The Colonial Theater is a parking lot today tucked in between the Pythian Temple and the Subway Building at 9th and Broadway. There were always bigger, fancier, more prestigious houses in Tacoma’s theatre district but the Colonial was always scrappier, riskier and a bit more zany than the rest. During the roaring 1920’s, you could count on some stunt or costumed event with every second tier film or B movie playing the 800 seat landmark.

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Free ice cream for the matinee on July 24, 1926

Never mind its stately 1914 facade by the classically trained architect Roland Borheck, the Colonial in its glory was capable of sponsoring a marathon through the city one week and a dog sled race the next, complete with arctic wolf dogs, polar bear fur parkas and seal skin mukluks.

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Start of Colonial Running Wild Marathon, September 17, 1927

The Colonial was into novelties and spectacles during the 20’s and survived the arrival of talkies at the end of the decade. When the massive 2000 seat Tacoma Theater reopened next door in 1927 as the Broadway with “full sound”, the Colonial sponsored a model airplane contest in conjunction with a showing of the “Big Parade”, a John Gilbert  action film about World War One aviators. Charles Lindbergh had just buzzed Tacoma during his national tour following the trans-Atlantic flight in May. The grown ups were dazzled by new Broadway Theater, but the kids flocked to the Colonial for cool prizes like trophies, caps, rain capes and baseball gloves.

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Presentation of the “Flight Cup” to a young aviatrix on October 1, 1927

On October 1 1927 Darwin Shope won the airplane contest and was presented with a luminous wrist watch. The Colonial knew how to win hearts.

 

The 20’s turned out to be the best of times for the Colonial but with so few seats it needed to up its game by 1932. The contests, door prizes, free ice cream and natty usher uniforms were not enough. That year new owners went for a full face lift, converting the Neo Classical edifice into a trendy Art Deco storefront called the Keyes Building. The stone pilasters and pediments were stripped off and a smooth Vitrolite surface with nickle silver trim was applied over the red brick. For the Tacoma kids who had grown up spending Saturdays at the Colonial, the news that it was becoming home to the Vogue Beauty Shop was unimaginable. And what did dress shop named Mode ‘O’ Day mean anyway compared to cliffhangers, superheros and rocket ships.

But the inner showplace was not to be lost to cosmetics and fashion. Just two years later in

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Beverley 1934-1945

1934, a smaller but still mighty 420 seat movie theater reappeared under a fresh blazing neon marquee. New owner Mike Barovic named it after his daughter BEVERLEY and through the Second World War it was a popular “small house” with the auditorium set deep behind a row of retail stores along Broadway. In 1945, the name changed again when the theater was converted to the TELENEWS showing 24 hour newsreels, short features and documentaries.

 

But in the post war years, all the downtown theaters were suffering as automobiles, drive-in theaters and television became the circling tigers coming at night taking their bites out of the heart of the district. By the mid fifties, the whole building was retail except for the second floor, where KMO radio operated studios and occasional movie stars like cowboy singer Gene Autry performed. In 1968 the counterculture discovered the old theater and it became the Court C Artist’s Mall, coffee shop, music venue and surreptitious cannabis retail outlet. By the time urban design visionaries began planning for the restoration of the Panatges and the creation of the pedestrian only Broadway Plaza project, the ghost of the Colonial Theater was almost too faint to remember. The last walls of the theater were demolished in 1988 revealing on one side a wall sign advertising Klondike gold rush era outfits and on the other the smoke stained stone wall of the legendary 1889 Tacoma Theater that was burned out in 1963.

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Bobbed hair usherettes 1924

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Telenews 1948

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Cowboy singer, movie star on the air at KMO in 1952

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Psychedelic era at C Court ca. 1970

 

Written by tacomahistory

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 comment

  1. The Court C Artists’ Mall and Coffeehouse is a huge story in itself – a story I wish I could have been witness to. The Library’s clippings file has many treasures from that place. Two things it helped spawn: What eventually became Victory Music and its open mike (Chris Lunn tells great stories of that first open mike at Court C), and Phantasmagoria, which became the Underground, then what we now know as Watermark Gifts, on A Street, one of Tacoma’s longest continuously-running downtown businesses. Thanks for telling the story of the Theater. I wish I could have been there.

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