Murray C. Morgan
The Viking Press, 1960
Northwest Room Home
Copyright, 1960, Murray Morgan
All Rights Reserved
This information may not be reprinted in any manner without
the written permission of the author.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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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