Alexander Pantages

1867 - 02/17/1936

Alexander Pantages was a famous theatre impresario, vaudeville circuit owner, and movie mogul whose empire stretched across most of the western coast of America in the early twentieth century. Born Pericles Pantages in 1867 in Greece, Alexander changed his own name and ran away from home as a child, working as a deck hand before making his way to San Francisco and then Alaska during the Gold Rush.

Pantages' first business venture was an unlucky one; shortly after construction was completed on his theatre in Skagway, Alaska, a new trail north was completed bypassing Skagway. Traffic through town dried up as did Pantages' audiences. Determined to make it to the Klondike, Pantages sold the lot and building in Skagway for just $20. Several days later his money had dwindled to 25 cents, and he took a job as a trail guide, though he had never seen the trail before. Pantages eventually ended up in Dawson, working as a janitor. It was here that he met Klondike Kate, a vaudeville actress, saloon-dancer, and brothel operator, who made her name and fortune entertaining miners during the Gold Rush. The two became business partners, and had a brief and volatile love affair. Their vaudeville and burlesque theatre, the Orpheum, was quite successful, sometimes pulling in $5,000 a night.

In 1902, Pantages left Dawson, sold his effects for $10,000, and went to New York, where he invested $6,000 in theatrical ventures. In September of 1903, he took his profits and the money from the Orpheum, moved to Seattle, and built The Crystal Theatre, a vaudeville and motion picture venue, which he at first staffed entirely by himself. Pantages also married Lois Mendenhall in secret, telling Kate four days later in a letter. Kate then filed a breach-of-promise-to-marry lawsuit against Pantages, but the two settled out of court. In 1904, Pantages opened a second theatre named after himself, The Pantages, and in 1906 he built the Lois Theatre, named for his wife.

By 1909 Pantages had amassed a considerable fortune, and owned mansions up and down the west coast. By 1920, Pantages owned more than 30 theatres and his Pantages Circuit had vaudeville performance contracts with some 60 more. At this point Pantages' largest competitor was John Considine, and the two frequently employed subterfuge and intrigue to steal each others' contracted performers, as Considine did in 1908 with Myron Gilday and John Doe Fox. However, Pantages possessed a certain business genius that set his theatres and performers apart; Pantages screened both vaudeville and motion pictures, personally selected his performers, and took great care with the aesthetic appearance of his theatres. Pantages employed Seattle architect B. Marcus Priteca to give all of his theatres a cohesive architectural identity, which would be termed Pantages-Greek (Statt). Around this time Pantages also entered into partnership with the motion picture distributor Famous Players, a subsidiary of Paramount Pictures, and further expanded his performance and film venues.

Pantages eventually moved himself and his offices from Seattle to his new theatre in downtown Los Angeles, at 7th and Hill Street. Here, however, Pantages' upward ascent stopped. In 1929, during the crash of Wall Street, Pantages was accused of raping 17-year-old vaudeville dancer Eunice Pringle. At the same time Pantages' was on trial, his wife Lois was herself facing a court battle. Lois had been driving while under the influence of liquor along Sunset Boulevard in Beverly Hills, and would be eventually convicted of manslaughter for the death of Juro Rokumuto, whose car she collided with, though she would not serve time in jail due to her poor health. The ensuing media coverage, especially that of the Los Angeles Examiner, ruined Pantages' reputation. Pantages was convicted on on October 27, 1929, and sentenced to fifty years in jail.

Pantages served some time in jail, and hired attorneys Jerry Giesler and Jake Ehrlich to appeal the decision. Pantages was acquitted at the second trial in 1931 after Giesler painted Pringle as a woman of low morals who could have fought off Pantages if the rape had really occurred. Despite the acquittal, Pantages' reputation and business had suffered a fatal blow, and Pantages sold his theatre chain at a loss. In retirement, Pantages made a living by racing horses, and eventually died of heart failure in 1936 (Statt).

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Seattle Daily Star, 10 Feb. 1908, p.1, Seattle Daily Star, 14 Jan. 1910, p.14, Seattle Daily Times, 11 Sept. 1929, p.16, Seattle Daily Times 18 Oct. 1929, p3, Statt, Daniel. "Pantages, Alexander(1876-1936)" 5 Mar. 2001., Essay 2999.