The 5th Avenue Theatre is one of America's leading musical theater companies. We enrich the community we love with the art form we love—giving the Pacific Northwest a front-row seat to original powerhouse productions that go on to light up marquees and audiences all the way to Broadway. From the page to the stage, we bring passion and epic scale to every musical we create. With big talent. Bigger-than-life productions. And did we mention dazzle? As a nonprofit theatre company and our region's largest performing arts employer, we spread the joy of great musicals with people of all ages across our region and state.
Each year, we reach more than 75,000 young people through our nationally acclaimed education programs. Programs designed to develop new musicals ensure that the next generation of great musicals will be there to tell the stories that captivate tomorrow's audiences. On the national stage, we are a leading voice for the power of this American art form to lift the human spirit.
To nurture, advance and preserve all aspects of America’s great original art form: the musical.
The story of The 5th is as much a story of Seattle as it is the story of one of our nation’s treasured cultural keystones. Built in 1926 as a home in Seattle for Vaudeville tours when our city’s national profile was established as “the Gateway to the Orient,” the theater is ornately modeled on the Forbidden City in China, as well as the Emperor’s Summer Palace and the Temple of Heavenly Peace. To this day, it is widely considered to be one of the most beautiful theaters in our country.
Despite a storied existence as both a Vaudeville stop and later the city’s most popular movie palace, the combination of the recession in the ‘70s and the rise in popularity of both television and the Cineplex proved a fatal mix for The 5th. In the late 1970s the theater shuttered its doors and fell into disrepair. For a time the fate of the theater was uncertain. There was some discussion of whether or not the theater should be torn down, and even discussion of converting it to a Chinese restaurant.
But 43 of Seattle’s business leaders saw opportunity and value in The 5th. And that is where our story begins.
In 1979, when the city of Seattle faced losing the historic 5th Avenue Theatre, 43 local companies and community leaders joined forces to save the glorious building, forming the non-profit 5th Avenue Theatre Musical Theater Company.
This visionary group of leaders saw a need in our city, and saw an opportunity for The 5th as well. Following the recession, Downtown Seattle struggled. After hours, all businesses were closed. There was a perception that it was not safe to be downtown after dark and as a result, restaurants and shops struggled to stay open.
Additionally, at that time, there was no theater that was presenting Broadway tours in Seattle. Broadway shows would travel from California directly to Vancouver, British Columbia, bypassing the Pacific Northwest altogether. Despite a latent passion for the arts, there was no opportunity for Puget Sound residents to experience the biggest and the best from Broadway without planning a trip to New York.
The founders saw an opportunity for The 5th to be a beacon of light and joy in Downtown Seattle—a reason for people to come downtown after hours, to celebrate their city, and revel in the magic of transformative theatrical experiences.
From its very inception, The 5th Avenue Theatre was created to serve Seattle.
And it was wildly successful. The national tour of Annie—then a brand new musical—launched the theater’s re-opening. The show ran for 77 sold-out performances over 10 weeks and stamped the theater as the premier venue for large musical theater stage productions in Seattle.
The first few seasons were smash successes. But another national recession hit in the mid-‘80s and The 5th struggled to stay afloat. By 1985, The 5th virtually shut down its musical presentations and for the next several years was sustained only by off-season theater rentals.
In 1987, Marilynn Sheldon, who had started with the theater in 1980 as the box-office treasurer, was appointed managing director. When the theater launched its 1989/90 season, its whole approach had been transformed.
Beginning in 1989, The 5th began its first steps toward becoming the national powerhouse producers of sensational musical theater. The theater formed a partnership with Theatre Under the Stars (TUTS) in Houston, Texas with Artistic Director Frank Young curating a season comprised of co-productions that played both in Houston and in Seattle along with the traditional Broadway touring productions.
No longer would the theater limit itself to presenting only touring productions of Broadway musicals; it would now produce its own shows, with the goal of presenting home-grown productions of the caliber of those found on the stages of New York. With this new approach, The 5th would become the only professional theater organization in the Pacific Northwest to stage both touring productions and its own high-quality musicals.
One thing quickly became clear: Seattle had an insatiable appetite for the kind of musical theater that The 5th brought to the city. By 1993, The 5th had one of the largest subscription audiences in the country and had become a largely self-sustaining non-profit organization.
The Theatre decided to invest its success back into the city it calls home, starting with other Seattle theater organizations. In the mid-‘90s, The 5th established a $1 million charitable endowment through the Seattle Foundation, making grants to support education programs at cultural institutions throughout Seattle.
At the same time, The 5th took its own first tentative steps toward creating robust education programs, starting with the creation of The 5th’s Adventure Musical Theatre Touring Company.
Through this program, The 5th created original educational musicals that toured to schools throughout Puget Sound, giving many people their first exposure to live theater productions.
By the late ‘90s, Frank Young and Marilynn Sheldon agreed that The 5th was ready to fully come into its own. Young departed The 5th, and a national search was launched for a new artistic director.
The story of Seattle is a story of innovation, of creativity and ambition. Industry leaders like Boeing, Microsoft, and Amazon lead our local economy with fearless drive. The 5th Avenue Theatre stands proudly among those powerhouse organizations that define their field due largely to contributions of our former Executive Producer and Artistic Director David Armstrong.
In 1999, David Armstrong was directing The Secret Garden at The 5th when the organization launched its national search for an artistic director. Thrilled with the warmth of the audience and the theater’s rich history, Armstrong threw his hat in the ring and in 2000, following a series of interviews, he found himself at the head of the largest creator of musical theater on the West Coast. Under his leadership, the theater truly began to stretch its wings and see just how much it was capable of.
Within a year of his arrival, the theater began producing new musicals, helping to re-shape the model for the out-of-town Broadway tryout. Rather than simply providing a space, The 5th sought to be an equal-partner in production, with a meaningful voice in the final shape of a show. In 2002, The 5th Avenue Theatre presented the world premiere of an unknown musical called Hairspray. The show was an instant hit with audiences. Following its Seattle run, the show opened on Broadway where it was an overnight sensation, winning a number of Tony Awards including Best Musical.
This launched a series of wildly successful new and world premiere musical productions on our 5th Avenue Theatre stage. To date, The 5th has produced 20 new musicals. Nine have gone on to Broadway runs, garnering 14 Tony Awards including two for Best Musical (Hairspray and Memphis.)
In 2010, Marilynn Sheldon announced her retirement and the theater added Managing Director Bernadine (“Bernie”) Griffin and Producing Artistic Director Bill Berry to its executive leadership. Griffin was the very first staff member of the now-extensive development department, hired in 2002. Berry was the former Producing Director and oversaw the education and outreach programs, which have grown by leaps and bounds under his management.
Under this new leadership trifecta, the theater titan of the Pacific Northwest has aggressively pursued its mission: to nurture, advance, and preserve all aspects of America’s great original art form—the musical.
As The 5th became a more and more significant player in the national landscape, it took the natural next steps and launched a new works development program of its own in 2011. Now, instead of waiting for commercial producers to bring musicals to us, The 5th would be developing them on its own. Since that time, The 5th has played a meaningful role in the development of more than two dozen new musicals—largely without any visibility to the general public.
As the organization has grown, so has its investment in its community and in future generations. The 5th has extensive education and outreach programs that last season alone served more than 72,000 young people, and a further 8,000 adults. In 2012, The 5th Avenue Theatre launched its flagship education program: Rising Star Project, which has grown from a single annual event to an umbrella for a number of programs that offer direct mentorship to teens in professional theater fields ranging from performance (acting, singing, dancing) to administration (producing, marketing, fundraising) to the creation of musicals (writing, composing, directing).
The 5th Avenue Theatre has also become a proud economic driver in the Puget Sound economy. As the single largest arts employer in the Pacific Northwest, The 5th creates 800 jobs annually for artists, technicians, and craftspeople and pays approximately $8.8 million in wages. Additionally, The 5th pays $5.2 million annually to vendors. Finally, audience members spend an additional $45 per ticket in Downtown Seattle when they attend a live theater event (restaurants, transportation, shopping, and lodging). With all of this combined, The 5th is a $27.3 million contributor annually to our region’s economy—a leader and trailblazer in the performing arts landscape.
In July of 2018, David Armstrong stepped down as the artistic head of the organization. Rather than launch a national search for his replacement, the Board of Directors opted instead to divide his executive responsibilities between Berry and Griffin.
So what’s next for The 5th Avenue Theatre? Is this a moment for The 5th Avenue Theatre to reach its branches toward up toward the heights of achievement? Absolutely. But it begins with growing and enriching our roots. It begins with recommitting ourselves to the community we have been intrinsically connected to from the very beginning. It begins with authentically enriching and engaging with our city: Seattle.
The 5th Avenue Theatre will continue to live deeply within its mission. Musical theater will always be at the heart of what we do. But as we continue moving forward, we will produce work that is culturally relevant and accessible to all of our community. We will invest in the development and futures of our sensational Seattle talent pool. We will create opportunities to tell the stories that reflect the rich diversity of the people who live here. We bring the uplifting power of musical theater into the lives of young people who have been left behind or brushed aside.
We serve our audience first and foremost. We serve our community. We serve Seattle. And if we do that authentically and intentionally, then we will be makers of truly meaningful, relevant, and revolutionary art.
After 11 months of construction, The 5th Avenue Theater celebrated its grand opening on September 24, 1926 with a Fanchon & Marco vaudeville production and more than lived up to its promise as a magnificent showplace. Under the guidance of architect Robert C. Reamer and interior designer Gustav F. Liljestrom, the ornate interior of the building was modeled after three of Imperial China’s most spectacular architectural achievements: the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heavenly Peace, and the Summer Palace. The theater was also considered a technological marvel at the time, thanks to its state-of-the-art sound, lighting and ventilation systems.
When moving pictures became popular in the 1930s, The 5th thrived as a movie palace, thanks mainly to the efforts of film exhibitor James Q. Clemmer. Known for his showmanship, Clemmer arranged to have an organ rise from the center of the orchestra pit during a film’s most suspenseful moment and ushers wore costumes that reflected each movie’s theme.
The recession of the 1970s, coupled with the popularity of television and the growth of movie complexes in the suburbs, put The 5th Avenue Theatre out of business in 1978. But a committed group of community leaders who envisioned bringing Broadway entertainment to Seattle responded by raising funds for a much-needed building renovation.
At the theater’s grand re-opening on June 16, 1980, actress Helen Hayes christened the stage with a kiss and declared it “a national treasure.” The 5th Avenue Theatre became Seattle’s premier home for Broadway shows, starting with the national tour of Annie. In 1989, The 5th Avenue Musical Theatre Company was established as a resident non-profit theater company and The 5th Avenue expanded its mission from simply presenting touring shows to producing Broadway-caliber productions of its own.
From the intricate grilles graced by Ho-ho birds to the coffered ceilings and the balcony walls covered with orange blossoms, chrysanthemums and lotus flowers, the interior of The 5th Avenue Theatre is awash in color, texture, and remarkable detail.
One of the most stunning features is the auditorium’s center dome, a replica of the dome of the palace throne room in the Forbidden City (only the 5th Avenue dome is twice the size of the original!). The “Pearl of Perfection” chandelier is held in the teeth of a great coiling dragon, which has five toes; each toe represents an evil spirit that must be vanquished.
The elaborate proscenium arch that frames the stage features numerous Chinese motifs, including bas-reliefs of the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace. Prominently placed on either side of the main staircase in the theater lobby is a pair of Fu Dogs. Fu Dogs like these have traditionally stood guard in front of China’s imperial palaces.
Several changes were made during the building’s painstaking renovation. The orchestra pit and auditorium seating were rebuilt, the dressing rooms were moved, and the technical systems updated. However, the furniture, fixtures and signage are all original. Even the paint was carefully restored to its original luster.
June 16, 1980, marked the theater’s rebirth and began a new chapter in Seattle’s arts community. Now a historic landmark, The 5th Avenue Theatre continues to thrive with the assistance of many generous donors and volunteers.
When The 5th Avenue Theatre was forced to close its doors in 1978, 43 local companies and community leaders joined forces to save the glorious, historical building. In 1979, this visionary group formed the non-profit 5th Avenue Theatre Association and raised $2.6 million for renovations.
Following a spectacular $2.6-million renovation, the theatre re-opened in 1980, more beautiful than ever and emerged as Seattle’s premier home for touring Broadway shows
In 1989, with the generous assistance of company sponsors, The 5th Avenue Musical Theatre Company was established. The new non-profit company expanded its mission to include not only presenting touring shows but producing top-quality musical theater productions of its own.
When the renovations of The 5th Avenue Theatre began in 1980, the community leaders who had raised the $2.6 million to make the renovation possible knew that not all of their plans would come to fruition. One change that couldn't take place was replacing the Theatre's aging vertical marquee. It had fallen into disrepair since its original placement in the 1930s, and it had to be removed as other repairs to the building were made.
Then in 2009, Christabel Gough (daughter of founding Unico chairman and famed Broadway producer Roger L. Stevens), contacted The 5th. Roger Stevens had brought such legendary shows as Tea and Sympathy, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Annie to Broadway; and he had been part of the original group that saved The 5th Avenue Theatre. His daughter wanted to memorialize her father and his good friend and key community leader Jim Ryan. She suggested that a great way to do so was to complete the Theatre's renovation by underwriting the cost of a new vertical marquee. "Going to opening nights with my father is such a lovely memory for me," recalls Gough. "It was like Christmas and New Year's all rolled into one, and the bright lights of the theaters were such a part of that."
Inspired by both the Theatre's original sign that hung at the entrance to the theater at its 1926 opening, as well as by its famous Chinese-inspired interior, the new marquee was designed by Eric Levine and Yusuke Ito of NBBJ and built by CREO Industrial Arts in Everett.
Featuring an aluminum frame that weighs a remarkably light 55,000 lbs. and energy-efficient LED illumination of approximately 2,000 lights, the new sign is state-of-the-art, yet respectful of the Theatre's illustrious history. And one last touch makes the sign particularly special: the “5th” at its summit rotates.
"We started with a white canvas, no clue what to do,” says NBBJ's Yusuke Ito. “The initial thing we did was say 'let's not think about the marquee; let's think about the history and aesthetics of The 5th and its interior design’. When we eventually looked at photos of the 1926 marquee, we had many ideas, but that was such an amazing design, we wanted to bring elements of that in too. I'm honored to have worked on this," says Ito. "I've seen a lot of shows at the Theatre in the last couple of years, and now it suddenly feels like it's my first time up on a stage. I'm excited to hear what people think!"
"We were thrilled when we were asked to participate in the production of such an iconic piece for the historic 5th Avenue Theatre," says Jeff Braaten, CREO's account executive on the project. "CREO does work throughout the country and around the world, but it's always more rewarding when you can participate in such a notable project right in your own backyard. It took extensive collaboration between the Theatre, NBBJ and CREO to produce.”
Because of a daughter's love for her visionary father, the new marquee is a sparkling beacon beckoning patrons to the theater and bringing renewed energy and life to downtown Seattle.
Come From Away – October 9 - November 4, 2018
Annie – November 23 - December 30, 2018
Rock of Ages – February 1 - 24, 2019
Marie, Dancing Still – A New Musical – March 22 - April 14, 2019
Urinetown – April 6 - May 26, 2019 * A Co-Production performed at ACT Theatre
The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical – April 23 - 28, 2019
West Side Story – May 31 - June 23, 2019 * A Co-Production with Spectrum Dance Theater