Mr. and Mrs. Alexander Pantages with Marcus
The Pantages in Vancouver
Alexander Pantages is important in the show
business history of Vancouver because he built two theatres here
that were part of his vaudeville empire, and because of his influence
on the careers of two men who were important in the Orpheums
story: Marcus Priteca and Tony Heinsbergen. Pantages
had no connection with the Orpheum himself.
Pantages life story reads like an adventure
novel. He was a sailor, a laborer on an early and abortive French
attempt to build a Panama Canal, a Klondike prospector, a guide,
a bartender, saloon co-owner, boxer (shortabout five feet
sixbut husky, he fought as a welterweight at 144 pounds),
entrepreneur and showman. He could speak six languages but read
and write in none of them.
He was born Pericles Pantages in 1876 on the Greek
island of Andros, but started calling himself Alexander after being
told the story of Alexander the Great. He ran away from home at
age nine, and worked at many jobsoften at seaand in
several countries. The Klondike gold rush of the late 1890s lured
the young Pantages, as it did thousands of others, to Skagway, Alaska.
Seattle historian Murray Morgan has written: When he
reached Skagway, a boomtown where coffee cost a dollar a cup and
ham and eggs five dollars a plate, he had twenty-five cents in his
pocket. He stopped worrying about getting rich and started worrying
about getting food. He took the first job offered, as a waiter.
Pantages realized very quickly that, for him, moiling
for gold in the fields wouldnt be as much fun or as lucrative
as getting it directly from other gold seekers. His showbiz career
started when he persuaded the owner of a Skagway saloon where he
worked to put on small entertainment events for the prospectors.
A little later, around 1901, in Dawson, Pantages borrowed money
from a dancer, Kate Rockwell, known as Klondike Kate,
to run a theatre where music and variety acts helped to separate
the prospectors from their pokes. Tickets were $12.50.
A website on Kate Rockwell explains why she attracted
Pantages attention: What made Kate famous was her flame
dance. For this dance she would come on stage wearing an elaborate
dress covered in red sequins and an enormous cape. She took off
the cape revealing a cane that was attached to more than 200 yards
of red chiffon. She began leaping and twirling with the chiffon
until she looked like fire dancing around. At the end she would
dramatically drop to the floor. The miners loved it. She was a hit
and was named The Flame of the Yukon.
Kate became Pantages mistress, but later discovered
that he had married a violinist and, just as bad, skipped town without
paying her back. (Note: The "Klondike Kate" most famous
to Canadians was New Brunswick-born Kate Ryanwho has
an earlier claim to the name.)
Pantages settled in Seattle in 1902 and, at age
26, took another important step in his vaudeville career. He
rented an 18x75-foot store on Second Street, Murray Morgan
writes, fitted it out with hard benches, bought a movie projector
and some film, hired a vaudeville act, and opened the Crystal Theater.
He was his own manager, booking agent, ticket taker and janitor.
Sometimes he ran the movie projector.
was 10 cents. This was the very small beginning of the very large
Pantages Vaudeville Circuit. The Crystal was successful, and Pantages
became an important figure in Seattles vaudeville scene. In
1904 he opened a fancier show house, which he called the Pantages,
the first of that name. By 1907 he had opened a third theatre in
Seattleand, on January 6, 1908, another in Vancouver. That
Vancouver building is still there, the oldest theatre in Greater
Vancouver, the oldest remaining Pantages theatre in North America,
and one of the oldest purpose-built vaudeville theatre interiors
Our thanks to site visitor Malcolm Page, who keeps
us informed on theatre doings, for this update: The Pantages, at
152 East Hastings, whose original architect was Edward Evans Blackmore,
is being refurbished and will be re-opened in 2007 by a company
called City Opera of Vancouver. They are now soliciting applications
from members of the Professional Theatre Alliance to become one
of the resident theatre companies in the Pantages.
Malcolm adds, As far as I can see, the final use as a theatre
by the Pantages was by Tamahnous with a show called Salty Tears
on a Hangnail Face, in June 1974. Then the theatre showed Chinese
movies for roughly 20 years.
Incidentally, in a February 1949 article in the
Province Patrick Keatley, who knew Lloyd Pantages,
says that Alexander Pantages preceded that 152 East Hastings establishment
with a theatre in a rented store on Powell Street.
Vancouver-based Pantages theatre later became the Majestic, then
the Beacon and finally the Odeon Hastings. Construction began in
1914, but shortage of materials because of the First World War brought
a halt to the work. It began again in 1916 and the theatre opened
in 1917 at 20 West Hastings, boasting 1,825 seats. (Ivan Ackery,
in his book Fifty Years on Theatre Row, says construction
resumed in 1917 and the theatre opened in 1918.)
During its time as the Pantages this theatre headlined
stars like Charlie Chaplin, Stan Laurel, Jack Dempsey
and Babe Ruth. (There is a funny photo of Ruth on the Pantages
stage with Vancouver mayor L.D. Taylor crouched behind him
as catcher.) The theatre was demolished in 1967 to create
a parking lot, a move that outraged the locals and is credited by
some as the spark that ignited public support for the preservation
of the Orpheum. I remember going to that palatial theatre with my
father in the late 1940s, when it was called the Beacon.
By 1909 Alexander Pantages was thriving, owned palatial
homes in Seattle and Los Angeles, and managed or owned theatres
all up and down the Pacific Coast. At the peak of his career, he
owned or controlled more than 70 vaudeville theatres. Not bad for
a man who could neither read nor write.
Pantages ran his circuit with a strong hand, and
personally supervised his theatres bookings. He wasnt
interested in elevating his patrons tastes: he gave em
what they wanted, and shared their tastes himself. He had an unerring
skill in choosing acts his working-class audiences would enjoy.
He insisted on keeping performances short so that audiences could
be turned over as often as possible. His techniques made him rich.
long association with Marcus Priteca (right), the architect
of our Orpheum Theatre, began in 1910. The 35-year-old Pantages
met the 21-year-old Priteca in Seattle, listened to his ideas on
theatre design, and commissioned him to design the San Francisco
Pantages Theater. He was so happy with the result he commissioned
Priteca to design all of his theatres from that time on, an arrangement
that lasted for the better part of the next two decades. The lavishness
of the Pantages theatres became legendary.
Working for Pantages, in collaboration with painter/designer
Tony Heinsbergen (who provided many of the lavish decorative
touches in our Orpheum, including the ceiling mural), Priteca designed
and oversaw the construction of more than 20 other theatres, including
one in Edmonton. His largest was the Hollywood Pantages, completed
in 1930 and seating 2,800a lavish Art Deco palace that housed
the Oscar ceremonies for six years in the mid-1950s.
In 1929, just before the Wall Street crash, Pantages
sold his circuit to Radio Keith Orpheum for $24 million. He died
in 1936, aged about 60.
But there were plenty of other Pantages to
go around. A nephew of Alexanders, George Pantages,
came to Vancouver and managed the original Pantages Theatre. He
later managed the Pantages Theater in Los Angeles. George was succeeded
in Vancouver by his brother Lloyd. Then Peter Pantages, yet
another nephew of Alexanders, also came to Vancouver and settled
here. For locals at any rate he became the most well known of them
all, as the founder of the Peter Pan Cafe on Granville Street. That
cafe became a city landmark, and the home of many thousands of birthday
parties, christening and wedding celebrations. But Peter, whose
passion for swimming was life long, was also the founder in 1920
of Vancouvers famous Polar Bear Club, still extant, the members
of which dash into the frigid waters of English Bay every New Years
Day. The first event drew five hardy souls. Today, more than eight
decades later, thousands congregate to watch the braver among them
leap into the chilly bay.
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