Special Reports

Theaters added culture to growing city

As the 20th century began, leaders of the town of Whatcom were anxious to create a little sophistication in their frontier community. They turned to Jacob Beck, a German immigrant who had become a successful Whatcom businessman by 1900. In answer to their request, Beck built an opulent theater complete with a Louis XIV interior and one of the largest stages on the West Coast. It took two years to complete. Beck mortgaged everything he owned to pay for the $150,000 Chuckanut sandstone building at 1312 Dock Street (now Cornwall Avenue).

Opening night was a producer's dream. Each of the 2,200 seats was occupied as the theater brought in $25,000 by opening with "Foxy Quiller," a comic opera.

Before long, well-known performers made their way to the Fourth Corner and appeared at Beck's Theater. Among them: Helen Keller; the Barrymores, America's premier family of actors; Enrico Caruso, the Italian "King of Tenors," and John Philip Sousa, famed composer of marches.

Audience members in 1909 who watched four horses gallop live across the Beck stage during "Ben Hur" might have believed that downtown Bellingham's cultural center had arrived. But, vaudeville acts soon supplemented great names on the magnificent stage, and the high-overhead theater began its slow demise, losing money each month.

Beck, himself, died in 1914, one year before a movie projection room was added to the Beck and the theater was renamed The Metropolitan Theater.

Vaudeville acts were enough to pay the bills at the less-grandiose Grand Theater, however. Built in 1905 on West Holly Street, it proved a popular destination. In 1912, when the J.J. Donovan Building went up on the site, builders immediately resurrected the Grand on Commercial Street. The new Grand could accommodate movies, a growing entertainment industry by the second decade of the 1900s.

Mount Baker Theatre

Downtown again rallied around the notion of an active cultural center when Mount Baker Theatre opened in 1927.

Opening night was nothing short of an extravaganza. Streetcars to the theater were free. A giant spotlight from the battleship USS Oregon beamed across the sky from atop the theater.

At 6 p.m., one hour before showtime, mill whistles and fire engine sirens filled the air in celebration of the event. It was a marketing coup.

"The ticket lady sold 4,500 tickets at 35-cents apiece," said Carole Morris, editor of "Mount Baker Theatre: The Early Years." "Some people walked miles to see the show, which was 'Slide, Kelly, Slide.'"

Not all of the drama was on the screen that night.

"One of the first cashiers got robbed at gunpoint," Morris said, "and the crime reporter for The Bellingham Herald who came over to cover the story ended up marrying him!"

The theater's Spanish-Moorish design was the work of architect Robert C. Reamer, who also crafted the 5th Avenue Theater in Seattle and Yellowstone Lodge.

Important to the theater was a Wurlitzer pipe organ played during the showing of silent films. However, "talkies" debuted later that year with "The Jazz Singer" starring Al Jolson - whose opening line, appropriately enough, was "Wait a minute! Wait a minute! You ain't heard nothin' yet!" - and the organ soon became obsolete.

But thanks to the Mount Baker Theater Organ Society, the Wurlitzer has been restored and is still part of Bellingham's cultural history. The theater itself was placed on the National Historic Landmark Register in 1978.