By Dr. Taso G. Lagos
On the evening of the opening of his grandest creation, the Pantages Hollywood theater, Alexander Pantages was lying in a Los Angeles County Jail hospital bed suffering from chest pains.
It was June 4, 1930 and starry Hollywood turned out for this epic event, despite the nation plunging into economic meltdown. It was broadcast not on one but two local radio stations.
Pantages’ lawyer had asked the LA District Attorney’s office to allow his client to visit the glittery event, but the assistant DA refused, claiming it was not his jurisdiction. That was an evasion, since two days later Pantages was suddenly given his freedom. Likely the reason he was refused participation in the grand celebration of his theater (broadcast on two radio stations) was because he had been convicted of sexually assaulting a 17-year-old dancer.
Pantages’ life story reads like an American dream. His rise from nothing to amass a fortune worth as high as half-billion dollars today astounds the imagination. If any single individual encompasses and best represents the various machinations and sides of the Second Wave of immigration into the United States between 1880 and 1925 it is Alexander Pantages. More than 22 million of them entered the country, the largest influx in percentage terms of any period in American history. These immigrants changed the face of American society and culture. Certainly, they turned film from second-rate entertainment to the most popular art form in the country. Pantages was one of the pioneers of this stunning achievement. Yet, history neglects him. Why?
The answer starts on the windswept Aegean island of Andros sometime in the 1860s (his exact birth year in uncertain).
It is claimed that he left his family in Greece at age nine. He was with his father in Cairo, Egypt, where he may have worked in a tobacconist shop. For two years, Pantages worked as a deckhand on cargo boats, but at 11 he jumped ship and labored in the Panama Canal when the French were digging it, having begun the massive project on the isthmus in 1881.
What compelled Pantages as a nine year-old to run away from home he never fully explained, nor particularly felt guilty about. He claimed to a reporter in 1920 that he was born to the sea so that it was natural for him to take to the open waters. He also professed that he was a born entertainer, adding that his father owned a circus on Andros. How a sparsely-populated island of mostly subsistence farmers, fishermen and sheepherders could support a year-round circus is left to the imagination.
He was never completely happy in his circumstances, which led him later in his life to take chances that other mortals strenuously avoided. Of how he fared on the cargo boats, where he was sexually molested, or faced other hardships he remained startlingly mum. He spent two years on the high seas before picking up the pick-axe in Panama, like thousands of others slave-like laborers, for the arduous task of ripping out a big ditch from the savage tropical forest of the isthmus. He did not fare well; he caught malaria and he was given the choice of remaining there and likely dying or seeking cooler climates at a time when the disease was thought to be caused by “bad air” (hence “mal aria”).
Pantages promptly got on a boat and headed north. He first stopped in Seattle WA after falling into the chilly waters of the Puget Sound (he claimed the dip cured him of his disease, the kind of mythologizing for which he became famous). He liked the stinky, lumberjack city and even wanted to remain there but a friend from the boat convinced to continue to San Francisco. He did and it became his home for well over a decade.
California formed Pantages. He worked as a dishwasher and waiter, volunteered as an usherin a vaudeville theater and even was a boxer for a brief period. His dealings were not always above board; he may have been involved in the opium trade. His restlessness returned; feeling trapped in dead-end jobs. He also wanted to explore new places; the idea of home life and being settled appears to have been of little regard for Pantages.
When he left Greece he never returned for the rest of his life; there were few attachments in his life and he could gut any of them at any time.So when a schooner laden with gold pulled into harbor in 1897, he caught gold fever. Within a few months he was on his way to Alaska. He quickly realized when he landed in Skagway,then made preparations for the arduous trek across hundreds of frozen miles to the Canadian destination of Dawson City that mining was not his calling. He became a bartender instead, fell in love with a famous showgirl – “Klondike Kate” Rockwell – and managed a vaudeville theater there.
By 1902 he was ready to strike out on his own. He ditched Rockwell, married a young, quiet 18-year-old violinist from a respected family in Oakland, CA, and began his theater empire with the opening of his Crystal theater. Rather than relying on vaudeville acts, he also screened films, then just emerging as a cultural phenomenon. He rode the wave of the growing stature and popularity of film so that within three years he opened his second theater, and suddenly the United States and Canada were dotted with Pantages theaters.
His name became a well-known brand, with hardly anyone knowing he was originally born Pantazis. When he altered his surname, a common practice among many immigrants, is not known.
He was ruthless, clever, hardworking and creative in his business. Despite Seattle being a highly competitive entertainment market, he thrived. This was partly due to his intense focus on the customer, decades before it became a religion in the digital sphere. He never accepted acts simply at the word of agents, but had to see them for himself with a live, paying audience before booking them. Most stunningly, despite being unable to read or write English, he had a prodigious memory common among illiterates that allowed him to keep track of his entire 72-theater operation entirely in his head. Pantages realized that giving his customers, many of them working class folks, the illusion of being in a “palace” was good business. Working with an immigrant, Jewish-Scot architect, B. Marcus Priteca, he turned movie attendance into swanky events, complete with white-gloved ushers, ornate lobbies and well-appointed restrooms. No detail was too insignificant. He delivered value to his customers in the form of quality entertainment at a reasonable cost. It skyrocketed him to fame and fortune.
It says something of the social importance of film that in 1910 a church in downtown was replaced by a Pantages theater. Even God, it seems, favored movies.
Yet, when he and his family moved to Los Angeles, his restlessness came back to haunt him. He got the reputation of an “old goat,” a middle-aged man with bedroom eyes. Soon stories of trysts with underage minors in Mexico and husbands accusing him of lustful attempts on their wives emerged. And when the 17-year-old dancer came to his office to get him to book her act, rather than meeting her in his office, he foolishly took her to a tiny side room. Accusations of sexual assault resulted. His restlessness came with a price.
He never recovered after being found guilty in late October, 1929, despite two years later being exonerated of the crime in a retrial. He yearned to get back into the theater business, but amid the Great Depression, it was impossible. His theaters now completely sold off, he raced horses instead.
Yet, the man who tried to forget his Greek past, suddenly rediscovered it. He started doing business in Greek and became more connected to the Greek-American community. When he died in his sleep on February 17, 1936, he died a peaceful man. Without the rape conviction, he likely would be remembered today as the true motion picture theater pioneer that he was.