“Reviving Tacoma’s Cultural Heartbeat” by Blaine Johnson

Tacoma wouldn’t be a fully formed city without the Theater District. It would have commerce, houses and apartments, hotels and offices, schools and hospitals, businesses large and small, governmental and social services, a mix of entertainment and recreational facilities, all the things that make for a generally workable municipal organism. It would be, in essence, a functioning body – but, lacking a heart.

The heart, as it is located, emanates from a radius centered at 9th and Broadway. Within the vicinity of several blocks, virtually all the important institutions were established – the Northern Pacific Railroad headquarters, Old City Hall, the Tacoma Hotel, the built-up commercial “main street” along Pacific Avenue, the first venues of public assembly in bars, theaters and churches, up the hill to the Pierce County court house and the Armory, and later the City government offices. That geographical orientation was established by the vision of Theodore Hosmer to relocate the Tacoma Land Company office so the Tacoma Theater could be built on that site.

The city founders believed that their aspirations for Tacoma to become a great city called them to make a statement with a grand theater. The architectural character of what they built in 1890 supported their aspirations, which they proudly promoted as “The Temple of Drama and Opera.”

The evolution of the many dozens of theaters that followed, highlighted by the Pantages and Rialto theaters, created a dynamic entertainment era. Historian Michael Sullivan envisioned a street scene looking down 9th from Broadway when he reflected on the Theater District in the 1920s: “There’s a good chance that many of the fashionable people in this image work in the entertainment district and are headed to one of 19 ‘ticket’ theaters located within a few blocks of each other on this late wet afternoon. The nearby boarding houses, apartment buildings and hotels were home to hundreds of stagehands, musicians, ushers, promoters, theatrical agents and ticket office management staff that trafficked the streets and alleys day and night. On any one of those given nights there were 10,000 theater seats to be filled in Tacoma’s legitimate movie and vaudeville houses, burlesque and music halls, and the many downtown jazz clubs and brown spots. As evening approached, all the marquee lights would come on, ticket boxes would open and Tacoma’s Theater District would blaze into the high life. I can hear the music.”

The Theater District was the Gathering Place and crowds assembled by the thousands for parades, political rallies, fraternal assemblies, and a wide variety of street events – ranging from dare-devil stunts to labor riots. The first automobile dealership in the state and first automobile in Tacoma were on these streets. Wright Park was established on donated land. An Irish immigrant and Civil War veteran named Rossell O’Brien initiated the practice of standing for the national anthem when he rose during a meeting at the Bostwick Hotel on October 18, 1893. The rest, as we stand in unison, is history.

The Theater District even influenced the design of the First Baptist Church (now Urban Grace Church), constructed at 9th and Market in 1924. The building’s foundation was designed to support five additional stories if the structure was ever converted to a theater and the sanctuary was designed for the presentation of concerts. The likes of opera star Tussi Bjoerling and bluegrass bands have called the acoustics among the best they have ever experienced.

The concentration of assets in the Theater District peaked in the decade after World War II. What followed was the writing of rather desperate chapters in the saga of the Theater District extending into the 90s. There were efforts in the name of urban renewal to stem the tide of commercial flight when the Tacoma Mall opened in 1965. Drug gangs, prostitution and blight crowded out mainstream Tacoma’s desire to patronize downtown. A number of family friendly movie houses went to porno shows and eventual demolition. Perhaps it was a dose of bad karma that caused an underground fire to smolder for years at the Northeast Tacoma disposal site where so many of Tacoma’s demolished architecturally attractive buildings were buried.

The great city Hosmer and company had envisioned a century earlier was fading into another example of suburban sentiments causing a community to abandon its urban core. The heart was breaking.

A group of visionaries saw hope amid the bleakness and believed restoring the iconic Pantages Theater would make an important cultural statement. Their efforts have paid significant dividends for the community. Over the past quarter-century, a very encouraging array of investments has been made in downtown, including nine museums, the University of Washington Tacoma campus, cafes, brewpubs, artist studios as well as residential and recreational entities. Much of this has been achieved in restored historic properties.

There are non-profit groups promoting activities and aesthetics in the area, including SpaceWorks, which fills vacant storefronts with art and creative enterprise. Theater District Associates presents the First Night New Years Eve celebration. The Theater District Association raised funds for such public amenities as Ben Gilbert Park and the tile mural depicting a throng of fans filling Ledger Square to receive 1926 World Series results. A section of Court C was renamed Opera Alley and an historic identity that once was notorious now represents a site where wedding pictures and car commercials are made. In 2015, the Tacoma City Council passed as resolution celebrating the unique attributes of the Theater District. The historic Daffodil Parade has been joined by Tacoma Pride and Ethnic festivals as annual events. A two-block stretch of Broadway is blocked every Thursday in Summer for the Farmers Market. As this is written, the Broadway Center and Pierce Transit are exploring ideas to transform the Theater Square area on Broadway into Tacoma’s most appealing gathering space.

The New Urbanism movement which promotes a vibrant, walkable, culturally diverse environment plays to the trend lines for the Theater District. The resurrection of aspirations for Tacoma’s greatness as a city are carried forward with a promising heartbeat.

Since moving to Tacoma in 1981, Blaine Johnson has been active in various roles tied to community development. Following a journalistic career in Seattle, Blaine served as Port Relations Director for the Port of Tacoma and Assistant Managing Editor at the Tacoma News Tribune before focusing on the restoration of historic buildings and the renaissance of the Theater District in Downtown Tacoma. The author of several books, he recently co-authored with Brian Kamens Showtime in Tacoma, a Tacoma Historical Society project covering the city’s 140-year cultural history. Blaine and his wife, Catherine, remain active in promoting the the arts and vibrant urban living in Tacoma.