Phantom of the Opera

districtThis photographer is standing in front of the Rialto looking down 9th on a rainy day in the early 1920’s. Much would change in the next few years. The Winthop Hotel would rise from the vacant lot in the center and its parking garage would replace the Italianate Fife Hotel down on Pacific. There’s a good chance that the fashionable people in the picture work in the busy entertainment district and are headed to one of many theaters within a couple blocks on this late wet afternoon. Later, all the marquee lights  and street standards would blink on, ticket boxes would open and Tacoma’s theater district would blaze into the high life-burst into its night time routine like it had been doing for more than 30 years.

Theatre entry
9th Street Entrance

Just a few steps downhill from the Rialto, the formal Art Nouveau entrance to the magnificent Tacoma Theater was the gateway into the district and the threshold of Tacoma’s largest and oldest opera house. Down the passage on the right, in the shadows, was the stage door and beyond that discreet brothels and night clubs of Opera Alley. But the real magic was behind these doors, framed in a

harry-houdini-grangerphantasmagorical proscenium arch viewed from almost 2000 velvet seats. Audiences listened to Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling and Arthur Conan Doyle read from their works under a spotlight on the vast stage. They watched Houdini escape from  certain, inescapable death by water and fire and saw Nijinsky and the Ballet Russe leap into modernism while anijinsky-faun full orchestra played a shocking score by Igor Stravinsky.

When the massive corner turret of the medieval styled building appeared in 1890, it was surrounded by mostly wood frame  frontier commercial buildings but by 1900 it was the architectural stronghold of the city’s cultural heart. By 1920 there were 20 theaters downtown and more than 10,000 seats in music halls, vaudeville houses, burlesque shows and night clubs surrounding the castle. In 1927, when state of the art motion picture projectors were installed in a new booth high in the top balcony, the name changed to the Broadway Theatre, then in 1933 it changed again to the Music Box. By the 1940’s people were watching Sherlock Holmes movies with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce without a clue that the detective’s adventures had been there before, as told by their creator in first person.


And then one day in 1963 during a matinee showing of Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” something terrible happened. I was told a story by a women I met that she and a girlfriend ditched school at Stadium one day to go to the movies. They were sitting in the practically empty 2000 seat Tacoma Theater when they noticed thin wisps of smoke in the projection light, like the opening scene in Citizen Kane. Then there was a tap on their shoulder and in a whisper, the projectionist said in their ear “There is a fire. You must leave the theater”. She remembers being the next to last person out of the huge auditorium followed by the projectionist. Beyond him as she looked back at Tippy Hedron running in terror from a murder of crows. The movie was still running as Tacoma largest theater burned to the ground.

burning 1963


Written by

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.


    1. Love reading and learning about my city’s beginning. I remember the Music box and Capri theaters before they left a vacant place in my memory…Thank you


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