Behind the screens at century-old Neptune Theatre

Nov 10, 2021, 8:43 AM | Updated: 9:06 am

The Neptune in the University District will celebrate its 100th birthday next week, which makes it one of Seattle’s oldest continuously operated theatres. A community celebration is already underway, and will culminate with a big event on Tuesday, Nov. 16.

The nautical-themed Neptune kicked things off one hundred years ago, on Nov, 16, 1921, with a film called “Serenade.” George Walsh and Miriam Cooper starred in what was described as a “Romance of Old Spain.” The film was directed by Raoul Walsh – that’s George’s brother, and Miriam’s then-husband, by the way.

In 1921, films were silent, so the Neptune had a Kimball pipe organ and a live organist playing along with the action. Talkies – movies with sound – came along about a decade later, and that was the Neptune’s bread and butter for most of the next 80 years. It was a neighborhood movie house in Hollywood’s pre-TV heyday, and later a place to see “Rocky Horror Picture Show” and foreign and indie films when it was operated for years by a company called Landmark Theatres.

That all changed in 2011, when the nonprofit Seattle Theatre Group (STG) took over – the same people who operate the Paramount and the Moore in downtown Seattle. STG converted the old movie house at 45th and Brooklyn into a venue mostly for live music – but also for comedy, as well as the occasional film – with seats that can be moved out of the way, an expanded stage and backstage with new sound system, and a green room and dressing rooms in what was once an upper floor apartment.

Dan Reinharz is manager of the Neptune for STG. He was also tour guide a few days ago on a hunt for history inside the century-old showplace.

“As we walk around the theatre, we can look up in the grid from where the organ pipes were from when it was a silent movie theater and you can see little sand dollars and things that you would absolutely miss if you just came in the venue to see a show when the lights are off,” Reinharz said. “But when the lights come on in this venue, it uncovers just a lot of secret little hidden gems all over the place, which is very cool.”

One of the not-so-hidden gems are the brilliantly colored decorative windows in the main auditorium featuring nautical themes like mermaids and King Neptune, the theatre’s namesake.

As memorable and iconic as those windows are for anyone who’s been to the Neptune in the past several decades, it may come as something of a surprise to learn that they don’t date to 1921, and they’re not exactly what they appear to be.

“This is what appears to be stained glass,” Reinharz said. “Actually, it’s stained plastic, which, according to Dale Chihuly, is even more rare than stained glass.”

“The best guess on the time period [for when they were made] is the 1960s,” Reinharz continued, “just based on the graphic and the detail of it. They’re beautiful, and they’re unique in the sense that everybody thinks they’re stained glass, but they are not.”

Stained plastic windows aren’t the only décor in the Neptune to have been added or changed over the years. The original interior underwent a few remodels and updates, including a big one in 1935, and again in the 1940s when the organ went away.

And even with these changes, what’s remarkable is that the Neptune is still standing at all. Pressures on owners and operators of old neighborhood theatres – changes in the film industry and expansion in at-home viewing options, plus boom after boom in real estate prices – mean that with a few notable exceptions, many once bustling movie theatres have shut down and been reimagined, or simply demolished.

That the Neptune survives is likely a result of fortunate circumstances dating back more than a century, as well as lucky matchmaking a decade ago between the owner and the current tenant.

“That’s one of the most interesting things about the theatre is that it’s been in the same family who’s owned it since before it was a theater,” Reinharz said. “They literally owned the dirt and they moved … the house that was on it to build this building,” with the theatre, adjoining retail, and upstairs apartments.

“It was a huge undertaking for the family” a century ago, says Reinharz.

And though it’s no secret, it’s not widely known that STG operates the Neptune but doesn’t actually own it. Craig Thompson and his daughter Carolyn Thompson, both of San Diego, are fourth generation and fifth generation, respectively, owners.

“My grandparents and great-grandparents built the building,” Craig Thompson told KIRO Radio. “My great-grandparents’ homestead was on the property, and they removed their house in about 1918 or so and trucked it down Brooklyn, loaded it on a barge and moved it to Three Tree Point down by the airport.”

“That was their beach house,” Thompson said, which he believes is no longer standing.

Thompson also says that one of his family members a hundred years ago – his mom’s Uncle Roy — was a dentist, so the second floor of the building that includes the Neptune Theatre was originally built to house a dentist’s office. There were also apartments, which are still occupied, and a ground-floor retail space that currently houses a bookstore.

The family is ecstatic that Seattle Theatre Group is their tenant, and Craig Thompson says STG is welcome to stay for as long as they want. He says that a decade ago, the movie-only days of the Neptune had gotten pretty tough.

“It was a dinosaur when Landmark was there was,” Thompson said. “A thousand, [or] twelve-hundred-seat building that would have 12 and 15 people in to watch a movie? It was pathetic.”

The change a decade ago was monumental, Thompson says, and STG gets the credit for reviving the old venue, and making it rapidly succeed.

“Seattle Theatre took over and I think they sold out, I believe it was four of the seven first shows they did there,” Thompson said. “It’s so neat to stand outside and watch a thousand people coming out of there, versus 12 or 15.”

Even with a pandemic closure from March 2020 to July 2021, STG says the Neptune has hosted more than 1,600 events and attracted more than a million attendees in the decade they’ve been operating it as a live venue.

Unfortunately, those one million people have not been able to see some of the most interesting parts of the Neptune: areas that are typically off-limits to the public, including a large basement beneath the auditorium – where a giant disused boiler looks like an exploded locomotive – and the projection room in the back of the balcony. That space is built like a hardened bunker, since in the early years of the theatre industry, movies were made of highly flammable nitrate film.

And, of course, no story about a hundred-year-old theatre would be complete without addressing the requisite rumors of the Neptune being haunted.

Reinharz says people over the years have reported seeing spectral figures of old movie stars in the balcony, and smelled ghostly cigarettes when no living person has been smoking. He also personally heard a story not long ago when a new city meter reader needed access to the theatre.

“I was showing him around the building and I said, ‘You want to go to the bookstore?’” Reinharz said, offering to take the meter reader to the adjoining retail space. “Now, he goes, ‘No, we don’t go there anymore.’ I asked why, and he said, ‘Ten years ago, one of our readers was going down the stairs and the door slammed behind him and something pushed him, and he broke his ankle.’”

Reinharz seems agnostic when it comes to whether or not to believe that the Neptune is truly haunted, and whether or not there might be more – or maybe less – to the meter-reader’s story.

“I don’t know if he slipped and he fell down the stairs and he came up with a ghost story to save face,” Reinharz said. “I don’t know [and] I’m not making any assumptions here.”

With Seattle Theatre Group collecting Neptune memories from community members and inviting the public to the theatre’s centennial celebration on Nov. 16, has Reinharz reached out to that previous meter reader to include him in the commemoration?

“I wish I knew who he was because I would totally invite him,” Reinharz said. “And I would ask him for the whole story.”

Admission to the event on Tuesday, Nov. 16, at 7:30 p.m. at the Neptune Theatre is free, but online reservations are required.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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Behind the screens at century-old Neptune Theatre