Alexander Pantages was a vaudeville and early motion picture producer and impresario who created a large and powerful circuit of theatres across the western United States and Canada.
Pericles Pantages was born on the Greek island of Andros in 1867. He ran away from home and went to sea at the age of nine, spending the next 12 years working on merchant ships all over the world. He left the sea in San Francisco in 1897 and made his way from there to Canada’s Yukon Territory during the great Klondike gold rush. He eventually found himself in the mining boom-town of Dawson City, where he became a business partner (and possibly lover) to the saloon and brothel-keeper “Klondike Kate” Rockwell, operating a small, but highly successful vaudeville and burlesque theatre, the Orpheum.
In 1902, Pantages left Dawson and moved to Seattle, Washington, where he opened the Crystal Theater, a vaudeville house of his own. That same year, he married a Seattle girl named Lois Mendenhall. Klondike Kate filed a breach-of-promise suit against him (settled out of court) and later wrote that he had stolen from her the money with which he purchased the Crystal.
In 1904, Pantages opened a second Seattle theatre, the Pantages. By 1920, he was the owner of more than 30 vaudeville theatres and controlled, through management contracts, perhaps 60 more, in both the United States and Canada. These theatres formed the “Pantages Circuit”, a chain of theatres into which he could book and rotate touring acts on long-term contracts.
The starting point of the Pantages Circuit was the city of Winnipeg, Manitoba, where Pantages built the Pantages Playhouse in 1914. All Pantages tours originated in Winnipeg and moved from there around the circuit of theatres. If an act died in Winnipeg it would not go on the road.
While the majority of “his” theatres were owned by others and managed by Pantages, he became, from 1911 on, a builder of theatres all over the western U.S. and Canada. His favoured architect in these ventures was B. Marcus Priteca (1881-1971), of Seattle, who regularly worked with muralist Anthony Heinsbergen. Priteca devised an exotic, neo-classical style that his employer called “Pantages Greek”.
Around 1920, Pantages entered into a partnership with the motion picture distributor Famous Players, a subsidiary of film producer Paramount Pictures, and began converting his theatres into “combo” houses, designed to exhibit films as well as staging live vaudeville. Throughout the 1920s, the Pantages Circuit dominated the vaudeville and motion picture market in North America west of the Mississippi River. Pantages was effectively blocked from expansion into the eastern market by the dominant, New York-based Keith-Albee-Orpheum Circuit (KAO). In the late 1920s, with the looming advent of talking pictures, David Sarnoff and Joseph P. Kennedy, the principals of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), which held a number of patents in film/sound technology, established the film production company Radio Pictures and moved to acquire control of the KAO theatres through quiet purchases of the company’s stock.
In 1927, Kennedy and Sarnoff were successful in gaining control of KAO, and, in 1928, changed the name of the company to Radio Keith Orpheum (RKO). They then approached Alexander Pantages with an offer to purchase his entire chain. Pantages rejected the offer.
In 1929, Alexander Pantages was arrested and charged with the rape of a 17-year-old would-be vaudeville dancer named Eunice Pringle. Miss Pringle, then an usherette in one of his theatres, alleged that Pantages had attacked her in the broom closet of his Hollywood office after inviting her in to audition. Pantages was tried and convicted and sentenced to 50 years in prison. Pantages then engaged the young attorney Jerry Geisler (later to become famous as Hollywood’s leading divorce lawyer) and San Francisco lawyer Jake Ehrlich, later to become a famous attorney in his own right, to file an appeal on his behalf. Geisler successfully petitioned for a new trial, basing his argument on the original trial judge’s exclusion of testimony relating to Eunice Pringle’s moral character. Geisler triumphed in the second trial, picturing the alleged victim as a woman of low morals, theatrically demonstrating how impractical was a rape in Pantages’ broom closet and planting in the jurors’ minds the suggestion that Miss Pringle might have been paid by business rivals to frame his client.
Although Pantages was acquitted, the trials ruined him financially and may have broken him in both health and spirit. He sold the theatre chain to RKO for a lower sum than that originally offered – far less than what his “Pantages Greek” vaudeville palaces had cost him to build – and went into retirement. Alexander Pantages died in 1936 and was interred in the Great Mausoleum, Sanctuary of Benediction, in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California.
The rumour, begun at the second trial, that RKO paid Eunice Pringle to frame Alexander Pantages, was revived in Ronald Kessler’s biography of Joseph Kennedy “The Sins of the Father: Joseph P. Kennedy and the Dynasty He Founded” (New York: Warner Books, 1997). There is only anecdotal evidence, however, to support this claim.
An apocryphal popular story about Pantages alleges that the boy who dropped out of school at 9 never learned to read or write; he kept atop a powerful, multi-million dollar business thanks to the extraordinary powers of memory sometimes developed by the illiterate.