On May 21, 1969, a small ad ran in The Seattle Times, announcing the opening of “Seattle’s newest and most unique movie theater.” It was the Harvard Exit, kicking off decades of going-to-the-movies tradition with the John Schlesinger film “Billy Liar.” Now, thousands of first dates and bags of popcorn and subtitles later, its cinema doors have closed for good.
Though the historic building will remain (it’s being renovated into office space, with a possible restaurant), it’s the end of an era for countless Seattleites. The Harvard Exit was many things to many people: a haven for film lovers, a gathering place for a community, a sprawling treasure-hunt of a building for a few kids lucky enough to grow up there … even, reportedly, a home for supernatural clientele.
The gracious theater, known for the elegance of its parlor-like lobby (complete with fireplace and grand piano), began as that rare bird: an independently owned cinema.
Local businessmen Art Bernstein and Jim O’Steen bought the 1920s-vintage Capitol Hill building from the original owners, the Woman’s Century Club, changing the auditorium to a cinema with minimal alterations.
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As Bernstein and O’Steen told The Times at the time of the opening, their plan was to choose films for quality, not box-office appeal. They hung vintage movie posters in the alley, set up a table in the lobby with free tea and snacks (Ritz crackers, usually, with cheese spread), lit a fire in the fireplace, and welcomed the movie-loving crowds.
“It was like Camelot there. It was magic,” said Janet Wainwright, the theater’s manager for much of the 1970s. Wainwright, a veteran film publicist with her own Seattle-based company, described Bernstein and O’Steen as “just having a love of the building and the movie business. It was such a personal thing for them.”
The Exit, said Wainwright, booked an eclectic assortment of films: first-run movies, classics, foreign films that hadn’t caught on in the U.S. Ingmar Bergman’s “Scenes from a Marriage,” she said, was a huge hit — “a phenomenon; really put the Harvard Exit on the map.”
Other big hits of the Bernstein/O’Steen era, Wainwright remembered, were a series of Marx Brothers double features (“the Marx Brothers just brought out the best people to the movies — everyone was in a good mood”); a Stanley Kubrick series; the 1953 French comedy “Mr. Hulot’s Holiday.” Staffers served free tea and coffee to moviegoers waiting in line in the rain — it was that kind of place.
Ruth Hayler, then an employee of Randy Finley’s Seven Gables company and now a longtime film buyer for Landmark Theatres, remembers the Harvard Exit in the 1970s as a mecca for movie fans.
An owner or manager, she said, would personally introduce each screening. She laughed, remembering their strategy to get audiences interested in the then-obscure Scandinavian comedy “The Apple War,” which went on to become one of the theater’s biggest hits.
“Nobody knew anything about the movie, and there was no trailer. What they did was, they ran the entire first reel as a trailer, about 18-20 minutes. You’re watching it and it ended on a cliffhanger. They said, ‘Come back!’ ”
And, for three Seattle boys, the Harvard Exit in the 1970s wasn’t just a movie theater — it was a magic clubhouse. Bernstein, after a divorce, lived upstairs at the Exit for much of the decade, with his sons Bjorn, Per and Nils (who lived a few blocks away with their mother) constantly in and out of the building.
“We played hide and seek, slid down the stairs to the candy counter, ran around,” said Bjorn Bernstein, 49, who with his brothers slept over on weekends and visited frequently. “Dad would let us, every once in a while, try to work the candy counter, but you’d always end up squirting butter all over your shirt,” he remembered. “I wonder what it was like for the customers to have these little kids running around.”
“We were kind of like Eloise at the Plaza … so many nooks and crannies to explore,” recalled Nils Bernstein, 46. He remembered “experimenting with the popcorn machine — which was a little bit like Lucy and Ethel in the chocolate factory.”
Though the Harvard Exit’s programming didn’t include many children’s movies at the time, the boys enjoyed “Bugsy Malone” (“the first 20 times it was shown, one of us kids were there,” said Bjorn Bernstein), “The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe,” “Bambi Meets Godzilla” and the age-inappropriate “Shampoo.”
In all their wanderings through the theater’s dark crevices, did they ever see the legendary Harvard Exit ghost, of which rumors are as old as the building? No, said the brothers. Wainwright, though, said that after unlocking the lobby doors one day, she saw a mysterious woman sitting by the fireplace. “She turned and looked at me and just faded into nothing.”
In 1979, the Landmark Theatres chain took over operations of the theater, and a new era began. Cliff Vancura, one of the first Landmark managers of the Harvard Exit, was a hands-on participant in its renovation. Now a graphic designer living on Bainbridge Island, he remembers “scouring secondhand stores” for light fixtures.
“We redid the whole place,” he said. With a friend, woodworker Duane Hagerty, he rebuilt the movie poster cases, restored the crown over the front entry, created the light box and logo by the front door, and recarved much of the scrollwork on the building’s exterior.
He also remembered “piles of bricks and rubble on my desktop” during early-’80s renovations to transform the top floor — previously used as a classroom by the nearby Cornish College of the Arts — into a second theater, then called Top of the Exit.
Vancura was also one of many over the years to get married in the lobby — “a wonderful day,” he said. It was a Sunday morning before the first matinee, with a crackling fire in the fireplace and a Cornish student playing the piano.
During the Landmark years, the Harvard Exit was home to many famously long runs. The champ was “Life Is Beautiful,” which opened in November 1998 and ran for 31 weeks. Other big hits: “Like Water For Chocolate” (29 weeks in 1993), “Baghdad Café” (22 weeks, 1988), “Run Lola Run” (21 weeks, 1999), and “Diva” (18 weeks, 1982).” More recently, “Slumdog Millionaire” (2008), “Pan’s Labyrinth” (2007) and “Brokeback Mountain” (2005) did big business there, as did 2014’s art-house smash “Boyhood,” which also screened at the Exit during the Seattle International Film Festival.
Speaking of which, SIFF has long had a presence at the Harvard Exit, but another local fest was actually born there: The Seattle Lesbian and Gay Film Festival had its first edition at the Harvard Exit, in 1996. Jason Plourde, executive director of Three Dollar Bill Cinema (which produces the festival), said that the Exit was long known for programming films of interest to the lesbian and gay community, and was for many locals their first experience with gay-themed films.
The Landmark staff “were so open to having the Lesbian and Gay Film Festival there — they understood the theater’s connection to the community,” said Plourde. “It was a really welcoming home.”
Those last words might well be echoed by anyone who walked through that lobby during the Harvard Exit’s 45 years: University of Washington undergraduates suddenly feeling very grown-up; first-daters caught up in the building’s old-school charm; visiting filmmakers delighted by the unique atmosphere; a tuxedo-clad groom who wandered across the street from his wedding reception, bride in tow, to play “An American in Paris” on the lobby piano, just for the romance of it all.
To paraphrase a line from a movie that surely played the Exit at some point or another, we’ll always have the Harvard Exit. Even after it’s gone.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org.