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Originally published Sunday, December 9, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Celebrating a century of the Moore

The Moore, Seattle's oldest operating theater, opened almost 100 years ago, Dec. 28, 1907. Legends trod the Moore's stage, including Harry Houdini, Shirley Temple, The Marx Brothers, Al Jolson, Jack Benny, Paul Robeson, Anna Pavlova, Martha Graham and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson.

Seattle Times music critic

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Moore 100 Open House: Performances on- and offstage by emcee Kevin Joyce, Broadway Bound, buskers (including Balloon Man Adam Lee and Artis the Spoonman), singers Laura Drake and Joanne Klein, Ladies Musical Club violinist Helena Emery, Lindy Hoppers Hallie Kuperman and Riki Mason from The Century Ballroom, Tamara the Trapeze Lady & Quynbi Horton, cabaret singer Sydni Deveraux, NW Tap Connection, dancer Kara O'Toole, Russian juggler Sergiy Krutikov, plus food and drink, 5-8 p.m. Monday. The Moore Theatre, 1932 Second Ave., Seattle; free to the public (206-467-5510 or www.themoore.com).

When you walk into the Moore, you're walking into history.

Seattle's oldest operating theater opened almost 100 years ago, Dec. 28, 1907.

Full disclosure: Joseph Blethen, who starred in and co-wrote the opening-night show, "The Alaskan," a comic opera complete with falling snow, sled dogs and 13 singing totem poles, was a member of the family that founded and still runs this newspaper (because of that, The Seattle Times did not review the show).

Legends trod the Moore's stage, including Harry Houdini, Shirley Temple, The Marx Brothers, Al Jolson, Jack Benny, Bert Williams, Marian Anderson, Sarah Bernhardt, Paul Robeson, Anna Pavlova, Martha Graham, Katherine Dunham, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, George M. Cohan, Ethel Barrymore, Helen Hayes, Helen Keller, Henry Fonda, Marcel Marceau, Milton Berle, Frances X. Bushman and Billie Burke before she played the good witch in "The Wizard of Oz."

Bette Midler was The Acid Queen in the first theatrical production of The Who's rock opera "Tommy" (a bawdy role she'd rather forget) there in 1969. The next year, the cast of "Hair" got naked every night of a long run. Bob Dylan rehearsed for tours and played there; Nirvana performed in a major theater for the first time there; and Pearl Jam filmed its famous video of "Alive" there, with Eddie Vedder literally climbing the walls.

The Moore was the original home of The Seattle Symphony and The Seattle International Film Festival. Dance companies love its hardwood stage, known for its springiness, while singers, actors, symphony orchestras and opera companies appreciate its excellent acoustics.

From 1917 to 1926, it was called The Orpheum because it was part of the "high-class" Orpheum vaudeville circuit. From 1927 to 1931, when the Duffy Players were in residence, presenting plays and musical shows, it was called The President. And from 1949 to 1954, it was The Seattle Revival Center, with daily services featuring circuit preachers and evangelists. For many years, it was a movie theater. Boxing matches, beauty contests, political rallies, lectures, graduations and recitals have occupied the theater.

In the early part of the century, it was one of Seattle's prime venues for minstrel shows, with performers in blackface. The local High School Minstrels was the first company to play there, followed by one of the major touring troupes, The Lew Dockstader Minstrels. The Lady Minstrels, directed by Katherine Page, and the Knights of Columbus Minstrel and Vaudeville Show were among others that appeared there.

For many years there was a second balcony for non-whites, with a separate entrance in the alley. When it became a movie theater, a projection booth, now gone, was installed in the second balcony, closing it off to audiences. With the booth removed, the 228-capacity second balcony has been reopened in recent years for some shows, accessible by a stairway in the foyer.

Originally, there were 26 private boxes along the sides of the auditorium, and three at floor level. All have since been removed. The men's smoking room downstairs is now the bar. The ladies' powder room remains intact.

The theater has been dark for long periods, during economic downturns and several times its prime location at Second Avenue and Virginia Street in downtown Seattle was eyed by developers wanting to tear it down and put up a high-rise.

Rock 'n' roll saved the theater in the 1970s, drawing capacity crowds on a regular basis for the first time in a quarter century. Rock fans didn't mind the drab, decaying interior, before it was upgraded by Seattle Theater Group, which operates the Moore and the Paramount.

There are a dozen dressing rooms backstage, two chorus rooms and a carpentry shop. It is the city's last "hemp house" — stagehand lingo for a theater where the scenery is moved by hand with ropes, rather than a mechanical operation.

Underneath the lobby, way down in the basement, is a natatorium, with changing rooms and a Turkish bath. It was for guests of the neighboring Moore Hotel (a separate building, which opened three years earlier as The Washington Hotel; the first guest was Teddy Roosevelt). The natatorium's long-unused, white-tiled, 90x40-foot saltwater pool is now filled with junk. (The old "No Diving" signs still apply.).

The Moore is believed to be the first theater in America to have ramps to the balcony instead of stairs, at the insistence of impresario John Cort, because his wife used a wheelchair. Cort, who later went to New York to become one of the most successful showmen in America, and owner of more theaters than any other person, was signed on as impresario even before the Moore was built, and was involved in its planning.

Seattle real-estate developer James Moore, who platted Latona and part of the University District and built 200 homes on Capitol Hill, originally wanted to make the theater part of his hotel, but then opted for two separate buildings.

The theater was among the first in America to not have any supporting beams inside the auditorium, blocking views. The architect, E.W. Houghton, used massive steel girders rather than support columns. A 22-ton girder across the width of the building supports the balconies. Considered risky architecture at the time, the balconies have endured not only 100 years worth of audiences but also several major earthquakes.

In 1914, Moore sold his properties here and moved to Florida, where he started a town called Moorehaven. A hurricane wiped it out, leaving Moore broke. He died, debt-ridden, in a San Francisco hotel in 1929.

Patrick MacDonald: 206-464-2312 or pmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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