The lackluster performance opening night was by no means an indication of the quality of entertainment to come, indicating instead, perhaps, that Everett audiences were not to be thought of as a pushovers for whatever entertainment came their way. Over the years the community came to expect, and usually received, high quality fare, witnessing a procession of personalities on the Everett Theatre stage that reads like a Who's Who of American show business in the early 20th Century.
For the first three years the theater offered road show presentations almost exclusively, averaging about one booking a week. For a decade that began with the 1904 season, a mix of road shows and stock company productions prevailed. In the middle of 1914 there was a brief, ill-fated attempt to promote the theater as a vaudeville house, after which the old road show format was reinstated until 1918, when motion picture showings took precedent, with an occasional live presentation thrown in.
During the years before the First World War, Everett was a regular stopping place for road shows that one might not expect to see in a town of such modest size. Local folks were avid theater-goers who turned out in droves to see a good show and the Everett Theatre Company's bill posting and promotional office did a thorough job of advance publicity that drew patrons from all over Snohomish County. The theater itself was modern and well-equipped, not simply capable of staging almost anything but also a genuine pleasure in which to work, an unusually fine facility for a young industrial city like Everett.
Contributing factors to the abundance of name acts were revealed with the discovery of detailed Everett Theatre Company records for the years 1903-1907. Performers got most of the gate. It wasn’t unusual for 75 or even 80 per cent of the gross to go to the attraction. Secondly, the Everett Theatre Company picked up virtually all of the costs. They paid the orchestra and the stage crew. They covered the advertising expenses. For their own part, the Theatre Company dispersed complimentary tickets that must have been excellent public relations for the company. But it is clear from a review of the company books that not much money was made from the attractions side of the business.
However, McChesney had been clever enough to incorporate a second element into the Everett Theatre Company- a profitable outdoor advertising concern. Foster and Kleiser were given their walking papers and the Everett Theatre Company stepped in as the bill poster and sign leaser for the community. The advertising business appears to have been a consistent money maker, keeping the company healthy when the stage performance side was only breaking even.
It appears that mill workers were not always reverent recipients of theatrical fare. If a show was second rate, they could be downright unruly and they were hard on anything resembling pretentiousness. Once during a highbrow drama featuring Shakespearean actor Frederick Warde a rowdy member of the audience supplied loud smacking sound effects for a kissing scene. Warde stalked to the footlights, thrust out a threatening finger and commanded "You will not repeat that beastly insult!" No one did.
When Everett fell for a performer, it could be just as demonstrative in a positive way. International opera star Ernestine Schumann-Heinke swept the city off its feet several times, proving that she didn't have to play to highbrows or limit her performances to cultural hubs to put over bel canto.
One of the first truly big-name performers to appear at the theater was Richard Mansfield. His brilliant make-up for the roles of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, Ivan the Terrible and Monsieur Beaucaire proved an inspiration to the youthful Lon Chaney and put Mansfield on the suspect list at Scotland Yard during the Jack the Ripper atrocities. He was known to be a terror to theater personnel as well, haughty, demanding and brutally unforgiving of mistakes. Everett Theatre stagehands were blissfully stunned when Mansfield publicly praised their competence at the close of his Everett engagement in June of 1902.
"The Man of a Thousand Faces" himself once worked at the Everett Theatre, though in November of 1911 no one had heard of Lon Chaney. He was only an eccentric dancer with Max Dill's musical comedy company at the time. By the mid-Twenties, Chaney's film characterizations of Quasimodo and the Phantom of the Opera would pack the theater where he had once performed in obscurity.
Local audiences saw careers being made on the Everett Theatre stage. In the summer of 1906 a young vaudeville song and dance man named Al Jolson had just begun performing as a single. He hoofed and whistled his heart out that August but was left stranded in Everett when his manager skipped town with the box office receipts. Jolson's bitter complaints about the incident appeared in New York trade papers. Nine years later Jolson was back, leading a large company in a road version of his latest Broadway hit, "Dancing Around." His rendition of "Sister Susie's Sewing Shirts for Soldiers" stopped the show and Jolson paused to reminisce about the dire outcome of his previous visit. Perhaps as a result of his earlier experience in Everett, Jolson is said to have developed a habit of personally inspecting the evening's take and putting it in a safe place before going onstage.
Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle romped across the Everett stage long before the scandal that shook Hollywood and destroyed his career. Walrus-faced Mack Swain was Everett's guest for an extended period in 1906 with his successful stock company. Eight years later he and Arbuckle were appearing in Keystone comedy films with Charlie Chaplin. Swain went on to partner with "The Little Tramp" in Chaplin's 1925 masterpiece "The Gold Rush," in which he gave a memorable performance as a starving prospector who imagines Chaplin to be a giant chicken.
Other legendary figures arrived on Colby late in their careers. Lillian Russell, forever identified with the glittering 1890s and her signature song "Come Down Ma Evening Star," came to the Everett twice, with "The Butterfly" in 1907 and again in 1909 heading a production of "Wildfire." Anna Heldappeared as "Ma'mselle Napoleon" in the spring of 1904, returning in "Follow Me" two days before Christmas in 1917. Eight months later she died of bone cancer at age 45.
Minstrel shows were very popular before the First World War and the Everett Theatre booked its share.Richards & Pringle's Famous Georgia Minstrels appeared during nine of the first fifteen seasons. Primrose & Dockstader performed the month after the playhouse opened and when they split up each returned several times more with his own troupe. Haverley's Mastodon Minstrels were also favorites.The Barlow Minstrels, Al G. Fields' Greater Minstrels, Gorton's Famous All-White Minstrels, the Hi Henry Company and William H. West's Big Minstrel Jubilee all appeared during a 15-year period that saw 21 professional companies booked for 40 appearances at the theater, not counting two amateur Elks minstrel shows and two shows staged by sailors from visiting ships.
The Four Cohans, led by the “Yankee Doodle Dandy” George M. himself, played the Everett Theatre on Tuesday, the 24th of May in 1904. The show was "Running For Office," a musical comedy with words, music, libretto, and direction by Cohan. Boasting a cast of 72, it had been a success on Broadway a year earlier and played to enthusiastic audiences in Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago. The show was publicized as a farewell tour for the Four Cohans as George was about to embark on a solo career.
Some unanticipated competition emerged after the show was booked. The dedication of the Masonic Lodge a block south of the Everett Theatre was set for the same night. This event diverted not only a substantial part of the potential audience for the Cohans but took the theater’s house orchestra as well. To make matters worse, a depressed shingle market had forced the closure of most local shingle mills only days before the show hit town.
Details of the Cohan engagement have survived in the records of the Everett Theatre Company. The box office statement, receipts, financial summary, and notes on distribution of complimentary tickets provide a detailed description of the business end of the event.
Attendance that May evening was 415, representing 379 tickets sold and three dozen given away. That amounted to a dismal third of capacity. As it turned out, the Masonic dedication drew about 300 people. None of the $2.00 box seats were sold. 121 orchestra seats had been purchased at $1.50 each, but most of the theatergoers that evening were in the cheap seats. 176 people paid from 50 cents to $1.00 to sit in the balcony and 83 people opted for the two-bit seats in the upper balcony or “peanut gallery.” The box office total for the event amounted to $335.50.
For this engagement the split was 75/25, which meant that the Cohan company took away $251.65. The signature on the Theatre Company form is that of manager Fred Niblo, husband of performer Josie Cohan and brother-in-law of George. Twenty years later Niblo was in Hollywood directing some of the most memorable motion pictures of the silent era, films like "Ben Hur,"Valentino's "Blood & Sand" and Douglas Fairbanks in "The Mark of Zorro." Of course these films were shown in Everett at the same theater where Fred Niblo once accepted some pretty disappointing proceeds for his brother-in-law's troupe.
The Everett Theatre Company's 25 per cent came to $83.85, but out of that they had to pay expenses. Because the house orchestra had been hired away by the Masons, a stand-in group under J. Scott Turney of the Red Men's Hall was brought in. They split $16.50 seven ways for their evening's work. The crew backstage, working under stage manager Bill Farleman divided $8.50. Local newspaper ads cost the company $9, $5 to the Herald, $3 to the Evening Record and $1 to the Labor Journal. $3 went to doormen and ushers, and Mrs. Boyer, the backstage maid, was paid her usual $1 fee.
When all these debts were paid the Everett Theatre Company had just $45.85 left, but the three dozen complimentary tickets they distributed must have had a cash value at least equal to that. The public relations value of free tickets seems always to have been a part of the Everett Theater equation for McChesney and his associates. And some of the "comps" were given in exchange for props or other amenities. For the Cohan engagement a dozen of the free tickets went to local newspapers, though no real review of the performance seems to have appeared.
A diverse selection of other entertainment notables graced the stage in the early years of the century. The sentimental Irish melodies of Chauncey Olcott proved irresistible when he performed in person in 1909. Pugilists Jim Jeffries, Bob Fitzsimmons and Gentleman Jim Corbett took to the stage when the ring ceased to provide for their needs, and though better acting had been seen locally, their efforts were warmly received.
Certain favorite plays returned again and again. Charles Yale's production of "The Devil's Auction" was a familiar attraction and each year saw new special effects added to the fantasy extravaganza. "Uncle Tom's Cabin," the first professional drama staged in Everett back in 1892, was frequently presented, often by Stetson's Big Double Company, which toured the country offering nothing else. Ethnic parodies like "Yon Yonson," "Ole Olson" and "Pete Peterson" were perennial favorites.
Lillian Mason led one of the summer stock companies at the Everett Theatre in 1909. Seventeen years earlier she had appeared at the city's variety box houses, eventually moving up out of the saloons and onto the legitimate stage. Another actress worked the formula in reverse. "Tex" Guinan, who played the Everett in 1911 and 1915 as a cast member in big musical productions, gained fame during the Twenties as a speakeasy proprietor.
Occasionally there was a dazzling succession of major attractions, like the two week period early in the summer of 1913 when Alla Nazimova, Maude Adams as "Peter Pan" and Eddie Foy and the 7 Little Foys appeared one right after the other. Helen Keller spoke the following year. Audiences missed a chance to see Anna Pavlova when her performance was cancelled in 1915 due to poor advance sales, but Ruth St. Denis danced on the Everett Theatre stage that year.
The drama of real life occasionally overshadowed the stage productions. One autumn evening a jealous young lady attacked her rival on the sidewalk in front of the playhouse. The victim had just attended an elaborate performance of the tragedy "Salaambo" but it was the melodrama that developed outside which made the front page of the Herald next day.
The labor problems that erupted during the construction of the theater were omens of things to come. From the outset Everett had an unusually monolithic power structure and in response to this a militant union movement developed. When the theater was completed a prominent painted ad for a brand of cigar made in Snohomish appeared on the building. It was soon pointed out that the cigar maker was non-union and complaints from local labor organizations eventually resulted in the removal of the sign.
When local stage employees organized in 1910, the Everett Theatre Company refused to meet their wage demands. In September the theater went to the top of the Labor Journal's blacklist and a union journalist chided manager Harry Willis, calling him "the suave little man who ran the Everett Theatre until the stage workers closed him down over the stupendous sum of five or six dollars a show." The theater stayed closed until mid-November, when the wage agreement was signed and Willis was replaced by Johnnie Pringle, a pro-union stock company manager. Pringle, who was the father of film star John Gilbert, proceeded to demonstrate just how lucratively the place could be operated while paying union scale, enjoying a prosperous eight-month run.
A more violent confrontation occurred on the evening of Tuesday, August 29th, 1916 when the theater figured in a skirmish that served as a prelude to the tragic "Everett Massacre." Thirty-five strike breakers from a local mill were marched by their employer to the playhouse to be entertained by the "Brilliant Oriental Mysticisms of Alexander, the White Mahatma." By the end of the performance about 150 strikers and their sympathizers had assembled outside and they proceeded to follow the strike breakers down Hewitt Avenue toward the bay. As they neared Grand Avenue violence erupted. In spite of gunshots and flailing clubs, local police rescued the embattled "scabs" before anyone was seriously hurt. An apparent response to the incident was the public declaration two days later that 200 citizens had signed up as volunteers to assist the sheriff in his suppression of "lawless acts." This core group, known as "The Committee," met the steamship Verona on November 5th, preciptating the bloodiest labor violence in Pacific Northwest history.
The theater reflected the trends of the times. Initially road show versions of musicals and celebrity productions dominated. When stock companies were in vogue, the Everett Theatre ran stock. When stock gave way to vaudeville, circuit acts were booked and for a brief period the theater was even known as the "Pantages Everett." This turned out to be an unauthorized use of the name by a relative of vaudeville mogul Alexander Pantages, who ended the venture with an injunction. Just as effective in inhibiting more extensive use of the theater for this purpose was the presence of Joe St.Peter's Rose Theater, a popular circuit vaudeville house across the alley from the Everett. Local audiences were affectionately loyal to the Rose, which kept a firm hold on local vaudeville activity during most of it's seventeen year career, 1910-27.