Seattle Writing Prompts: The Guild 45th Theater

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You saw it was gone, right? Closed admidst a confusing cloud of no information and some vague promises from its owner, Landmark. Not that it was a huge surprise; the interior of the Guild — rustic on a good day — had really gone to seed. Look at the coloring on the top right of the building, in the photo above. Apparently, Landmark didn't care to take care of their properties in Seattle. Ask yourself this: with property values what they are in Seattle, and with Landmark steadily ridding itself of its theaters up here (only the discount theater the Crest remains), are restored versions of their theaters likely?

One might think that Landmark nominating the theater to be considered for landmark (yeah, I know. Watch the case of that leading "L") status means they wanted to gussy it up old-school style. But as the Puget Sound Business Journal slyly put it: "It is more difficult to develop official landmarks, and it's why owners looking to sell or redevelop their properties sometimes nominate them. Getting a decision upfront helps them plan what to do with their real estate." In other words, developers don't want squicky NIMBYs getting up in their grill; getting turned down for landmark status makes a sale simpler.

They also closed the Seven Gables Theatre, on the corner of 50th and Roosevelt in the U District. I knew that particular theater well. Downstairs was once a cafe called the Roosevelt that I worked in for a number of years, starting as a dishwasher and working my way up to line cook. We had an overnight pastry chef who would come in as we were closing up the kitchen after the last patrons had left, blast Bauhaus and make the most exquisite cakes, desserts, and bonbons for the after-movie theater crowd. Upstairs, I saw a number of movies, including a brain-melting screening of Fargo, which left the friends I was with complaining about the violence, but left me with an inchoate sensation that the Coen brothers were trying to say something very deep about art (I now seriously doubt they were, but I still love the movie).

I also saw Pulp Fiction in a Landmark theater, and hundreds of other movies. They always had the best popcorn, the best indies (they were the closest thing to a studio-owned chain, given the amount of Mirimax footage that threaded through their projection booths), and the best jaded employees.

KIRO Radio film critic Tom Tangney put it nicely on the aforementioned My Northwest page:

“I’m just struck at how little is left of the Landmark Theatre chain that once dominated independent film exhibition in this town,” Tangney said. “Back when I was working with Landmark two decades ago it operated not only the Guild 45th and the Seven Gables, but also the Harvard Exit, the Egyptian, the Broadway Cinemas, the Neptune, the Varsity, Metro Cinemas, and the Crest. Now the Crest is the only Landmark Theater left, and that’s a discount house.”

The Guild 45th opened in 1921 — older than the Academy Awards! — and was originally called the Paramount. They changed the name when that big theater downtown stole it. The two screens were built at separate times: the west-most screen opened in 1983. It may be the only theater in the world that has a restaurant between its two theaters. Paul Dorpat has more on the theater on his site.

So, beers up to the Guild 45th and the Seven Gables, but not for the chain that let its classic movie houses go to rot, to extract every last cent out of the faithful movie nuts of a mostly overcast city. They could have invested and made them jewels, but instead they let them go until the best move was to close them. All we have left are the stories, and because of some local Seattle film workers who lost their gigs this week, let's make them all about working behind the scenes.

Today's prompts
  1. There's opening night, and then there's the first night you're open. The Paramount theater put its first title on the marquee that afternoon. Showing's starting at 4:00pm — the main show, A Sailor-Made Man, staring Harold Lloyd. The paper came, and wrote a little piece about the theater, and even the deputy mayor came to say hello and purchase a ticket. A new theater was opening in town, and people were curious. They did okay, that night. Maybe they'd get a decent run out of this place.

  2. It was a look over spilled popcorn that finally brought them together. She was sweeping the theater while he closed out the till and locked the cash box in the manager's office. Everybody else was long gone. It was all the popcorn on the floor — the Creature From the Black Lagoon had a few decent scares — that kept them late. So he came at the row from one end while she came from the other. He knew he had about ten minutes before her dad showed up to give her a ride home. And meeting in the middle of the theater, he looked up to see her looking at him. He smiled, and then she was the one who made the move, leaning in for the kiss. Maybe his eyes should have been closed, but then he wouldn't have seen the silhouette of someone in the glass of the projection booth.

  3. The projectionist always cut one wrong frame in. It was the Newsreels — he never could bring himself to destroy them, like he was supposed to. Sometimes, he'd project them after the theater was locked up, just watching ten-year old clips about Hitler, or the Pacific Front. It started with that Mankiewicz film 5 Fingers. It was about the war, and he wondered if anybody would notice a still just spliced in. Nobody ever said anything. It was there, in the first minute of the second reel, 1/24th of a second given to something else. Nobody said anything, that was, until the day a knock came on his door at home.

  4. He always winked and raised his finger to his mouth, as if to suggest she should be quiet and keep it secret that he was there. She never told anyone until her kids were watching one of his old Westerns one day. "You know, he used to come to the theater when I worked there," she told them. "Back in the early 70s. He always came in a bit late, and left a bit early, so as not to be recognized." Her kids didn't care, but it reminded her — he gave her an autographed photo, the last time he came in. Surely, it had to be somewhere in one of her boxes ...?

  5. The doors barely closed anymore. The bathrooms leaked. The seats were broken. The ceiling was water-stained. There was mold somewhere — everywhere, you could smell it. The equipment was out of date. Everything was pretty much wrong, but it was still a shock to everyone when the manager, face ashen, asked them to all gather, and then told them to just go home. It was time to shut the place down. It was time to find other jobs. It was time to turn the lights off for good.