2343 California Avenue SW,
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Far Away Entertainment (Official)
Operated by: Far Away Entertainment
Previously operated by: Cineplex Odeon, Far West Theatres Inc., Sterling Theaters, Universal Chain Theatrical Enterprises Inc.
Architects: Benjamin Marcus Priteca
Functions: Movies (Film Festivals), Movies (First Run), Movies (Independent)
Styles: Streamline Moderne
Previous Names: Portola Theatre, Admiral Twin Theatre
News About This Theater
- Jul 26, 2014 — Historic West Seattle movie theater facing money woes
- Nov 2, 2007 — West Seattle movie house to be grand again
The neighborhood Portola Theatre was opened in 1919. In September 1924 it was equipped with a Wicks 2 manual, 6 ranks theatre organ which was opened by organist Adelaide Kirkman. In 1927 it was taken over by the Universal Chain Theatrical Enterprises Inc. They operated it until October 1930 when it was taken over by the local Far West Theatres Inc. chain of Seattle. In the early-1940’s it was taken over by the Sterling Theatres chain who employed Benjamin Marcus Priteca, the same architect who created the Hollywood Pantages Theatre, to remodel the theatre. It reopened January 22, 1942 with Alice Faye in “Weekend in Havana”.
Physically intact but compromised by a 1973 remodeling that removed marquee, split the auditorium in half, and changed the balcony into new projection booths. By March 2017 it operates as a four-screen theatre.
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Recent comments (view all 43 comments)
Looks like the Admiral will finally go digital and convert into a 4-plex.
Blog post with an ad from the day after the opening and a circa 2011 picture here.
This theatre once had lots of style. No more. Exterior and lobby still is somewhat original. It is a first run house now however. Could be worse. It could be closed.
Now with lasers!
Went to see Jurassic World with the new projection and the image was terrific and the sound was great as well. Was also nice to see that the screen masking was properly placed for the new 2:1 aspect ratio J.W. used. I am curious to see how the remodeling will be continued. This is a great first step.
Really wish they would dispense with the curtains on the wall as well as the drop ceiling. Here are photos of the auditorium when it was a single screen venue.
The first link below has video of the 1992 re-opening ceremony with then Seattle Mayor Norm Rice. Apparently there is an annual Group Hug event at the Admiral as well. Embedded in that is link’s to the full history of the Admiral, and to September 2016 renovation photos. I will post all three below.
Main Link: http://www.loghousemuseum.info/blog/group-hug-draws-750-students-to-admiral-theater/
Full History With Photos: http://www.loghousemuseum.info/blog/the-admiral-theater-nearly-a-century-of-innovation-quality-and-leadership-that-promises-a-bright-future/
September 2016 Renovation: http://www.loghousemuseum.info/blog/admiral-theater-renovation-under-way/
Full history from the link at the bottom.
By Clay Eals Investments in the future success of the Historic Admiral Theater in West Seattle will build on the moviehouse’s long tradition of community support and a track record of innovation, quality and leadership. And we all will be looking ahead in a few short years to celebrating the building’s centennial.
The Admiral was not the first movie theater in West Seattle. That honor goes to the Apollo, which was built in 1910 in the West Seattle Junction near Edmunds Street, and the Olympus, which operated in the Admiral area, in the site where Safeway now stands, from 1916 to 1919. 1942 Admiral Theater opening night
The Admiral Theater’s opening night in 1942. (Photo in Photo’s Section)
But it was in 1919 when the Admiral got its start at its present site, 2343 California Ave. S.W., under a different name – the Portola. A stately structure featuring a glitzy vertical PORTOLA sign between twin “portholes” looking out from its second floor, the Portola in its entirety was the structure that formed the basis of today’s Admiral Theater lobby.
Admission was just 20 cents, 10 cents for children. This was in the days of silent film, and the Portola offered a different menu every two or three days, usually a feature film, a newsreel or two and a comedy short. The local weekly newspaper, the West Seattle Herald, reported that it had “the best in pictures … Many will be first runs in the state.” The Portola also set the pace in keeping up with the times.
In May 1924, the Portola constructed a 75-car free-parking lot, the first of its kind in Seattle. “It is lighted and practically always under the supervision of a theatre employee so that danger of theft is about eliminated, and it is not necessary to keep a tail light burning in the car,” the Herald reported.
At the same time, the theater installed a screen lighting system that faded in and out “almost imperceptibly,” plus a series of colored lights below the screen, which could be “manipulated in combinations and various ways. Thus, the bight yellow sunrise or the red of sunset is played on the screen. Night scenes appear in bluish hue, and the flash of lightning is vividly portrayed.”
Two months later, the adult admission price rose to 25 cents, and in September 1924, the Portola installed an $18,000 pipe organ, a 60-piece orchestral variety that was the biggest in suburban Seattle. Record crowds attended the first performances. The theater also debuted a film with old-time favorite songs.
“Led by Miss (Adelaide) Kirkman on the big new pipe organ as the words were flashed on the screen, the audience all joined in and sang,” the Herald reported. “So enthusiastic was this novelty picture received by the audience that the many people waiting in front to gain admission thought there surely must be some large opera company inside.”
The Portola held a “big Charleston contest” on its wide stage Dec. 2-3, 1925. Every seat was taken and the foyer was jammed both nights as Evelyn Beahm topped the “fast and furious” competition.
Four years later, in July 1929, the Portola spent $10,000 on equipment and presented its first talkies, William Boyd in “The Flying Fool” and a comedy, “Go East Doctor.” Portola Manager Sol Strauss said his building was ideal for sound movies because it lacked “echoes that often make voices sound ‘wooly’… The jokes about the ‘squawkies’ will be out of place, at least in this theatre.” Even with the stock market crash in 1929, the Portola was able to draw good audiences to its constantly changing programs.
The true competition for the Portola emerged in July 1926 when the Granada Theater opened south of the West Seattle Junction. With a 1,000-seat capacity, the Granada was more than twice as large as the Portola, and the two theaters jousted with big promotions throughout the first decade of the talkies.
In 1938, however, Seattle theater magnate John Danz pulled a rabbit out of his hat, purchasing the Portola and announcing his “dream of a lifetime,” to expand the Portola and reopen it under a new name. Danz hired B. Marcus Priteca – the architectural visionary behind the legendary Pantages theaters up and down the West Coast, along with the Coliseum Theater in downtown Seattle – to design the new structure. The Herald reported that Priteca was “reputed to be the best theatre architect on the Coast.”
Reflecting Danz’ dreams, the cost of the project ballooned from $60-80,000 in June 1938, to $100,000 in April 1941, then to $200,000 a month later. Ground was broken in July 1941, and construction on the north side of the Portola building began. What once was the entire interior of the Portola became the lobby for the new moviehouse, whose spectacular auditorium would have, like its Junction competitor, 1,000 seats.
The theater got its name by a highly touted vote of the community. The July 24, 1941, Herald announced that Mrs. Frank Hunter won the $100 first prize for suggesting the theater be given the name of the neighborhood’s major arterial, Admiral Way. The contest drew 1,061 entries with 300 different names. More than 90 entrants suggested “Admiral,” and each got a month’s theater pass.
The contest came mere months before the United States’ entry into World War II, and Danz waxed patriotic over it. He proclaimed that the contest judges – West Seattle High School principal Reid Fulton, Seattle City Council member Bob Jones, Herald publisher Clyde Dunn, theater manager Milt Lewis and Danz himself, plus Sterling executives as advisers – “felt that this was just another way to demonstrate the efficacy of the democratic way of doing things. We can say what we like, do what we like and go where we like – and yes, name our own theaters. That, we feel, explains why the United States is the greatest country in the world.”
Taking shape under Priteca’s guidance was a curvilinear motif that bolstered an outstanding example of trendy art deco. The Herald, tantalizing the public during the months of construction and remodeling, reported, “The Admiral will be as different from the old time movie theaters as the original airplane was from the modern Boeing bomber. … It transcends every preconceived idea of motion picture theatres and will amaze everyone with its new beauties, its new revelations in comfort, sight and sound.”
Searchlights swept the West Seattle skies the night of Jan. 22, 1942, as a “gala Hollywood opening,” including patriotic street decorations and a California Avenue parade, saluted the Admiral. The opening-night feature, “Week-End in Havana” starring Alice Faye, Carmen Miranda and John Payne, plus an “Our America at War” newsreel and color cartoon, drew 3,000 people. Prices were 35 cents for adults and 11 cents for kids.
Those attending the opening festivities found that the Admiral’s décor fit its nautical name, retaining the Portola’s portholes, and adding seahorses on the chandeliers and exit signs, starfish in the plush carpeting and a giant mast and crow’s nest on the building’s roof (or “upper deck”), with a light in the crow’s nest that glowed when movies were playing.
An enormous, full-color mural depicting the Puget Sound landing of Capt. George Vancouver in 1792 dominated the lobby, and the interior theater walls presented a fluorescent array of starfish, sea anemones and other underwater appliqués that lit up in the dark. Above moviegoers, on the theater’s vast ceiling was a giant compass with the 12 signs of the zodiac.
Notwithstanding the seafaring theme, the movie-watching experience itself was peerless in Seattle. The Admiral featured “the largest motion-picture screen in the city. “ Other features included portable earphones “for the hard-of-hearing” and “push-back” seats, “the greatest theatre improvement since the advent of talking pictures!” The Herald explained, “No longer do people have to rise when others seek to enter their row. Now, they merely push back with their feet, the seat moves back, and the enjoyment of the picture continues uninterruptedly.”
To manage the Admiral, Danz soon hired Raymond Coach, who had come from New York City and had helmed the Hippodrome, one of the most famous theaters in the world. On the Admiral’s sixth anniversary, in 1948, a celebration included a huge anniversary cake large enough to serve 1,000 people, a stage revue and prizes that included radios, tableware, a table lamp, an automatic iron, a heater and wall lamps, all donated by local businesses.
Similar promotions held sway in the coming years. On June 27, 1950, crowds swarmed California Avenue in front of the theater’s prow marquee for “Admiral Merchants Nite” at the theater. Prizes included a 1950 Nash automobile and a cruise to Alaska.
In November 1953, the Admiral acquired another stunning feature to enhance moviegoers’ experience. The Herald reported that the Admiral had installed “the first panoramic wide screen to be installed in a suburban theater. The new E.Z.I. screen that fills the entire stage area is three times larger than the old screen, making pictures more life-like and realistic.”
In the 1960s, however, the rise of television and the advent of out-of-city shopping malls took their toll on the Admiral. Bowing to the reality of smaller audiences, the Danz firm, operating as Sterling Recreation Organization, opted to double the opportunities at the Admiral in 1973. By running a new wall down the middle of the auditorium, Sterling “twinned” the theater into two 430-seat theaters. Sadly, the “mast” and “crow’s nest” that had been lighted every night at the Admiral since the 1940s were removed during this remodeling.
Other plans to bring new life to the Admiral were talked up over the next 15 years. Foreseeing the growth and gentrification of West Seattle brought by the opening of the high-level bridge in 1984, Sterling Recreation began talking expansion. Sterling, which also owned the service station next door, forecast the addition of four auditoriums and 750 more seats. This was to result in a sixplex that would take cues from the theater’s past. “We really see it as a restoration of what’s there now, plus an addition,” said Sterling’s Bob Bond. “We want to make it look like it belongs.”
The expansion was not to be, however. Sterling sold the Admiral and other Seattle-area holdings to Toronto-based Cineplex Odeon in June 1986. Over the next two and a half years, by turning a promotional blind eye and stagnating the Admiral’s film fare for weeks on end, Cineplex sealed the theater’s fate. On Jan. 27, 1989, in tiny print at the bottom of a display ad in Seattle newspapers, Cineplex announced that closing night was just two days away.
But the Southwest Seattle Historical Society had another idea. On closing night, Jan. 29, 1989, the five-year-old local preservation organization staged a picket on the sidewalk in front of the Admiral. The 50 participants included West Seattle’s three-member state legislative delegation along with King County Council member (and future Seattle mayor) Greg Nickels. Picket signs pleaded, “Keep the Admiral Afloat” and “Don’t Sink the Ship” while the protest proceeded under the glare of live TV coverage.
Nationwide throughout the 1980s, the cry to preserve precious historical buildings had taken hold, both as a sentiment and in the form of law, and what happened with the Admiral in the six months following the closing-night demonstration was a fitting reflection.
The historical society quickly organized a Save the Admiral Task Force, gathering 4,000 petition signatures, selling more than 1,000 “Save the Admiral” buttons and packing public meetings. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, in a lead editorial, called for the Admiral to be saved. Cineplex had posted a poignant message on the marquee, “Th-th-th-that’s All Folks,” but during the annual summer Hi-Yu parade, the historical society mounted a float with a mock marquee stating, “Th-th-th-that’s NOT All Folks.”
This groundswell of grassroots politics and media support resulted in the Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board designating the Admiral a city landmark. This meant – and still means – that no owner of the building can make changes in its historic features without approval of the board.
Landmark status didn’t insure the Admiral’s viability, however. That took three more years. In 1992, a West Seattle father-and-son business pair, Cecil and Marc Gartin, stepped forward to purchase the Admiral building and the adjoining service-station lot, and in April, with citywide fanfare, the Admiral reopened. While hundreds swarmed outside, Mayor Norm Rice broke a champagne bottle on the building, and the theater hosted sold-out showings of two classics from the hear of the Admiral’s birth, “Woman of the Year” and “The Maltese Falcon.”
The Admiral immediately became a second-run house, screening five or six movies each week in the two auditoriums. The management firm A Theater Near You took over, admission was $1.75, and the only movie theater between downtown Seattle and Southcenter was packing in audiences once again.
Much as TV and shopping malls had done decades before, however, the advent of movies on video and DVD took a toll. Viability for movie theaters gradually required smaller auditoriums, and multiplexes became the norm. The Admiral’s two 430-seat theaters went wanting for crowds.
Answering the call to bring variety and ingenuity to the Admiral in 2008 was a new company, Far Away Entertainment. Headed by Jeff Brein, with onsite management by his sister, Dinah Brein, Far Away has given new life to the Admiral by infusing a mixture of live acts, special and regular promotions, premieres and participation in local festivals, along with regular, second-run fare.
Working with the Gartins, who recently noted their 20th year as owners of the Admiral, Far Away also has crafted detailed plans for renovation and summoned potential investors to convert the theater into a fourplex and return the fare to first run while upgrading the physical condition of the building and updating its exhibition technology for the digital age.
See stories on the latest developments both on the West Seattle Blog and the website of the West Seattle Herald.
This ambitious plan promises to bring the building that started as the Portola and continued as the Admiral to the year 2019 and its 100th anniversary and beyond. No doubt the West Seattle community and all of Seattle will be eager to celebrate!
[Clay Eals is former president and now executive director of the Southwest Seattle Historical Society and helped lead the successful landmark campaign for the Admiral Theater in 1989-1992. He also was editor of the West Seattle Herald in 1983-1988 and edited and led production of the history book West Side Story, from which much of this article was drawn.]
The Admiral is now a four-plex running first run features.
Wow, nice article from the front page of the November 26th, 2017 Seattle Times, “Explore Seattle’s Romantic – and Vanishing – Historic Moviehouses”, including a description and detailed slideshow of the Admiral, and why we go to the movies!