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Alexander Pantages (1875 – February 17, 1936) was an American vaudeville and early motion picture producer and impresario who created a large and powerful circuit of theatres across the western United States and Canada.

Alexander Pantages


Early life

Born Pericles Pantages on the Greek island of Andros, he ran away from home at the age of nine while with his father on a business trip in Cairo, Egypt. He then went to sea and spent the next 2 years working on merchant ships all over the world. Although he left Greece at a tender age he never forgot his home country and seems to have been conscious of his ethnic identity. Thus, he changed his name to Alexander after hearing about his famous countryman, Alexander the Great.[1] According to other sources he used to call himself "King Greek", perhaps in emulation of Louis B. Mayer's "Super Jew".[2]

After having been at sea for two years he disembarked in Panama and spent some time there helping the French to dig the Panama Canal, but after contracting malaria he headed north to cooler climates. He settled in San Francisco where he worked as a waiter and also, briefly and unsuccessfully, as a boxer. He left San Francisco in 1897 to seek greater fortune and made his way from there to Canada's Yukon Territory during the great Klondike gold rush ending up in the mining boom-town of Dawson City.

After having briefly worked as a gold-digger, and seen its "glory", he quickly came to the realization that it was easier to take the gold nuggets out of the prospector's pockets than to unearth them himself. He changed gear and eventually became business partner (and lover) to the saloon and brothel-keeper "Klondike Kate" Rockwell, operating a small, but highly successful vaudeville and burlesque theatre, the Orpheum. The relationship between Pantages and Rockwell was a stormy one; their unfulfilled egos and the instability of the theatrical world proved tinder boxes to their insecure temperaments.

Starting Exhibition
Pantages House in Seattle, built 1907, now a city landmark.

In 1902, Pantages left Dawson and moved to Seattle, Washington, where he opened the Crystal Theater, a short-form vaudeville and motion picture house of his own. He ran the operation almost entirely by himself, and charged 10 cents admission.[3] This took place a few months after Rockwell had opened up a small storefront movie theater in Vancouver, and later built a theater there in 1907 that stood til 2011, and another in 1914.[4] That same year, he married a musician named Lois Mendenhall (c.1870–1941).[5] Klondike Kate filed a breach-of-promise-to-marry lawsuit against him (settled out of court) and later wrote that he had stolen from her the money with which he purchased the Crystal. It would be more than two decades before they saw each other again, at his rape trial in 1929, and then only briefly.

In 1904, Pantages opened a second Seattle theatre, the Pantages; in 1906 he added a stock theater, the Lois, named after his wife.[3] By 1920, he owned more than 30 vaudeville theatres and controlled, through management contracts, perhaps 60 more, in both the United States and Canada. These theatres formed the "Pantages Circuit", a chain of theatres into which he could book and rotate touring acts on long-term contracts.

In Seattle Pantages had to share the commercial lebensraum with another impressario, John Considine. As both of them were thrifty and successful their interests unavoidably clashed and they soon became rivals. Their competition was at times ruthless and included such clandestine methods as stealing acts from each other and committing various forms of sabotage. This competition lasted for several decades and was one of the defining features of the vaudeville circuit of the times. In the end Pantages got the upper hand.

Pantages Theatre Circuit

His theatres often set standards of elegance and good taste, not to mention cleanliness and efficiency of operation. He insisted that his customers receive the best service at a reasonable price. Early on in his theatrical career he also saw the value of showcasing both film and live vaudeville to his audiences. Despite his initial refusal to allow African-Americans into his theatres he eventually yielded after being successfully sued by an African-American who had been refused entry into a Pantages theater in Spokane, Washington.[6]

The starting point of the Pantages Circuit was the city of Winnipeg, Manitoba, where Pantages built the Pantages Playhouse in 1914. All Pantages tours originated in Winnipeg and moved from there around the circuit of theatres. If an act died in Winnipeg it would not go on the road.

While the majority of the theatres were owned by others and managed by Pantages, he became, from 1911 on, a builder of theatres all over the western U.S. and Canada. His favoured architect in these ventures was B. Marcus Priteca (1881–1971), of Seattle, who regularly worked with muralist Anthony Heinsbergen. Priteca devised an exotic, neo-classical style that his employer called "Pantages Greek".

Pantages often sought out and judged performers personally instead of relying blindly on fashionable New York agents (like many of his competitors did). His tough life – rubbing elbows with pimps and gamblers – had taught him to appreciate results and not reputations; what made it in Broadway was often unsuited as entertainment outside the high-society of New York.

A ruthless but intensely hard-working businessman, Pantages shrewdly invested his theatrical profits into new outlets and eventually moved to Los Angeles from Seattle around 1920 to take advantage of his status as a powerful theatrical mogul. His showcase theatre at 7th and Hill Streets in downtown L.A. also housed his offices. While seemingly leading a stable family life with three children and eventually a fourth adopted daughter named Carmen, he had a reputation as an "old goat." It is reputed that several of his theaters had penthouses where he led many after-show parties with attractive young starlets.

Entering Movieland

Around 1920, Pantages entered into partnership with the motion picture distributor Famous Players, a subsidiary of film producer Paramount Pictures, and further expanded his "combo" houses, designed to exhibit films as well as staging live vaudeville, to new sites in western U.S. Throughout the 1920s, the Pantages Circuit dominated the vaudeville and motion picture market in North America west of the Mississippi River. Pantages was effectively blocked from expansion into the eastern market by the dominant, New York-based Keith-Albee-Orpheum Circuit (KAO).

Although not a motion picture producer himself Pantages was important in the early days of film as his theaters offered a plentiful and respectable outlet for the products of various film studios; he started showing movies as early as 1902. Thus, he helped nurture the film industry which at that time was still in its infancy. He certainly had ambitions of entering the world of film more dynamically – as is evidenced by the construction of the grandiose Pantages Theater on Hollywood Boulevard in 1930 – but fate had other plans for him.

In the late 1920s, with the looming advent of talking pictures, David Sarnoff, the principal of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), which held a number of patents in film/sound technology, established the film production company Radio Pictures in which Joseph P. Kennedy held an option and a managing interest moved to acquire control of the KAO theatres through quiet purchases of the company's stock.

In 1927, Kennedy and Sarnoff were successful in gaining control of KAO, and, in 1928, changed the name of the company to Radio Keith Orpheum (RKO). They then approached Alexander Pantages with an offer to purchase his entire chain. Pantages rejected the offer.

Pantages Rape Trial

In 1929, in the midst of a meltdown on Wall Street, Alexander Pantages was arrested and charged with the rape of a 17-year-old would-be vaudeville dancer named Eunice Pringle. Pringle alleged that Pantages had attacked her in a tiny side office of his downtown theater after inviting her in to audition. Pantages was tried, convicted and sentenced to 50 years in prison, despite his claim that he was "set up."

Pantages then engaged the young attorney Jerry Giesler (later to become famous as Hollywood's leading divorce lawyer) and San Francisco lawyer Jake Ehrlich, later to become a famous attorney in his own right, to file an appeal on his behalf. Geisler successfully petitioned for a new trial, basing his argument on the original trial judge's exclusion of testimony relating to Eunice Pringle's moral character.[7]

Geisler triumphed in the second trial, picturing the alleged victim as a woman of low morals, theatrically demonstrating how impractical was a rape in Pantages' broom closet and planting in the jurors' minds the suggestion that Pringle might have been paid by business rivals, particularly Kennedy, to frame his client.

Tragic End Years

Although Pantages was acquitted, the trials ruined him financially and may have broken him in both health and spirit. He sold the theatre chain to RKO for a lower sum than that originally offered – far less than what his "Pantages Greek" vaudeville palaces had cost him to build – and went into retirement. He owned and raced horses, even as he desperately yearned to return to the exhibition business. His plans for an encore as a theatrical mogul never materialized. Alexander Pantages died in 1936 and was interred in the Great Mausoleum, Sanctuary of Benediction, in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California.

The rumour, begun at the second trial, that RKO and Kennedy paid Eunice Pringle to frame Alexander Pantages, was revived in Ronald Kessler's biography of Joseph Kennedy "The Sins of the Father: Joseph P. Kennedy and the Dynasty He Founded" (New York: Warner Books, 1997). There is only anecdotal evidence, however, to support this claim. Years later Eunice Pringle married Richard Worthington, who became a psychologist. Pringle, who was known as Toni Worthington, moved to San Diego and had a daughter, Marcy Worthington. Pringle died of natural causes in 1996.

An apocryphal popular story about Pantages alleges that the boy who dropped out of school at 9 never learned to read or write; he kept atop a powerful, multi-million dollar business thanks to the extraordinary powers of memory sometimes developed by the illiterate.


Notes

^ Murray 1960, pp. 151–158
^ Curti, Carlo (1967). Skouras, King of Fox Studios. Los Angeles: Holloway House Publishing Company, p. 51
^ a b Berger 1991, p. 88
^ Vancouver History website – "The Pantages in Vancouver"
^ Mrs. Alexander Pantages. Widow of Theatre Owner Dies on Yacht off Catalina Island., New York Times, July 19, 1941, Saturday
^ Dean, Arthur Tarrach (1972)
^ Giesler, Jerry; Martin, as told to Pete, The Jerry Giesler Story


References

Tarrach, Dean A. (1972), Alexander Pantages: The Seattle Pantages and his Vaudeville Circuit, University of Washington
Murray, Morgan (1960), Skid Row: An Informal Portrait of Seattle, The Viking Press
Berner, Richard C. (1991), Seattle 1900–1920: From Boomtown, Urban Turbulence, to Restoration, Charles Press, ISBN 0-9629889-0-1

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