The 5th Avenue Theatre was built in 1926 as a vaudeville and silent movie theater. With its spectacular Chinese-inspired design and graceful proportions The 5th immediately established itself as the most beautiful jewel in the vibrant crown of Seattle’s bustling Downtown theater scene.
Under the guidance of architect Robert C. Reamer and interior designer Gustav F. Liljestrom, the ornate interior of the building was modeled after three of Imperial China’s most spectacular architectural achievements: the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heavenly Peace, and the Summer Palace. Construction of the building took less than a year and the grand opening was held on September 24, 1926. The dazzling celebration drew a crowd of more than 50,000 people, a crowd newspapers described as the largest Downtown gathering since Armistice Day at the conclusion of WWI.
From the 1930s to the 1970s, movies reigned supreme, and The 5th Avenue Theatre was one of Seattle’s premier movie palaces, showing pictures ranging from Shirley Temple classics to the latest Disney films of the day. Going to the movies in the theater’s early years was an event. Costumed ushers greeted patrons as they entered. During a film’s suspenseful moments, an organ would majestically rise from the center of the orchestra pit.
In the late 1970s, the theater’s movie palace days came to an end, and The 5th was forced to close its doors. There was talk of tearing it down, along with the entire Skinner building. Thankfully, tragedy was averted when 43 local companies and community leaders joined forces to form the non-profit 5th Avenue Theatre Association and together funded the renovation and revitalization of the theater. The furniture, fixtures and signage you see in the theater today are all original. Even the paint was carefully restored to its original luster with linseed oil. This project was the centerpiece of an inspired strategy to bring life back to Downtown Seattle.
At the theater’s grand re-opening on June 16, 1980, celebrated actress and the first lady of theater Helen Hayes christened the stage with a kiss and declared it “a national treasure.” The 5th Avenue Theatre became Seattle’s premier home for Broadway shows, starting with the national tour of Annie. For a time, the theater played host to touring musicals, bringing the best of Broadway to Seattle. In 1989, The 5th Avenue Musical Theatre Company was established as a resident non-profit theater company and The 5th Avenue expanded its mission from simply presenting touring shows to producing Broadway caliber productions of its own. Today, The 5th Avenue Theatre is honored to be one of the premier operating, historic theatres in the United States. We proudly serve as an important cultural landmark and venue for artistic expression and look forward to our exciting and bright future.
1776 SURVIVES THE 2001 EARTHQUAKE
Seattle experienced a 6.8 earthquake on February 28, 2001, the first day of onstage rehearsal for the musical 1776. The cloud-shaped corbels on the ceiling (the bronze and gold shapes separating the central dome area from the surrounding ceiling) suffered the worst damage. They were immediately removed and replaced in the summer of 2002 with new corbels made out of flame-retardant polystyrene; they look the same, but are much lighter and safer. Other modern earthquake-safety updates were made throughout the entire building as well. Behind the stage is a wall of bricks that are painted to commemorate each show. These “show bricks” are decorated to match the theme of the show and signed by the cast. In reference to the 2001 earthquake, the show name on the 1776 brick was changed to “1776.8!”
Compiled by BRIDGET MORGAN, PR & Communications Manager and REESA NELSON, Marketing & Engagement Manager