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Feb. 24, 2024

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100 years of flicks. State’s longest running movie theater is in the heart of Tacoma

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TACOMA — When The Blue Mouse Theatre opened on the evening of Nov. 13, 1923, it sold 25-cent tickets for the black-and-white silent film “The Green Goddess.” Mayor Angelo Fawcett gave a speech. A singer and musicians performed. Tacomans walked, drove their model Ts, or rode a street car to the theater.

Now, 100 years later, movies cost $10 and Teslas take cinema goers to the Proctor District theater that is purportedly Washington’s oldest continuously running movie theater.

The Blue Mouse, and the generations of families who have walked through its mahogany doors, might have parted ways if not for the efforts of a dedicated group of supporters who rallied to purchase and run the theater in 1993. Their goal was to make it a vital part of the city’s fabric.

“We succeeded in building a sense of community,” co-owner Erling Kuester said.

To mark its centennial, The Blue Mouse celebrated the weekend with a gala, classic movies, and, in a nod to the past, a showing of “The Green Goddess” at its original 25-cent price.

It began in 1923

Tacoma was a bustling city in 1923. The country was between two world wars and the Depression was still a few years away.

In the entertainment world, radio was king. But movie houses — some refitted vaudeville stages — proliferated across Tacoma where residents without electricity in their homes or those yearning to join in communal entertainment could gather to watch their favorite stars on the big screen. Warner Bros. studios and Disney were both founded that year.

Movies weren’t called silent films in 1923. That term only developed after the “talkies” came along in 1927. Early films were sometimes referred to as photo plays or flicks, because the slow frame rate made the films appear to flicker.

A Blue Mouse rises

The arts-and-crafts-style theater was built for $40,000, according to a history filed with Tacoma’s Landmarks Preservation Commission. When The Blue Mouse opened, it had an organ for musical accompaniment. For patrons, it featured a “crying room” in the women’s restroom (so mothers could still watch a film while dealing with unhappy children) and a smoking room in the men’s room.

It was the fourth Blue Mouse built in the Northwest by theater mogul John Hamrick. The small chain was supposedly named after a Parisian night club Hamrick had visited in his youth, according to the history. Tacoma’s Blue Mouse at 2611 N. Proctor St. is the sole survivor of its kin, including a 1922-built Blue Mouse at 1131 Broadway in Tacoma. That theater was demolished to make way for one of Tacoma’s oddest innovations: a moving sidewalk.

Because Hamrick would first screen a film at the larger, downtown Blue Mouse before showing it in Proctor, the smaller theater was dubbed “Blue Mouse Junior” according to the Landmarks Preservation Commission history.

Hamrick brought talkies to Tacoma in 1927 with “The Jazz Singer.” In 1928, “Blue Mouse” was dropped from the theater’s name and wouldn’t return until 1993.

Saving a treasure

During the last century, The Blue Mouse endured ownership and name changes. The low point came when it served as a pornographic movie house in the 1970s.

In 1978, a group of young Seattleites purchased the theater with a determination to return it to its Golden Era movie days by showing classic films. Headed by Jeff and Greg Radiske and Jeff’s wife Paula, the group renamed it The Bijou. They worked at the theater and at second jobs to keep the theater viable. But, after years of mounting debts, the group sold it in 1981 to a local theater chain owner.

As it did in its early days, the theater began showing second-run movies at cheaper rates.

Tacoma saviors

By 1988, the Bijou was owned by Shirley Mayo, who operated it as an independent movie house. When her health declined, she approached longtime Tacoma City Council member, community advocate and business owner Bill Evans in 1993 to see if he would be interested in buying it.

Evans approached Kuester, whose own history with the theater dated back to his college days at Pacific Lutheran University. He and his friends would bring blankets to watch movies at the unheated theater.

“It was a real plain theater with T1-11 siding and painted battleship gray,” he recalled.

Evans and Kuester would eventually form a group of 19 local partners who each contributed $5,000 or $10,000 to purchase and restore the theater. The Blue Mouse Associates, as they called themselves, then spent $90,000 and five months restoring the theater close to its 1923 atmosphere.

“We didn’t always agree on what the theater was going to be and what it might look like in the future, because it was a new venture for all of us,” Kuester said. But they all agreed it had to be saved.

“It was historic preservation. It was business preservation,” he said. “It was to make sure with some certainty that it wasn’t going to become something other than a theater … demolished, like the other theaters, or cut up into a space like offices.”

As restoration progressed, many of the building’s architectural elements and motifs, long hidden by modernizing remodels, were uncovered.

The new owners also restored the name to The Blue Mouse Theatre.

“That was Bill Evans, giving the theater back its original name,” Kuester said.

The group never saw Mayo’s books, Kuester said. But then, making money was never really the point, he said.

“It’s run as a business,” he said. “It’s fickle. When you get a good film, then people come and you make money.”

Mediocre films don’t do well, Kuester said.

Today, the theater shows movies Friday through Monday. In between, the theater is often rented for corporate events. Sometimes, it’s rented for a personal event. Couples will rent the theater just for themselves to watch a cherished movie on their anniversary, Kuester said.

After a stage extension and the addition of a restroom, beer storage room and other modifications, the original theater now seats 205. A blue curtain hides the movie screen, surrounded by a Craftsman garden-style lattice frame with faux arbors on either side.

Manager now a shareholder

Sue Evans has managed the theater for the past 28 years and, as of summer, is the newest shareholder. An owner bequeathed Evans a half share.

But, Evans said, the theater really belongs to the community.

“It’s their community space,” she said. “It’s a place where they can come enjoy films and enjoy their neighbors.”

Evans has seen the theater go from 35 mm film movies to an all-digital projection — a switch funded by $85,000 in donations made in 57 days in late 2012.

Evans brought the midnight showings of “Rocky Horror Picture Show” to The Blue Mouse in 2001 after its original theater in Lincoln Plaza closed. It screened every Saturday night.

“And within the first year of ‘Rocky,’ it pulled us out of the red and it put us in the black,” she said. The movie is still screened with its all-volunteer shadow cast twice a month, January-October.

Another fan favorite is Friday Night Frights, curated by Anthony Dluzak. His horror-movie selections show every third Friday at 10 p.m. The nights feature a horror movie-themed poster created by a local artist, prizes and a trivia contest. He’s shown “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” “Poltergeist,” “The Omen” and “Killer Klowns from Outer Space.” In December, he’ll show the Chirstmas-themed horror film, “Krampus.”

Dluzak doesn’t think movie theaters are becoming passe for younger generations.

“I’m quite surprised by the amount of young people who come to our events,” he said. “They even turn off their phones.”

Second run to first run

For decades, The Blue Mouse showed second-run movies. Missed “Titanic” when it was in the theaters? No problem. It would soon be at The Blue Mouse. In 2018, after studios changed screening policies, The Blue Mouse began showing first-run movies, starting with “The Grinch.” Since then, it’s been mostly a first-run theater, although movies might open a week or two after they do in the mega complexes, Evans said.

Recently, “Barbie” and “Super Mario Brothers” were big sellers at The Blue Mouse. The theater focuses on family friendly films.

“If we get a real R-rated movie, you’re only bringing in a certain demographic of people,” Sue Evans said. “We do play them, not very often.”

When Evans first started, the theater had just over 300 seats. Even with its current 205 seats, the theater rarely sells out, she said.

“I always tell people, we have more legroom than every airline in the country,” she said.

The theater once again needs to replace its seats, she said.

At night, the unassuming building takes on a different, rodent-themed ambiance. Blue neon mice run along the top of the theater’s marquee and over two clocks.

The 25 mice were designed by Tacoma native, world famous glass artist and Blue Mouse Associate, Dale Chihuly. The mice were fabricated by neon artist Kevin Russell.

Green Goddess

On Nov. 13, exactly 100 years to the day, “The Green Goddess” will once again play at The Blue Mouse. The 1923 film came near the end of the silent-film era and was remade as a “talkie” in 1930 with many of the same actors. Green Goddess salad dressing was created to promote the film.

In the movie, a plane drops into the movie’s frame (special effects were not what they are today), delivering three British subjects into the hands of the ruler of the “near east” kingdom of Rukh. The ruling rajah, played by George Arliss, falls for the female member of the trio, played by Alice Joyce.

A publicity still from the movie states that the rajah “entertains his guests and condemns them to death.” Drama ensues.

After that showing, The Blue Mouse will return to its regular schedule for, maybe, another 100 years.

“The ownership still believes this is a community asset,” co-owner Brad Lehrer told The News Tribune. To that end, the ownership group is establishing a community advisory group to offer guidance.

“Do we do the same thing?” Kuester asks. “For another 30 years what we’ve been doing? Probably not.”

Whatever form it takes, Kuester wants local residents to usher the theater from one generation to the next.

“Just like it has,” he said. “That really isn’t going to change.”

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