Photo of Plummer's Hall
Plummer's Hall

Founded in 1851, Seattle’s earliest entertainments were provided by the settlers thems­elves. Henry L. Yesler’s steam sawmill began operating in 1853 and the mill’s cookhouse became the public gathering place for the small community of early pioneers. In 1859, Charles Plummer added a second story to his store; known as Plummer’s Hall, it was used for concerts and entertainments from 1859 to 1866.

Another early performance space was created when Yesler constructed Yesler’s Hall in 1861 at the corner of Commercial (now 1st Avenue South) and Mill Street. The upstairs of the building was used for public events and performances. Yesler added yet another early Seattle performance venue when he constructed Yesler's Pavilion in 1865 (commonly known as Yesler’s Hall after 1875).

Seattle’s first professional theatrical engagement took place at Plummer’s Hall on April 23, 1864 when Edith Mitchell gave a dramatic reading of Shakespeare to a “small but appreciative audience”  who “manifested their satisfaction by frequent applause” (The Washington Gazette, April 26, 1864). Less sophisticated entertainment, however, was far more common in Seattle in its early years. During the 1860s and early 1870's, for example, Seattle pioneers were treated to a minstrel-variety show by the Stars Minstrel Company (1865), musical entertainment by Annie Pixley and her sisters (1866), a magic show by Martin the Wizard (1867), a performance by the Seattle Amateur Dramatic Club (1868), the Great World Circus (1869), and the McGibney Family with a program of songs and recitations.  

Yesler's Hall program for the McGibney Family performance of songs and recitations
Yesler's Hall program for the McGibney Family performance of songs and recitations

Beginning in the 1870's larger theatrical companies made their way to Seattle to perform full- length plays.  Fanny Morgan Phelps arrived in March 1875 and performed Taming of the Shrew, the first production of a full length Shakespeare play in Seattle; the Phelps Company performed in Yesler's Pavilion. Phelps and her company also entertained Seattle audiences with popular melodramas of the day including Uncle Tom's CabinThe Ticket of Leave ManThe Gilded Age and The Lady of Lyons. Other companies appearing in Seattle during the 1870's include the George B. Waldron Company (The Octoroon, The Colleen BawnRosedale) and the Sawtelle Dramatic Company (Under the Gaslight, East LynneDriven from Home, Rip Van Winkle).

The 1870's also saw the rise of "box houses" in Seattle.  Box houses had stages for performances, but the primary focus was on selling alcohol to patrons. The performers not only provided the evening’s variety entertainment, but also served drinks to audience members. The theatres had private boxes with curtained off spaces on the sides for privacy, while still allowing the patrons to watch the show. Although the focus of most box houses was the sale of alcohol, some box houses were also venues for prostitution.

The Theatre Comique, one of the earliest box houses, opened on July 26, 1876 with 24 private boxes and an acting troupe of 11 members. Smith's Bijou Theatre, another box house, opened in 1882 at Second Avenue South and Washington. Admission was free and audience members were entertained by a comedian and banjo soloist,  a clog and jig dancer, a serio-comic speech orator, a serio-comic songstress, and a jig dancer artist (Seattle P-I, November 22, 1882).  The box houses were not considered appropriate for family audiences and were located south of Yesler Way near brothels and bars—an area where few genteel residents ventured.

Squire’s Opera House, built by Watson Squire (later Governor of Washington Territory and a U.S. Senator), opened in November 1879 on the east side of Commercial Street between Washington and Main streets. Squire's was the first building purpose-built as a theatre in Seattle and was significantly larger than any of the city's other performance venues. The wood-framed three story theatre had seating for nearly 600 audience members and a stage area of 1,200 square feet.

Photo of Annie Pixley who performed with her sisters at Yesler's Hall in 1867
Photo of Annie Pixley who performed with her sisters at Yesler's Hall in 1867

In 1881, Squire’s Opera House hosted performances by William E. Sheridan, perhaps the most well-known actor to have appeared in Seattle. Sheridan starred in RIchelieu in September of that year, returning in December to perform in Othello, Merchant of Venice and King Lear, among other plays. A newspaper review of Othello suggests that theatregoers were exposed to a higher quality production than previously seen in Seattle:  “Othello was presented in a manner never approached before in this city. The company forms a notable and gratifying exception to all preceding in this conspicuous fact” (Seattle Daily Chronicle, December 17, 1881). In May 1882, Nellie Boyd and her company performed the melodrama Fanchon the Cricket at Squire’s Opera House; this was followed in August by Effie Ellsler and the Madison Square Theatre Company in Hazel Kirke.

Unfortunately, Seattle's first attempt to support a large legitimate theatre was not sufficiently profitable due, in part, to the small number of theatrical touring companies coming to the city prior to the arrival of transcontinental rail travel to the Puget Sound area in 1883. Squire's Opera House closed in 1882 and the building reopened as the Hotel Brunswick in 1883. Seattle was left with only one legitimate theatre, Yesler’s Hall, at the end of 1882.