auricon camera, that did not need a sound recorder as it had the capacity to directly record onto the film stock. A custom built camera dolly which could be cranked up to a six foot crane rounded out his holdings.  And he allowed me and my cinema-struck friends to use them. We just needed to rent some lights. (We used the lobby of the Skinner building and the backstage area of the theater as settings).

I last heard from Walt in 1980, when he sent me a signed copy of his autobio “My Uncle Sam Don’t Like Me.” In telling his life story, he details his trials and tribulations with a vindictive IRS which twice sent him to prison. When people styled him as an ex-con, he disagreed, and said he was just a convicted tax evader, whose case was under appeal. The appeal he won, and the judgement was reversed.

Walter Theron Coy was a true one of a kind.

[Aside – Walt preferred to write his name as Walt T. Coy, but I spelled it out completely so as not to confuse him with an actor that came out of Seattle around the same time. That actor was Walter Darwin Coy. He was on stage and screen, and notably, played the brother of the John Wayne character in “The Searchers.”]

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.