Pantages Theatre – East Hastings Street (1)


The Pantages Theatre stood on East Hastings for over a century. It was built in 1907 and was the Vancouver base of Alexander Pantages and his Seattle managed vaudeville circuit, and was the oldest surviving Pantages Theatre in Western Canada, and until its demolition one of the earliest purpose built vaudeville houses remaining in North America. It’s seen here in a 1910 postcard in the Vancouver Public Library collection.

Alexander Pantages had only a loose affiliation with accuracy when it came to recording his history (not least because he was effectively illiterate, so kept few records, although he could speak six languages). He was possibly born on the island of Andros in Greece as Pericles Pantazis, probably in 1867, and he almost certainly ran away from home (in Cairo at the time) at the age of nine and travelled around the globe as a deck hand. He headed to north America (after a stint digging the first attempt at the Panama Canal) in the early 1880s. His 1910 census record said he arrived in the US in 1881; in 1920 he said 1883, and in 1930, 1885. (His year of birth shifted as well, from a probably inaccurate 1872 to an even less accurate 1874).

He settled initially in San Francisco where he worked as a utility boy in a vaudeville theatre, as a waiter and as an unsuccessful boxer. By 1896 he owned a restaurant and in December of that year he was arrested for smuggling 185 tins of opium. He was found not guilty after he established that at the night of the alleged crime he was training for a prize fight. An incidental detail in the case revealed that he had a surprisingly healthy bank balance for the owner of a small restaurant. Like many others he headed for the Yukon Territory during the Klondike Gold Rush in 1897 or early 1898, ending up in Dawson City. As other successful Klondike entrepreneurs, Pantages found there was more money to be made from the miners than from mining, especially if you’re only five feet six and would rather avoid digging in sub-zero temperatures. He worked as a waiter in Charlie Cole’s Saloon, which became a dance hall. He became business partner (and lover) of a Kansas native, and step-daughter of a Spokane judge, dancer and singer Kate Rockwell, (later to be known as “Klondike Kate”). Her specialty act, developed at Dawson City’s Palace Grande Theatre in 1900 involved wearing a red sequined dress spinning around in 200 feet of red chiffon cloth as if she was on fire. With Kate’s financial help he acquired and operated a small, but successful vaudeville and burlesque theatre, the Orpheum.

(There was another, and less flamboyant Yukon citizen known as Klondike Kate, with a Vancouver connection. Katherine Ryan was from New Brunswick, and in the late 1890s was set to marry her boyfriend, and when he decided instead to become a priest, Kate headed west and became a nurse in Vancouver. Tales of the goldrush led her to Whitehorse where she ran restaurant for many years. Eventually she ended up living in Vancouver again, where she died in 1932).

Unlike other female dance hall employees, as a named headliner on the vaudeville bill Kate Rockwell would not have been expected to ‘be available’ to patrons, but she would be expected to help relieve them of their money by drinking with them after the show. Champagne was $20 a bottle, and the girls were reimbursed for every cork they collected. Kate was successful as a dancer and entertainer – although not top of the bill – and she apparently saved money – although almost certainly nothing like the $150,000 that some sources suggest. She also didn’t stay the whole time in the Yukon; in 1899 she was part of a large vaudeville company that visited Victoria for a week and in 1900 she was on the bill as a dancer at the Savoy Theatre on Cordova Street. She briefly left for the States, and returned with an infant that she claimed was an orphan of a destitute mother. It’s possible that ‘Lotus Rockwell’ was the outcome of her affair with Alex.

In 1902, as the easiest gold had been found, Pangages headed south, and settled in Seattle. He rented a store on Second Street, fitted it out with hard benches, bought a movie projector and some film, hire a vaudeville act, and opened the Crystal Theatre. The funds he used included some of Kate Rockwell’s savings.

Kate was still touring; she was in Victoria at the Orpheum in 1903 ‘performing her beautiful electric serpentine dance’ and in Washington state in 1904, billed as a ‘spectacular dancer’, and had still been sending some of her earnings to Pantages. She was listed as the proprietress of the Orpheum in Victoria in 1903, having bought it for $350. Within a year she sold the theatre for $1,500 and returned to Alaska. Alex had been dictating regular love letters to Kate in which he expresses concern that she was drinking a lot, and in 1904 Kate returned to Seattle. She performed at the classier Alcazar Theatre, as Alex couldn’t afford to pay the salary she could command as a performer. She headed to Texas, which was going through an oil boom, and Alex bought yet another theatre, The Strand in the Skid Row area.

Kate understood that they would be getting married and settling down, so she wasn’t at all happy when A Pantager (sic) married Lois Mendenhall, a violinist from Oakland, in 1905. (Lois solemnly swore she was eighteen years or older – she showed her age as 25 in the 1910 census, but only 31 in 1920. She generally maintained her 1888 birthdate after that, suggesting she was actually only 17 when she was married.)

In 1905, while she was performing in Spokane, Kate heard from Alex that he was married, in a letter sent four days after the ceremony. In the summer she sued for breach of contract for $25,000. After effectively winning the suit, she settled out of court, and although some reports suggest she got $5,000, a contemporary newspaper report said she only got $800. She had to head back to Alaska and then out on the vaudeville circuit again, appearing in Vancouver with her Comedy troupe in 1907. She eventually settled in Oregon, was married at least three times, and became increasingly famous with the stories she told of her days in the Yukon – although the name ‘Klondike Kate’ appears not to have been used until 1929. She died in 1957.

Alex opened the first Pantages Theater in Seattle a few years after the Crystal, and in 1906 the even larger (1,200 seat) Lois Theatre. A year later the Vancouver theatre opened, designed by local architect E E Blackmore. Costing $100,000, it was bankrolled by local developer Art Clemes, who would go on to build the Regent Hotel next door to the theatre a few years later. Alexander supplied the acts, developing a circuit which saw his shows and acts constantly touring, always starting in Winnipeg. At the peak of his career in the 1920s, Pantages owned or controlled more than 70 vaudeville theaters, virtually all under his direct personal management. He and Lois had three children, and he moved to Los Angeles, living in a mansion. A second daughter was living with the family in 1920, Marjorie Nelson. A friend of the Pantages’ daughter Carmen, Marjorie was orphaned and adopted by the family. She later became Dixie Pantages, an actress who often doubled for her friend Carole Lombard in movies.

In the 1930 census Alexander and Lois Pantages were living apart. Lois and her children, Rodney, Lloyd and Carmen were living with her mother, Elvira, and four servants. Alexander’s census record identifies him as an inmate in San Quentin jail. 1929 had been a devastating year for the family. In June Lois caused a car accident that left a man dead and several others injured. In August, Alexander was arrested and tried for raping a 17-year-old woman named Eunice Pringle. Found guilty in a jury trial, Pantages sought a retrial, and finally in 1931 was found not guilty of the charge. The legal battle, however, exhausted a large part of his personal fortune. He had sold all but his flagship Broadway theatre to other owners, including RKO Pictures whose controlling investor, Joseph P Kennedy has been suggested to have been involved in framing Alexander on the charge. Paid in stock, rather than cash, the family fortune declined even faster as the market collapsed. Alexander Pantages died of heart failure in 1936. In Vancouver he had built a new, larger Pantages theatre which opened in 1918, and the old theatre continued under a new name and different management, finally to be redeveloped a few years ago.


Posted 28 May 2018 by ChangingCity in East End, Gone

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