Nestled in the town of Hoquiam is one of the glories of Washington’s coast. Big, coral-colored and ablaze with lights, the 7th Street Theatre is the pulsing heart of this small downtown.
With its starlit skies and hand-painted murals, this 1928 “atmospheric” theater, so called because its interior is meant to mimic the outdoors and a nighttime sky, is like a nearly 1,000-seat jewel box designed to evoke a Spanish courtyard at twilight in minute detail. Walking inside gives you a vivid sense of the past, its optimism and lush aesthetics.
Although the theater feels perfectly preserved inside, the reality is that its current state is due to years of hard work and a group of dedicated volunteers at the 7th Street Theatre Association. In its inception the theater hosted vaudeville shows and was one of the first theaters wired to play “talkies.” Over the early years it hosted performers such as Leontyne Price, Will Rogers and Paul Robeson. By 1957, TV had become the backbone of entertainment on Grays Harbor, and for that matter, the rest of the country, and the theater struggled financially, falling into disrepair.
Multiple owners saw the 7th Street’s potential, but restoring it would take more than any individual could hope to achieve on their own. Some of the early work in the 1980s and ’90s was done by the Association’s non-profit predecessor, which put the theater on the National Historic Register and put in some much-needed upgrades to the storefront rental spaces, utilities and bathrooms.
Even with plaster falling from the ceiling, chairs with busted seats and mismatched carpets, the interior of the theater still managed to dazzle – thanks to those lighted stars in the vaulted ceiling.
“Anyone who came in here, the first thing they’d say is, ‘I had no idea this existed,’ and the second thing they’d say is, ‘There’s so much potential,’” recounted Mickey Thurman, vice president of the 7th Street Association and a longtime volunteer.
And the association was successful at getting the community to come inside and see the potential for themselves by turning the venue into the default setting for many community events, such as Hoquiam High School plays, beauty pageants and the 7th Street Kids, a nearly three-decades-old summer program that teaches local youth performance arts through a camp and a full-scale musical production.
The quintessential 7th Street event, however, is going to a classic movie. Since 2002, when the theater first acquired a working projector (a non-working one is displayed in the lobby), its movie series have been the staple for connecting the community to the theater.
A movie is a gala affair at the theater, whether it is a family favorite like “Raiders of the Lost Ark” or a classic cowboy western like “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” All movies get fancy slideshows with film trivia and previews of upcoming films, and, most importantly, the chance to get real, old-fashioned buttered popcorn at the concession stand. Sometimes there are even costume contests or, in the case of “Back to the Future,” a fleet of DeLorean cars parked outside.
“We try to make it feel like it would have felt going to this theater in the ‘40s or ‘50s, by playing previews and having the butter on the popcorn, and we have volunteers who work very hard to make each movie a special event,” Thurman said. “It’s really great for families because it won’t break the bank to bring your kids here and get some concessions and have a night of fun.”
And ticket prices haven’t changed since the film series’ earliest days — $5 for general admission.
While the theater managed to do a lot of backstage projects over the years – repairing dressing rooms and the roof, installing sound equipment and stage rigging, for example – the first real refurbishment of the public spaces happened in 2008, when the nearly 1,000 seats were refinished and repaired, a major boon to local tailbones.
In 2009, the theater received enough funding – primarily from the state – to repair the crumbling ceilings and repaint the walls and ornate plasterwork. Professional restorers used microscopic pieces of the plaster to determine the original pigments that were used, and recreated the feel of the 7th Street’s initial debut. The entire sky was restored with new lights and fresh plaster, and the walls and reliefs, which had been painted white in the ’70s, were touched up with earthy yellows and reds.
Ray Kahler, president of the 7th Street Theatre Association, said that the two projects packed a real punch for those who had been coming to the theater for so many years.
“Before those two projects, the public couldn’t really see what we were doing to just preserve the building itself and make it functional and safe,” Kahler said. “But at our very first event after the paint dried, the theater finally looked the way it was supposed to. It was a very special and emotional event for those of us who had been here from the start, and many of us never thought we would see the day.”
That year the theater also sent a contingent of volunteers to Clute, Texas, to recover the theater’s original organ, which had been sold off long ago. The association has begun fundraising to make it playable – no small feat when it sits in hundreds of pieces.
The hope is that with some modern technology added to the original instrument, the organ can play music on its own before movies start, adding to the old-timey vibe.
In 2012, the theater installed a replica of its original neon candlestick sign. The original had been lost to history, so it had to be reconceived using only a few black-and-white photos and vigorous input from the association board, which works to keep the theater as close to its original look as possible.
And of course, when you are in charge of a building as big and old as the 7th Street, the work is never done, no matter how great it looks. The association’s attention has returned once again to protecting the building and keeping it safe. The project for 2015 was replacing its old, unreliable and incredibly inefficient heating system. In 2016 the focus will be on the rear wall, which leaks rivers of water when it rains (which happens a lot on the coast). Shortly after that, the association is looking to restore the exterior paint to its original colors and revive some original painted panels – some of sailing ships, some of Assyrian-style figures – that have been covered over.
“Every year we get a little closer to what the 7th Street was in its heyday, and every year it just amazes me that we’re here, doing it,” Thurman said. “This has been a true labor of love by volunteers for the community, and it really shows.”
2016 Movie Series
Since 2002, a favorite event at 7th Street is the classic movie series. Admission is only $5.