John Cort

1861 - 1929

John Cort was a well- known theatre owner in Seattle and New York who influenced much of the development of theatre company syndicates on the west coast at the beginning of the twentieth century. Born in New York in 1861, John Cort first attempted to make his name as an actor. After ten unsuccessful years, he moved to Cairo, Illinois, where he briefly became the manager of the Grand Opera House before he moved West.

Cort arrived in Seattle and took over the Standard Theatre, running it as a box-house (a kind of saloon with a stage), which was very popular with the lumber and mill workers of the day. Cort's theatre was so successful that in 1888 he built the first venue in Seattle to have electric lighting as well as steam heat, electric service-bells, and an 800-person capacity, a new Standard Theatre at the Southeast corner of Occidental and Washington Streets.

The Seattle fire of June 6th, 1889 provided a momentary setback to the growth of Cort's business; the fire burned almost all of the venues of Seattle, Cort's Standard included, and the best of the two remaining venues, Turner Hall, was taken over by George Frye. Not about to be beaten, Cort quickly erected a tent where he ran his programs instead, maintaining the flow of business until his new Standard Theatre could be constructed that November.

By 1890, Cort was doing well enough again to finance the construction of a new theatre pavilion in Leschi park, which catered, at first, to families and genteel audiences. Eventually, however, drinks began to be served at the pavillion, and it gained the ire of the anti-vice critics in the papers. The approach of the rainy winter meant the close of the pavillion, and Cort was also beset by lawsuits carried out by the manager of the Oriental Burlesque Company, one of which found him responsible for the sum of $21,000 dollars left unpaid from promissory notes issued in 1889 and 1890. At the same time, Cort became estranged from his wife and found himself in a custody battle for his two very young sons, Harry and Edward.

The economic depression briefly led to a business deal between Considine and Cort, when they operated the Standard together as the People's Standard (Elliot). By 1894, however, Cort had to withdraw, and traveled to Walla Walla, Washington, where he briefly leased Paine's Theatre before moving to Chicago in September, where he managed the Imperial Theatre. Cort returned to Seattle to build a new theatre in 1900.

With the local economy lifted again by the Alaskan Gold Rush, Cort built his Grand Opera House, which could seat 2,200 people, at 217 Cherry Street. The construction paused briefly after the completion of the basement because of a lack of funds, and once again Cort resorted to his box-house practices to make ends meet. Cort quickly found new backing, however, in the early months of 1900, and contracted the Pacific Amusement Company to finish construction on the opulent Grand Opera House (Elliot 37). Around this time, Cort became involved with the organization of acting company syndicates, most of which began on the East Coast, and acted like trusts, controlling the movement of acting companies through theatres from one region to another. Organization was necessary to the flourishing of America's young theatre circuits, and Cort recognized how important it was to his own business.

By 1903, he had either purchased or developed business deals with 37 theatres along the West coast, and would move his acting companies north from San Francisco to Portland and Seattle, and east through Spokane to Butte, Montana. Cort also organized, along with John and Tom Considine, Charlie Watkins, and H. L. Leavitt, an organization called the Independent Order of Good Things. The organization's original aim was to create a united front of theatre managers in the face of the musician strikes of 1908. Eventually the club would evolve into a fraternal organization with 40,000 members called the Fraternal Order of Eagles.

Over time, local audiences began to complain about the repetitiveness of syndicate shows, whose major aim was to fill seats, not to develop new attractions. This dissatisfaction may have led to the development of other forms of entertainment, such as vaudeville. In response to the public's turning opinion, in 1910, Cort helped to organize the Independent National Theatre Owner's Association, a group of circuits outside of the east coast which had left syndicates. At the same time, the Klaw and Erlanger Company began construction of the Seattle Metropolitan Theatre, intending to steal Cort's business with a modern and lavish venue. However, Klaw and Erlanger later made a settlement with the Association, and allowed their members to negotiate for both independent and syndicate contracts. Almost directly thereafter, in 1912, John Cort moved his business offices to New York, and constructed the Cort Theatre in New York in the Broadway District.

Cultural Identity: 
Performing Art Group Affiliations: 
Elliot, Eugene C. A History of Variety-Vaudeville in Seattle from the Beginning. Seattle : University of Washington Press, 1944. Print., Flom, Eric L. "Cort, John, (1861-1929)"., 9 Aug. 2001, Essay 3296, Seattle Daily Times, 22 Jun. 1905, p.3, The Seattle Republican, 30 Dec. 1910, p.42-44,