Painters Nolberto Baca (left) and Jefferson Oliva work on the Pantages Theater sign, part of a 2016 exterior renovation of the structure in downtown Tacoma. Peter Haley
Painters Nolberto Baca (left) and Jefferson Oliva work on the Pantages Theater sign, part of a 2016 exterior renovation of the structure in downtown Tacoma. Peter Haley

Matt Driscoll

What would downtown Tacoma be without the Pantages or the Rialto? A new book explains

October 02, 2017 09:00 PM

History — or, rather, the retelling of it — can be an interesting exercise.

Sometimes it’s as much the story of what didn’t happen, as what did.

When it comes to downtown Tacoma’s cultural identity, five corners — intersecting at Ninth Street, St. Helens Avenue and Broadway — have loomed large for more than a century. If the arts have a beating heart in this town, the pulse has often originated from this spot, whether it’s from the stage of the Pantages or Rialto, or from the surrounding vaudeville houses of yesteryear.

The story of exactly how this came to be, and the decisions that have made it so, remain as important as they are fascinating.

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What would life in Tacoma be like, for instance, if Portland promoter Stanley Harris had succeeded in building two World Trade Center towers in the site adjacent to the Pantages Theater — where the Theatre on the Square now sits?

Nowhere near as vibrant, that’s for sure.

Or, what would Tacoma’s cultural epicenter be today if a 320,000-square-foot retail and residential megaplex, complete with a 16-screen movie theater and an 800-vehicle parking garage, had been constructed in the Theater District during the 1990s, a deal some city leaders attempted to broker at the time?

On second thought, don’t answer that. We already know the answer.

Fateful near misses like this, and plenty of other cultural turning points for T-Town, are highlighted in “Now Playing: Showtime in Tacoma,” a recently released book by Brian Kamens, supervisor of the Tacoma Public Library’s Northwest Room, and Blaine Johnson, a former News Tribune managing editor turned investor and developer. The duo spent the last five years compiling it, and the attention to detail shows.

Ostensibly it’s a work dedicated to chronicling the City of Destiny’s contemporary cultural history, through the many theaters, individuals and groups that made it so.

With the aid of essays from the late, great Murray Morgan, it’s the story of “what and where we watched, what we lost and, most significantly, how these deep-seated roots anchor a dynamic new era in Tacoma’s colorful cultural history,” as the book’s introduction explains.

But it’s also more than a stodgy reference book destined to collect dust on local shelves. It’s the story of what it means to be a city, and the crucial role that culture, the arts, and communal gatherings play in creating that identity.

Kamens called the book “a celebration of civic pride.”

Tacoma citizen may realize that Tacoma is not the most perfect city in the world, but it still has this great history.

Brian Kamens

“Tacoma citizens may realize that Tacoma is not the most perfect city in the world, but it still has this great history,” he said during a recent interview.

If “Showtime in Tacoma” has a central theme, it’s one of “build up, collapse, and then the renaissance,” Johnson said.

The power of the shared experience also plays a starring role, a lesson as pertinent as ever (even if you’re reading this with eyes locked on the screen of your phone).

The book takes flight from the vision of the city’s earliest leaders, who dreamed of creating a grand city in the West. To make such a vision a reality, Tacoma would need a theater to match, leading to Theodore Hosmer’s successful effort to construct the Tacoma Theater in 1890.

That proved prescient.

While the original Tacoma Theatre was lost to time, the area where it stood is now home to the Pantages Theater, the Rialto and Theatre on the Square.

As even a general student of Tacoma history knows, the story of downtown’s cultural importance was not a happily-ever-after affair — leading us to the “collapse” mentioned by Johnson. As suburban malls and movie theaters became king in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, a mass exodus from downtown, aided by a number of disastrous development decisions, helped turn the area into a ghost town.

Not even steel escalades, moving sidewalks designed to help usher pedestrians up and down Tacoma’s daunting hills, could reverse the troubling trend (though they did make for interesting footnotes in the book).

Rather, it was the decision by city leaders to purchase the Pantages Theater in 1978, which by that time had become the Roxy, and restore it over the next five years that ultimately spurred the renaissance and downtown cultural resurgence that we know today. (The Pantages and the Rialto both will celebrate 100-year anniversaries in 2018.)

The decision, as Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland notes in the book, “proved to be instrumental to the revitalization of downtown Tacoma.”

“You can have a functioning city, but you can’t have a heartbeat without that cultural center,” Johnson said of what the decision has meant for Tacoma.

“These (leaders) digging in, and making that one major statement … that was kind of like when you finally hang on to that last little ledge and start climbing back up,” he said.

“That’s sort of like where we dropped the rock. … And then all of those ripples really fit into the reason we did this book.”

It’s a story worth telling, even today.

“Now Playing: Showtime In Tacoma”

On exhibit at the Tacoma Historical Society Museum through Oct. 27.

919 Pacific Avenue, Tacoma

Wednesday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Free admission