WA-List » Historic Theaters, Part 2: Eastern Washington

Historic Theaters, Part 2: Eastern Washington

Published by Steve Campion. Category: Buildings & Other Structures

Theaters are wonderful examples of the evolving nature of contemporary life.  New structures rise to accommodate today’s needs and technology, while surviving older buildings offer glimpses of a city’s character in earlier eras.  Few public spaces are — at the same time — as intimately welcoming and elaborately decorated as twentieth century theaters.  They were built as showplaces but were often showy places themselves.  The earliest were built exclusively for live performances, but later theaters accommodated audiences in the movie era.  In this age of cinemas and multiplexes, precious few grand architectural examples of yesteryear remain in use, but those few are still worth visiting.

Earlier this year we asked Susan Johnson to help us identify some surviving gems from the golden age of historic theaters in Washington.  She is an architectural historian with Artifacts Consulting, Inc. and was a contributing author to the Washington State Historic Theaters Survey and Physical Needs Assessment (2008).

Johnson not only listed a few dozen theaters that she considered personal favorites, but was kind enough to write a few notes for each: things to know, things to look for.  Her complete list includes theaters from all over Washington, but she consented to our request to publish it in two parts.  Today’s installment focuses on eastern Washington and lists the theaters in alphabetical order.  We showcased her favorite western Washington theaters in February.

Part 2: Eastern Washington

  • American/Liberty (54 East Main Street, Walla Walla)  Opened as a theater in 1917, this site appears on this list for its surviving exterior only.  The interior is no longer a theater.  It was remodeled as an extension of a department store in 1990.
  • Bing Crosby (901 W Sprague Avenue, Spokane)  Another important piece of theater history for Washington.  It was designed by E.W. Houghton, the same architect who created the Moore in Seattle and the Liberty in Wenatchee.  It opened in 1915 as the Clemmer Theater.  It was known over the years as the State and the Met, but earned its current name in 2006.  Bing Crosby, by the way, was hired in the early days of the Clemmer to entertain between movies. (sign, above; exterior, below)

  • Capitol (19 South 3rd Street,Yakima) Amazing restoration was done to this 1920 theater after it was heavily damaged by fire in 1975. Designed by B. Marcus Priteca, the Capitol’s auditorium is similar to the Pantages in Tacoma (which was also by Priteca and opened in 1918).
  • Vue Dale Drive-In (1546 South Wenatchee Avenue, Wenatchee)  This may be closed now but it was one of the last drive-ins in Washington.
  • Fox (1001 West Sprague Avenue, Spokane)  I can’t do the Fox justice in a few lines. It’s fabulous. It is Hollywood, Art Deco, and the golden age of theaters. Recently restored, the theater now shimmers and
    sparkles again. Get ready for some photo ops. Robert Reamer designed the Fox – the same architect who designed the Old Faithful Inn at Yellowstone National Park, the 5th Ave Theater in Seattle, and the Mt. Baker Theater in Bellingham.  Spokane hosted Will Rogers, Janet Gaynor, and child star Rose Marie, for the theater’s grand opening in 1931. (exterior and interior, below)
  • Liberty (11 South Mission Street, Wenatchee) Another E. W. Houghton design, from 1920. The old advertising screen is still rolled up behind the stage curtains. The Liberty has been a performing arts stage, a cinema, and was divided into multiple auditoriums. The theater has been altered but has a great story of surviving the changing times.
  • New Ritz (107 East Main Avenue, Ritzville) This theater makes me imagine what Ritzville was like in the 1930s with a little American Graffiti mixed in. It was built in 1937 and is relatively intact today. (exterior, below)

  • Nifty (201 Locust, Waterville) Built in 1919, the Nifty still has remnants of its vaudeville origins. It is a unique survivor of days past in eastern Washington. The interior has more surprises.  I can’t ruin them here.  Check ahead for open hours/events. (interior, below)

  • Omak Cinema (108 North Main Street, Omak)  Built in 1937 as a cinema and it is still operating as such. There is some intact Art Deco embellishment on the interior.
  • Roxy (118 South Washington Avenue, Newport)  There are unique, 1950s-era materials in the lobby and auditorium.  The exterior may be rather plain but the inside is worth a visit – and they claim the best popcorn around. (interior, below)

  • Ruby (135 E Woodin Avenue, Chelan) Built in 1913, the Ruby still has a rare horseshoe-shaped balcony.  The building is charming inside and out. (interior, below)

  • Sunset (102 North Columbia Avenue, Connell)  Built in 1952 by August Aubert, this is still a small town, single-screener. It’s so intact, even the original popcorn machine is still there. It is a wonderful example of a mid-century, modern-style theater (exterior and interior, below).
  • Tekoa Empire (126 South Crosby Street, Tekoa)  Nice, intact example of a neighborhood or small town one-screener.  It was built in 1940, with Art Deco influences.

SOURCE: Thanks to Susan Johnson for her expertise in selecting her favorite theaters, noting some of their best aspects, and writing about them for us.

PHOTOS:  Exterior images of the Bing Crosby, Fox, and Ritz © Steve Campion.  The Nifty, Roxy, Ruby, and Sunset  images are courtesy of Susan Johnson.  The Fox interior photo by Whitney Cox appears here courtesy of  The Fox Theatre.

P.S.  Most of these venues spell it theatre.  It’s all good.

See also Part 1: Historic Theaters of Western Washington!


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