Taking the Streetcar to the Show

The best and busiest streetcars in Tacoma’s past ran through the theater district, a hub created with the construction of the Grand Tacoma Theatre in 1889. The pulsing triangled space at 9th and Broadway was boosted by the construction of the Pantages and Rialto theaters just after World War One ended. At it5 pinacle, the theater district included the Colonial, Strand, Blue Mouse and many smaller and sometimes shadier houses. When this image was made and the man styling the boater hat was waiting on the car, the theater district was second only to the port as a job center for the city. Every theater had a live orchestra and even the film houses had live Vaudeville acts. Musicians, ushers, waiters bootleggers and streetwise opportunists all made up the large nighttime workforce, some in the legitimate houses that fronted on the triangle, and some working the adult entertainment businesses that faced onto the back streets of Commerce and Opera Alley. Many of the buildings in the district had both front and rear entries and many of the artists worked both “streets”. Tacoma’s first radio station broadcast from the ballroom atop the Winthop Hotel where it sent out the sounds of dance bands and the dreamy illusion of gowns and tuxedos floating above the city. Magazines, cigarettes, cosmetics, fashion and romance called listeners to the city and the theatre district was the payoff. Bright lights, glamorous high style clothes and exotic locals on the big screen attracted thousands to Tacoma as the skyline rocketed up and the downtown vibrated with energy day and night. Here’s the ghost of Tacoma in the 20’s before sound movies, television and the fire in 1963 that destroyed the Tacoma Theater and marked the day the downtown died.

Since this story was first posted the amazing discovery of the Tacoma made silent film, The Eyes of the Totem was rediscovered. The whole story comes to moving life in the film so see it if you can, if fact, take the streetcar to the show.

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This site is about the way history, in this case of a city and it's surrounds, is remembered or recorded in stories and small bits of memory. It's also about the way images and stories go together, how they inform and enrich each other and how we as thinking people fill in the content between a narrative and a visual document. So here is my city in time past, the way it looked and the people and events that create its character. For more than 20 years I have taught a 5 credit course on the History of Tacoma at the University of Washington Tacoma. With an average of 30 or 40 students a year, each doing a research paper as their primary focus for the course, I have benefited from many paths of inquiry and many researched and assembled stories. Here are some of them in the retelling along with the treasures of photographs and images in the collections of the Washington State Historical Society, Tacoma Public Library, University of Washington Digital Archives, Washington State Archives at the Office of the Secretary of State, Library of Congress, Washington State University, Alaska State Library, and many other archives, libraries and private collections.

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