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.
Pantages was born in Greece in 1867, on the Greek island of Andros. He ran away from home at age 9 and worked for 12 years as a sailor on merchant ships travelling all over the world. In 1897 he jumped ship in San Francisco and made his way 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 Pantages Circuit started in 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 to any other city.
Up until this time all he Pantages theatres (the buildings) were only managed by Pantages but owned by others. Starting in 1911 Pantages starts building his own theatres all over the western U.S. and Canada. His favoured architect in these ventures was B. Marcus Priteca (1881-1971), of Seattle. Priteca devised an exotic, neo-classical style for all the Pantages theatres that his employer called “Pantages Greek”.
Eventually, Pantages entered into a partnership with the motion picture distributor Famous Players in the 1920s, a subsidiary of film producer Paramount Pictures, and began converting his theatres so that they can exhibit films as well as staging live vaudeville. The Pantages Circuit dominated the vaudeville and motion picture market in North America west of the Mississippi River throughout the 1920s. Despite his success in the west Pantages was blocked from expanding into the eastern market by the dominant, New York-based Keith-Albee-Orpheum Circuit (KAO). With the looming advent of talking pictures in the late 1920s, David Sarnoff and Joseph Kennedy, the principals of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) established the film production company Radio Pictures and the slowly acquired control of all the KAO theatres through quiet purchases of the company’s stock.
After Kennedy and Sarnoff gained control of KAO they approached Alexander Pantages with an offer to purchase the Pantages Theatres chain as well. Pantages rejected their offer.
Following this, later 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 in his Hollywood office after inviting her in to audition. Pantages was tried, convicted and sentenced to 50 years in prison. Pantages, through his lawyers, petitioned for a new trial, basing his argument on the original trial judge’s exclusion of testimony relating to Eunice Pringle’s moral character. His lawyers 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 Pantages.
Although Pantages was finally 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 considerably lower sum than that originally offered and went into retirement. He died in 1936.
A rumour that begun at the second trial 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). The roumor at the time was that RKO and Joseph Kennedy had paid Eunice Pringle to frame Alexander Pantages.
Another 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.