The Isis, the Mission, the Liberty, the Lyric, the Alhambra, the Dream Theatre. …
In the 1920s, these would have been names familiar to any dedicated Seattle moviegoer.
All are long since demolished. But they’re on vivid display in “Celluloid Seattle: A City at the Movies,” an information-packed exhibit curated by local film critic Robert Horton that explores the way that Seattleites have watched movies and Seattle has figured on the silver screen since the 1890s.
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The show, at the newly reopened/relocated Museum of History & Industry until Sept. 8, is helpfully arranged in alcoves that highlight specific phases in local film history: the silent era, the advent of drive-in movies, the indie-film movement, Seattle-inspired TV series, and more.
In each alcove, you can sit in vintage theater seats (or, in the case of the drive-in exhibit, the refurbished back seat of an old Ford Mustang) and watch trailers and clips from the era in question. The indie-film “theater” even has some fake popcorn scattered around on the floor.
“You can go as deep as you want or as light as you want,” Horton said last week, while observing visitors interacting with the exhibit. “That’s the deal.”
For history buffs, the earliest years of Seattle film history will be the most fascinating. There’s some all-too-brief Thomas Edison footage from 1897 of “Klondike excitement” on the streets and waterfront of Seattle, a snippet of “Tugboat Annie” (1933) shot on Lake Union, and behind-the-scenes 8mm footage of Elvis Presley at work on “It Happened at the World’s Fair” (1962).
The photographs of Seattle’s old movie palaces are magnificent, and so is some of the rhetorical fanfare over their arrival on the scene.
“Hail the glittering opening tonight!” a Seattle Times reporter wrote when the 5th Avenue Theatre opened its doors in 1926. “Up from the harvest valleys — down from the timbered hill — over the purple highways — they come — the happy thousands — to share in the splendor of this, the peak of theatrical achievements!”
It’s hard to imagine a contemporary reporter waxing that effusive over the arrival of a new multiplex.
“Celluloid Seattle,” along with its vintage movie posters, lobby cards, film programs and publicity stills, includes artifacts from the old movie palaces: antiquated projectors, ornate light fixtures, cigarette- and candy-vending machines, even the elegant “Ladies Lounge” sign from the old Music Hall (torn down in 1992, despite campaigns to save it).
But the exhibit isn’t simply about the past. After taking note of shot-in-Seattle films over the decades — “The Parallax View,” “Sleepless in Seattle,” “Say Anything…” — it brings you into the present with a nod to Seattle’s busy 21st-century filmmaking scene.
Detailed interviews with film directors Alan Rudolph (“Trouble in Mind”), Lynn Shelton (“Humpday”), Stephen Gyllenhaal (“Grassroots”) and Megan Griffiths (“Eden”) are well worth a full listen. Special tribute is paid to Bruce Bickford, our astonishing local clay-animator. More recent Seattle films — “Police Beat,” “Outsourced,” “Wheedle’s Groove” and many others — are acknowledged too.
The spirit of volunteerism which fuels Seattle’s film scene — whether in moviemaking or the running of film festivals — is noted. While fixing up the Moore Theatre before launching the Seattle International Film Festival in 1976, festival founders Dan Ireland and Darryl Macdonald put out the word to would-be helpers: “We can’t pay you, but we can feed you and give you shelter and, when the theater opens, offer you jobs.” (What they didn’t say was that “shelter,” here, meant the catacomb-like basement of the Moore, where the festival was held in its early years.)
There are plenty of interactive displays as well. The biggest is a green-screen setup where you can “appear” against a Pike Place Market backdrop, on the deck of a Puget Sound ferry and in other Seattle locations. Visitors were trying it out last week, either playfully or intently, making cameo appearances in the Seattle film of their dreams — a clear success.
My only gripe: The film clips showing could all stand to be a good deal longer.
Michael Upchurch: email@example.com