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Coliseum Theater

Seattle's Coliseum Theater is located at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Pike Street. Seattle's Coliseum Theater, designed by B. Marcus Priteca, once referred to as "the first of the world's movie palaces" opened on January 8, 1916 and closed on the evening of March 11, 1990. The Coliseum is an early example of large-scale, luxuriously decorated theaters. In 1915, at the start of the silent-film era, the Coliseum opened as Seattle's first theater built expressly for showing movies. It was built for the movie crowds of 1916. The Coliseum was a shallow theatre, but designed to hold over 2,000. By the 1980's only major blockbuster films could hope to fill the theatre to capacity and those films were rare. The Coliseum Theater played first-run movies until the late 1970s, the Coliseum closed without much fanfare, then sat sadly vacant throughout the 1980s and early '90s. In its last years, the Coliseum filled its between-blockbusters schedule with a mix of comedies, crime dramas, and exploitation films, designed to try to attract a low-end urban audience. It was the sole surviving movie palace in downtown Seattle that still showed movies, and it had a small but loyal assortment of fans. The day after the Coliseum closed, one of the managers was kind enough to allow a 16mm camera and some lights inside the building to try to document the Coliseum's architecture. Because the Coliseum had been registered as a landmark, the building's exterior would likely be preserved from radical alteration or destruction. However, the interior would almost certainly have to undergo major changes, destroyed, if the property was ever to see use again. The Coliseum had gone through a variety of changes between 1916 and 1990, notably during a major remodeling effort in 1950 that removed much of the elaborate interior decoration, and replaced the exterior cupola half-dome entrance with a more contemporary marquee. By 1990, it was economically impractical to try to restore the Coliseum and use it for any entertainment purpose other than as a movie house. At the time, two other downtown theater spaces were struggling to stay open after such restoration, and one other landmark, The Music Hall, was being slated for demolition. In 1995, due in part to the Federal Historic Preservation Tax Incentive Program, the deteriorated Coliseum Theater underwent rehabilitation and its interior spaces were adapted for use as a clothing store. Today the Coliseum Theater is a very effective adaptive use project that dramatically illustrates the successful marriage of commerce and historic preservation. Other original design elements that were lost before 1990 included elaborate patterns of tiny electrical lights, simulating starlight, in the underside of the balcony, and similar light fixtures in the building's exterior, which provided illumination for the carved "COLISEVM" lettering in the side of the building in the pre-neon era. Mosaics, many incorporating Asian and Egyptian imagery and motifs, were removed or covered up in the 1950 remodeling. Also lost at some time were fountains by the orchestra pit, and birdcages, which held 30 canaries in the walls of the upper foyer. Given the wide range of the interior decoration and design that remained after the changes and remodeling, it seems certain that the Coliseum was one of the most eclectically designed movie houses ever built. The interior was stunning, with ornate plasterwork, including busts of goddess, gargoyles and a huge lion's head over the proscenium arch. The lobby featured imported Italian marble, lighting fixtures designed by Priteca himself, and a huge chandelier. In keeping with the Roman theme, mosaics decorated the lounges and foyer floors. The exterior of the Coliseum Theater has been maintained, and elements of the original decor have been incorporated into the store's design. Even with development in the blocks around it, the Coliseum remains a Seattle landmark holding its place at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Pike Street, as it has for the past eighty years.