Bellingham’s historic Mount Baker Theatre (MBT) first opened more than 90 years ago as a luxurious movie palace. It is also the only survivor of five similar movie palaces built in Whatcom County between 1914 and 1930. As the centerpiece of Bellingham’s Downtown Arts District, MBT sustains the regional community through its arts education programs and substantial economic impact.
But exactly how has it been able to survive and thrive over these past 90 years? We put together this timeline to give you the inside scoop on it happened. Hint: the city and county as well as hundreds of volunteers, businesses and other donors have contributed materials, labor and dollars to save, restore and renovate MBT along the way. Through tremendous community effort, MBT has evolved into the premiere Pacific Northwest cultural tourism destination that it is today.
The Making of the Historic Movie Palace (1927-1930)
The first elaborately decorated movie palace opened in Harlem in February 1913. Between 1914 and 1922, over 4,000 movie palaces opened. The late 1920s saw the peak of the movie palace, with hundreds opened every year between 1925 and 1930, including MBT in 1927 – built by West Coast Theatres and controlled by William Fox of 20th Century Fox Studios.
Architect R.C. Reamer created MBT’s imaginative Moorish-Spanish motif in the classic style with extravagant ornamentation. This created a feel of eclectic exoticism where visual styles collided willy-nilly with one another. You’ll see a mix of French Baroque, High Gothic, Moroccan, Mediterranean, Spanish Gothic, Hindu, Babylonian, Aztec, Mayan, Orientalist, Italian Renaissance and (after the discovery of King Tut’s tomb in 1922) Egyptian Revival.
The building was completed after only one year, employing several different contractors and over 80 craftsmen experienced in stone masonry, carpentry and plaster casting. In addition to motion pictures, MBT had the latest in projection room equipment and gadgetry, a flying screen and a top-of-the-line Style 215 Wurlitzer theater pipe organ that remains today.
The Slow Decline of the Movie Palace (About 1930-1984)
MBT was to be one of the last grand vaudeville/silent movie palaces built in the entire Pacific Northwest. Later in its opening year, The Jazz Singer became the first talking motion picture to show widely, which eventually led to the end of the vaudeville era and a shift toward film and television. The Great Depression also began in 1929, instantly ending investment in lavish movie palaces.
Following World War II, television and suburb migration caused quite a decline in movie ticket sales. Most movie palaces owned by Paramount Pictures closed in 1948 as a result of a lawsuit, along with many more independent theaters who found themselves short on customers. The ones that survived, like MBT, were converted to multiple screen venues or performing arts centers that operated as regular theaters, showcasing concerts, plays and operas.
During this period, MBT remained quite unchanged. Long-time MBT Manager (1951-1986) LeRoy Kastner prevented several attempts to redecorate, leaving the original design untouched except for minor changes of carpet and paint.
In 1971, the state legislature attempted but failed to acquire MBT for Western Washington University. By 1978, MBT was placed on the National Historic Landmark Register.
The Community Saves MBT (1983)
In the early 1980s Fox sold the theatre to a Canadian firm that planned to divide the theatre into multiple screens. Vigorous public protest squashed that effort but the building was also in need of significant repair and at one point became slated for demolition. Bellingham architect James Zervas was instrumental in rallying the community to save it.
In November 1983, the community developed a partnership between the city, county, state and local businesses and citizens, making MBT a city-owned facility managed by the Mount Baker Theatre Corporation, a 501(c)(3) citizen-based nonprofit.
From that point forward, MBT’s ongoing operations have been covered by a mix of show-related revenue streams, support from Members, sponsors and volunteers, various grants, and in the late ‘90s the hotel-motel tax was increased specifically to support MBT. Capital investments and improvements throughout many phases of renovation were fueled by over $14 million in private donations in addition to regular operating streams.
First Renovation (1991 – 2003)
Several important changes occurred during this time period. A Historic Community Theatre Development Grant in 1991 allowed for safety repairs to the auditorium lights and restoration of the marquee and tower lighting. Other donations and grants provided for painting of theater walls including the restoration of the old paint in the lobby. Smoking had been allowed in previous decades so significant effort was invested in restoring the beauty of the original plaster ceiling to its original colors. A women’s restroom was added downstairs and the seats were reupholstered. A truss and fly system was installed on the stage and the orchestra pit was covered with an apron.
Phase I Renovations (2003-2004)
Phase I began with the purchase of small storefronts that were part of the theatre building and resulted in the addition of the Harold and Irene Walton Theatre, a versatile 200-seat studio theater with state-of-the-art acoustics, sound and lighting. The newer space accommodates events ranging from meetings to full stage productions.
Renovation of the exterior of the building was carried out with careful respect for the original design and included restoration of the original sandstone façade and tile parapet.
This phase also included upgrades that patrons don’t see. Dressing rooms, green room, wardrobe, production office and storage areas were improved as well as stage access. More than $4 million was invested in MBT during this phase.
Phase II Renovations (2008)
MBT was closed for nine months during Phase II which included renovation of the theater and lobby spaces, a new ticket office and administrative space, acoustical upgrades, lighting upgrades and an upgrade of the mechanical and electrical systems. Air conditioning was added to the balcony area to improve comfort and air flow.
In 2008, infrastructure was upgraded including electrical, heating and ventilation systems, as well as fire and security systems. Lighting, sound and projection technology had also been upgraded over the past two decades.
State capital funds of $197,000 and a federal Housing and Urban Development grant of $120,280 awarded to the city were part of the more than $4 million spent on this phase of renovation and restoration. Much of the remaining funds came from the Bellingham-Whatcom Public Facilities District, an independent municipal taxing authority created by the state that receives 0.033 percent of sales tax collected in Bellingham and Whatcom County.
Upgrading the Mighty Wurlitzer (2013)
MBT’s incredible Wurlitzer pipe organ was maintained for decades with the help of local volunteer organ aficionados, formally organized as the Mount Baker Theatre Organ Society. Their final act before disbanding the group was to raise funds to support the digitization of the organ. They turned over those funds to MBT with the understanding that the work would be done and the organ would continue to be played. In 2012-13 the organ was professionally converted to digital. The air still goes through each historic pipe, but now an infra-red laser beam reads electronic signals instead of the original—and degrading—electrical wiring. One of the top ten functioning organs in the U.S., the magnificent instrument is still played by traveling organist Dennis James several times a year during silent films at MBT.
Phase III Still to Come
Although no dates have been set, MBT would like to extend the current main stage from 26 to 42 feet and expand the orchestra pit to accommodate a 45-piece orchestra. Additional earthquake improvements would also be included in this Phase. These changes would accommodate large productions. They would also allow MBT staff the space they need to work more efficiently and comfortably and allow for more full productions with fewer modifications.
Continuing a Legacy of Service to Pacific Northwest People and Economy (2008 to present)
Although MBT recently celebrated its 90th birthday, it’s still an active, thriving performing arts center in excellent shape. The community treasure’s three transformed venues currently support more than 400 events and 110,000 visitors annually including more than 17,000 Whatcom, Skagit, Island, San Juan and upper Snohomish Counties’ public, private and home school communities via MBT’s educational programs. These visitors contribute approximately $90,000 from admissions and other taxes to the local economy each year.
In addition to hosting world class entertainment like traveling Broadway shows and legendary music performers, MBT also serves the local community. Local groups and organizations have access to the restored building and professionally-managed stage to make their events incredible. Through the Community Spaces program, the Encore Room is often free of charge to arts-related local nonprofits. Whatcom Symphony Orchestra, area performing arts schools, film festivals, Bellingham Technical College and speakers from various civic and community groups use the spaces each day.
As a community-owned Pacific Northwest performing arts and education center, MBT is a stunning example of how history can be preserved while serving the demands of modern, continuously changing economy, technology and society.
Want to become a part of the story? Visit Mount Baker Theatre’s website for information on Membership and giving, volunteering or scheduling a free tour of Bellingham’s historic hub for live performing arts.