Murray's People: A collection of essays about fthe fascinating people who settled and developed the Pacific Northwest

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Murray C. Morgan
Alexander Pantages
Skid Road
The Viking Press, 1960

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Copyright, 1960, Murray Morgan
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This information may not be reprinted in any manner without the written permission of the author.

Alexander Pantages

spacerPericles Pantages, who started calling himself Alexander after he had been told the story of Alexander the Great, was born on a Greek island. He ran away from his native village at the age of nine and shipped out as cabin boy on an undermanned schooner.
spacerThree years later he was beached in Panama after contracting malaria; he stayed on the isthmus two years, swinging a pick and running a donkey engine in the ill-starred French attempt to dig a canal. He learned to speak "a sort of French," as a friend phrased it, and he got malaria again. A doctor told him he'd die if he stayed in Panama, so he shipped out on a brig bound for Puget Sound.
spacerYoung Pantages made a memorable entry into the Sound. As the ship entered the harbor at Port Townsend, he fell off the yard-arm into the chill water, a shock treatment that he later claimed cured his malaria. The free-and-easy atmosphere of Seattle's Skid Road (where Considine was in his first term as manager of the People's) appealed to Pantages; he talked about jumping ship and settling there, but a companion persuaded him it would be better to go on the beach in San Francisco.
spacerPantages spoke half a dozen languages, "English as bad as any," as an acquaintance put it. He found a job as waiter in a German restaurant on the San Francisco waterfront; the owner liked him because he could always find a language in which to communicate with a sailor.
spacerThough multilingual, he could read "very little much more than my very own name," but he was a meticulous man with figures. When his boss decided to visit his homeland, he left Pantages in charge of the restaurant. Pantages seems to have run it efficiently.
spacerFor a time young Alexander thought that his future was in the prize ring. He appeared in some preliminary bouts in Vallejo, a booming fight center. Short - about five feet six inches - but husky, he fought as a natural welterweight, 144 pounds. Side experts soon decided that Mysterious Billy Smith, the reigning welter champion, had nothing to fear from Pantages, and though it took him longer to make up his mind, he came to the same conclusion and hung up his gloves.
spacerHe was still looking for a quick way to fame and riches when the Excelsior steamed into San Francisco on July 26, 1897, with more than a million dollars in Klondike gold. Pantages felt that fate had nudged him. He withdrew all his savings - more than a thousand dollars, for though his pay was not large he was frugal - and started north. But fate put him aboard a ship loaded with some of the world's most adroit cold-deck artists.
spacerWhen he reached Skagway, a boomtown where coffee cost a dollar a cup and ham and eggs five dollars a plate, he had twenty-five cents in his pocket. He stopped worrying about getting rich and started worrying about getting food. He took the first job offered, as a waiter in the Pullen House, an establishment that had just been started by Harriet "Ma" Pullen, a thirty seven year old widow who had arrived in Skagway from Puget Sound with four children, seven dollars, and a knack of making wonderful pies out of dried apples.
spacerAlexander failed to make anything like the money his employer did - his salary was board and room - but he did pick up enough information about the trail to the gold fields to be able to foist himself on a party of tenderfeet as a guide.
spacerThe party made it over the White Pass trail, escaping the dangers of the precipices and the infantile paralysis epidemic then raging. Pantages' role as guide had the advantage of permitting him to cross the Canadian border in spite of the fact that he had no grubstake or passage money to display to the Mounted Police, but the disguise also had its complications: a guide was expected to build a boat to take his charges down the Yukon to Dawson City.
spacerAlexander bluffed it out. He wandered about a riverside camp, watching the experts whipsaw lumber from the trees, arguing with the experienced boat builders, telling them what they were doing wrong, soaking up information when they explained why their methods were right. He learned enough to build a boat that looked like a boat, but when he put it in the river it listed dangerously.
spacerQuickly he hauled it ashore, explained, "Well, the job's half done," and made another. He lashed the two boats together and ushered his uneasy companions aboard. They made it to Dawson. Pantages later confided to a friend in Seattle that his method of shooting the rapids was to close his eyes and trust that he was too young to die.
spacerPantages had a quick enough head for figures to realize that while prospectors might get very rich, they were more likely to die or go broke. He abandoned his dream of finding gold in the creek beds and concentrated on removing it from the men who had already found it. He found a job in Dawson tending bar. He had never mixed drinks, but a sign over Charlie Cole's Saloon read, "Wanted, One Expert Mixologist. Salary $45 per day."
spacerThe money convinced him he was an expert, and he soon became one, not only at mixing drinks but in such specialties of the Alaskan bar keep as pressing his thumb on the bar to pick up stray grains of gold and spilling a little dust on the ingrain carpet under the scales when he weighed out payment for drinks.
spacerAfter a good day a shaky man could fluff an ounce from the carpet. It was at Dawson that Pantages first became interested in the financial possibilities of entertainment. He realized that, the drinks being equal, men would patronize the saloon that offered the most amusement.
spacerHe suggested that Charlie Cole turn his saloon into something of a box-house, with a real stage and a regular orchestra. Cole did, and his place prospered.
spacerWhen gold was found in the dark sands along the beach at Nome, Pantages rushed there with a group that has been described as "the liveliest, speediest, swiftest and most sporting Dawsonites, with everyone ready to do everyone else." Alexander was as greedy as the next Sourdough "to do" a rival or, if there were enough money in it, a friend.
spacerHe had been trained in a tough school; many of his friends were pugs and pimps; the most legitimate people he knew were gamblers; he asked no quarter and he gave none. In the town of white tents on the dark and treeless beach he expected to start his conquest of the world of entertainment.
spacerHe spent the first winter working in another bar. It was so cold that he could hear his breath snap when it left his mouth, but he burned with an inner fire. Finally he found what he was after: a theater in financial trouble. Though the costs of operation were fantastic (a new violin string cost forty dollars), Pantages was sure the reason for the failure was bad management. He talked some entertainers into staking him and took over management of the enterprise.
spacerPantages did well; his associates did well to get their money back. Among those he was reported to have bilked was Kate Rockwell, Klondike Kate, the Queen of the Yukon. There were men who hated him until his dying day (in 1936) for playing fast and loose with the money lent him by Alaska's favorite dancing girl. Even if they hated him, they had to go to Pantages' Orpheum, where a seat cost twelve-fifty, if they wanted to see the best show in Nome.
spacerThe rush petered out before Pantages could make a millionaire's killing in Nome. What he gained was a grubstake and confidence that he knew what people wanted. In 1902 he sold the Orpheum and sailed for Seattle. He rented an 18 x 75-foot store on Second Street, fitted it out with hard benches, bought a movie projector and some film, hired a vaudeville act, and opened the Crystal Theater. He was his own manager, booking agent, ticket taker, and janitor.
spacerSometimes he ran the movie projector. Instead of twelve-fifty a ticket, Pantages set admission at ten cents. He based his hopes on keeping ticket costs down and turnover up. He was seeking a mass audience and he found one.
spacer"On Sundays there was no such thing as a performance schedule at the Crystal," a vaudeville fan has reported. "With people lined up at the box-office waiting to get in, Pantages would limit a vaudeville turn that usually was on stage twenty minutes to half that time, and the moving picture streaked across the screen so fast you could hardly recognize the scene. Turnover was all that mattered."
spacerPantages made enough from the Crystal to open a more pretentious establishment at Second and Seneca in 1904. He unblushingly named it The Pantages. Tickets still cost a dime and customers still lined up to wait for the next show. In 1907 Pantages opened a third theater in Seattle and began to expand his circuit southward along the coast. Big John Considine became aware that in the little Greek from Alaska he had a rival who might run him out of business.
spacerThe duel between Considine and Pantages was intense. Each man wanted to break the other, yet in the moments when they were not trying to steal each other's acts and customers they got along well. Each knew the other was an able operator in a difficult field.
spacerIn their battle for control of vaudeville, first in Seattle, then along the coast, and finally in all points west of the Alleghenies, Considine had the advantage of Tim Sullivan's political and financial connections; Pantages had the advantage of genius.
spacerA man without roots, a man who knew six languages but could write in none of them, a man who had traveled widely and always among the lower classes, a man without illusions, tough with the cynicism that comes from rubbing elbows with pugs and pimps and gamblers, he had an unerring instinct for what would please most people. He judged any act by the act itself, not by the names of the performers.
spacerOn a trip to New York he saw outside a theater an enormous electric sign which said simply, "John Drew." "Who's he?" asked Pantages. "What kind of act does he do?" His rivals scornfully repeated the story. How could a theater man not know the great star of the day? But that was one secret of Pantages' success: he wouldn't have booked a Barrymore for his name's sake.
spacerPantages and Considine took great pleasure in stealing acts from each other. Pantages probably came out ahead; he worked at it full time, often putting in an eighteen-hour day at his booking office noon to six a.m. Whenever Considine announced a star attraction a juggler, for instance Pantages would not rest until he could hire someone better, say W. C. Fields, and put him on stage the day before Considine's man arrived.
spacerPerformers, aware of the rivalry between the two promoters, would make tentative agreements with each and wait until they arrived in Seattle to learn which promoter offered more. Pantages fought fire with fire. While Considine's agents met the trains with a row of greenbacks, Pantages' man met them with a moving van.
spacerThe actors might sign with Considine only to find their equipment at Pantages', who of course wouldn't give it up. Eugene Elliott tells, as typical, the story of a xylophone trio that came to town. When Considine offered them twice the money, they argued with Pantages that their agreement with him was not airtight and they preferred the schedule at the other house.
spacerPantages got his stage manager on the phone. "'Are those xylophones down there?' he asked. The stage manager said they were. 'Take them in the alley and burn them.' The wood-block virtuoso tore his hair. 'My life, my soul,' he cried. 'For twenty years I've played those instruments. You couldn't do that to me.' 'Burn 'em,' repeated Pantages into the phone. The trio appeared at his theater."
spacerThe two Seattle showmen fought each other in their home town and across the nation. Considine had entered the national entertainment scene in 1906 when he allied himself with Sullivan; the same year Pantages had begun to expand by buying out a six-theater circuit that had lost its principal showplace in the San Francisco fire.
spacerBy 1911 the Sullivan-Considine Circuit had become the first transcontinental, popular-priced vaudeville chain in America and could offer performers seventy weeks' continuous work; Pantages, the same year, made agreements with three Middle Western chains that let him offer sixty straight weeks.
spacerBetter booking procedures won the day for Pantages in Seattle, and nationally. He simply booked better acts. Nationally he never made the mistake of relying blindly on New York booking agents. The New Yorkers were likely to send out talent that had succeeded on Broadway with the attitude that if the hicks in the sticks didn't like the act, the hicks didn't know what was good for them.
spacerPantages shuddered at such efforts to uplift the national taste. He wasn't out to improve the customers' minds; he just wanted their money. He gave them exactly what they wanted.
spacerTen years after their personal rivalry started in 1904, Pantages was clearly the victor. Considine was ready to quit. Sullivan had gone insane in 1913 and could no longer raise money or use his political influence to arrange for good theater sites. The circuit involved a great amount of real estate, but each new theater had been built by mortgaging one of the others. To keep things going, Considine had to travel a hundred thousand miles a year, and he wanted some home life.
spacerThe Considine and Sullivan interests sold out to Marcus Loew and a Chicago syndicate in 1914; they were to receive a million and a half for good will and two and a half million for the real estate four hundred thousand in cash and the rest over a period of several years. Loew retained the right to call off the agreement on thirty days' notice.
spacerWorld War I disrupted vaudeville business by shutting off the international circuit and in 1915 Loew turned the chain back. Though Considine had Loew's down payment with which to finance operations, he was unable to get vaudeville going again. In 1915 he told the court he did not have cash on hand to meet a twenty-five-hundred-dollar judgment. The next year the New York Life Insurance Company foreclosed a mortgage on his most important property. The circuit fell apart and Pantages picked up the pieces.
spacerBy the end of the war in Europe, Pantages had the strongest circuit in America. He kept adding to it. At the peak of his operations in 1926 he owned thirty playhouses and had control of forty-two others. In 1929 just before the crash picked the pockets of the nation's audience and the talkies administered the coup de grace to vaudeville, Pantages sold his circuit to Radio Keith Orpheum for twenty-four million dollars.
spacerThroughout the struggle Considine and Pantages remained personal friends not close friends, but amiable. Some years after Pantages had driven his rival to the wall, his daughter Carmen, who had been born in Seattle, married Considine's son, John Junior, in Los Angeles, where both families had moved after leaving the Sound country and where the Considines, father and son, did very well indeed as motion picture producers.

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Murray's People
A collection of essays

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