It never sunk to shabby.
The Music Box Theater in downtown Seattle, where I worked as a 19-year-old usher, had a plush crimson satin curtain that spread open at the beginning of the coming attractions, slightly worn violet carpeting, soft comfy chairs, and ornate chandeliers which hung somewhat menacingly from its auditorium’s curved, painted ceiling. I think those chandeliers were nigh obligatory in pre-war movie houses, though living in earthquake country makes one wonder why theater architects required their patrons to take on such worry. They probably thought while watching Godzilla, any personal concerns for safety would seem petty compared to what Fay Wray was being put through.
A bit of research reveals that “The Box,” as we staff liked to call it, billed itself in its heyday as “The Beauty Theatre.” Sumptuous, abstract and colorful wall decorations throughout. Its warm, sweet, and smallish lobby would fill up quickly before the show with patrons queuing for popcorn and Raisinets.
The screen always seemed huge; disproportionate. And in relation to the 846-person capacity auditorium, it was. But that contributed to an exhilarating mix of intimacy and splendor that demanded claim to heightened significance. One could hear the building insist “This is more important, Bub, than your daily living room TV show. This is a THEATRE you’re attending. Show some respect and awe!”
I worked at The Box in the summer and fall of 1974. At that time, it was one of a half dozen pre-war movie houses within a few block radii. All of them ornate. Some of them truly palace-like. The Paramount sat 3000. The 5th Avenue Theatre, more than 2100. The Coliseum, built in 1915, was called “the first of the world’s movie palaces.” For sheer splendor and might, The Box did not compete well with its neighbors. But there was more to the value of the place than size and glitter. Character and a kind of sweet integrity matters, right?
While not an anachronism quite yet, one could clearly tell, however, that its days of peak prominence were past. By the mid 70’s, movie theater multiplexes were just beginning to sprout in the suburbs, and the structure of film distribution was changing. A first-run flick would initially show at one main downtown theater. The Box was so designated. The run in that theater would continue until attendance began to lag. Then the film would leave for a suburban run that subsequently would end its big screen life.
Some first-run films would run for a week at The Box. Others for many weeks. I worked at the theater for a total of four and half months. During that time, one film ran for all but the last 2 weeks of my tenure – Chinatown.
My sense-memories still linger from The Box 45 years later. The smells of freshly popped popcorn. The taste and feel on my hands and clothes of the greasy non-butter butter we squirted on top of the popcorn at the patron’s request. The unfulfillable lust on a co-worker whom I knew was beyond my league. The happy thunder of 325-lb Wayne Cody, then known as Seattle’s “Mound of Sound” on KTW Talk Radio, who worked next door to The Box, coming in for his regular large Coke and popcorn combo before his show while we’d shoot the shit about the Seattle Sockeyes professional ping pong team and other sports trivia.
I experienced my first union-management negotiations at The Box. The “company union” secured us 15 cents above minimum wage but feted us peons nonetheless to a luxurious lunch in the Cloud Room atop the nearby Camlin Hotel as the obese old Union Secretary in grey suit and tie worked to convince us to sign on to a crappy deal. “Sorry, folks, you just don’t have any bargaining power,” he maintained.
“But why do we even pay union dues?” I ask.
“That’s why your dues are so low!” he replied. We young folks caved.
What I remember most from my four-plus months at The Box was Chinatown. I watched it on breaks. I watched it when guiding folks into the auditorium. I watched it before my shift started and sometimes after I finished. The more I watched it, the more genius I saw in director Roman Polanski’s exquisite attention to detail. The slicing and healing of Jack Nicholson’s nose. The clues revealed by decoding Chinese-accented English. The brilliance of Faye Dunaway’s portrayal of a woman with the impossibly painful and complex task of saving the life and innocence of a child she was condemned to mother. The shameful degradation of public interests at the benefit of private gain in the shaping of land use. Is Chinatown why I became a city planner? And finally, the perfect scene within a scene that found this extraordinarily well-crafted movie, set in the 1930s, to be shown in this splendid little theater, built in the 1920’s. Form follows function indeed! And architecture sets the stage.
8 thoughts on “The Box”
I really miss those old movie theaters, especially the Music Box, Blue Mouse, Coliseum, as a movie theater not clothing store, and 7th Ave.
There was also this very cheap place called the Colonial that you really wanted to bring something to sit on, but the price was right and they showed second or third run movies before this was fashionable. I think it was on 2nd Ave downtown.
We spent so much time in movie theaters, don’t you think? I worked as a popcorn girl when I lived in Boston for a year and also worked briefly at the Harvard Exit. I think they let me go because I ate up so much of the cheese and crackers? Who knows. I think the Boston movie theater, whose name I can’t remember, was run by the mafia.
Why the mafia? It was in a slightly seedy part of downtown, and the manager was a middle aged guy who kind of looked mafia-ish. He would disappear with other men in suits and ties into his office for long periods of time. He never spoke very much. I wouldn’t eat the popcorn, though. It came pre-popped and was reheated and always tasted stale and the butter was melted but to me seemed on the rancid side.
I ate way too many broken chunky candy bars, which we could eat for free but mysteriously, there was an epidemic of broken chunky bars during my shift.
There was a beautiful Cherokee girl who worked there whose name was something like Kitten Anthony. I coveted her knee high crimson boots.
I found this archival BW photo of the Guild 45th, now defunct, before it was called the Guild 45th. Colorized it as I imagined it might have looked way back when.
Keep writing and keep clam,
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I love this post! What a fun-t0-read slice of Seattle life from days gone by, Daniel. What a marvelous downtown it was, and what pleasure palaces those theaters were. And Wayne Cody, too! Thanks for the reminder. And I enjoyed the introspection on how that short period influenced your future.
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I didn’t know you had a show business career!Sent from my T-Mobile 5G Device
I love this post too, because I still love to go to the pictures. But nowadays there never is a pause inbetween the film. And most people bring there own drinks and bites in.
The theater I love most is Pathé Tuschinski in Amsterdam. It was built in Art Deco style in 1921 by Abraham Tuschinski, He was a Polish-Jewish immigrant who wanted to flee to America but stayed afterall in Rotterdam and built a large filmhouse imperium. Last year the building existed a 100 years and was elected as the most beautiful bioscoop theater of the world!
I had no idea that this was one of your jobs. I guess I never really asked where you lived in Seattle. Was that much of a commute and did you ride the bus?
I rode the bus from my parent’s home in Bellevue, where I was then living, to the job in Seattle.
The Cloud Room, wow, what a flash
Wow! What a flashback! The Cloud Room at the Carlin Hotel, with its once magnificent, lobby of marble, fern and palms in beautiful oriental planters, now some sort of vacation share thing.
WONDERFUL article that brings so many memories of when Seattle was a sleepy big town with wonderful architecture and when the Smith Tower was the tallest building.
You have a gift for words, thanks for the memories. I think I saw The Sound of Music at the Fifth Ave, then in the 80s Evita. Sigh. . .