Pasco’s Liberty Theater

By Sarah LeCompte

Editor’s Note: The author, who had been curator/director of the Franklin County Historical Society for its first two years of existence, resigned in Mid-December, 1984, to accepts a position in a much larger museum in Stockton, California. She wrote this article just before she left Pasco.

Amidst the commercial buildings on fourth Avenue between Lewis and Clark Streets is an unremarkable building with a flat stucco façade, unadorned plate glass doors, and a garish marquee advertising current movie offerings of the “Liberty-Playtime Theater.” Its appearance offers little indication that this was once an ornate building, the busy social center of a small town, home of vaudeville shows, concerts, dances, school graduations: one of the most actively used structures in Pasco’s history, and the scene of fond memories for many of its citizens.

The Liberty Theatre began in boom years between 1907 and 1915, when Pasco’s population grew from approximately 400 to over 3,000 and the economy was thriving due to S.P & S. railroad construction and increased agricultural production. Speculation on irrigation projects and advertising by the Pasco Reclamation Company attracted settlers and investors to the area. The voters of the community approved several civic improvement tax levies—including a new city hall, library, county courthouse and two schools, as well as sewers, sidewalks, paved streets and street lights. The area along Fourth Avenue, the far western edge of town, came under development in 1907, and residential districts were built west and north of the early boundaries of Pasco.

One of the early real estate developers, V.B. Cox, ran his investment company from a wood-frame building on the northwest corner of Fourth and Lewis, and sometime before 1912 took George Cord into partnership to form the Cox-Cord Investment Company. Although Pasco had at least two theaters (the Empire and the Crystal, located in the older section of town near the railroad tracks), the partners undertook to build a large new theater on Fourth Street. Construction on the structure began in 1912, financed by investments of $15.00 apiece from Pasco citizens; but the unlucky promoters soon discovered that too few of the heavily taxed local residents were able to contribute. According to early Pasco resident E.L. Collins in an August 14, 1947 Pasco Herald article: “Besides the satisfaction of contributing to a worthwhile civic project, we were promised exclusive tickets for the opening premiere. We all had visions of tail coats, but unfortunately, there was no dolling up in the stripes and swallows. The enterprise went broke before the basement was even completed.”

The unfinished basement remained for the next two years, and according to Collins, caused at least one embarrassing incident when Sheriff J.W. Hays, while in pursuit of a burglar, fell into the basement with the suspect. (Both the burglar and Hays climbed out of the basement and continued the chase down Fourth Street to Columbia Avenue where the suspect was captured after a shootout.)

In May 1914, E.G. Kerfoot and Gerard Ryczek announced plans to finance the completion of the theater. J.E. Doughty would oversee construction and act as architect. The structure would be built of reinforced concrete and include a balcony, a 30 foot by 60 foot stage, a proscenium arch 26 feet wide and 23 feet high, and dressing rooms underneath stage. Investors included Kerfoot, Ryczek, Cord, plus C.M. Barr and a Mr. Kleeb. (V.B. Cox had apparently dropped out of the venture.) The theater was officially named the Cord. The investors announced in August that they had leased the theater to Klaus and Erlanger Theater Management Company of New York, which managed a chain of theaters in the Northwest. Pasco resident could anticipate seeing the best in movies and traveling shows brought to the region by the theater company, and would possibly see famous performers of the day under contract to the company such as David Warfield, John Drew, Julian Eltinge, Maude Adams and Billie Burke. The theater owners planned a grand opening for the first weekend of October 1914, with special prices of $10.00 and $5.00 seats to help finance the furnishing of the theater. The opening night was a failure, though, and early movie runs did not draw a capacity crowd until the first appearance of a musical when a large touring road company brought the show “December Morn” to town on December 29, 1914. By early 1915, the dismal financial returns caught up with the investors. The original owner of the property, John Ryczek, had sold the property under contract to the Pasco Theater Company, and when the company failed to pay off its debts, a Superior Court judge awarded Ryczek title to the theater, and left the Pasco Theater Company with the debts it had incurred.

With the popularity of musical shows and plays established by the successful run of “December Morn” the new theater management booked more live shows. Variety shows, concert artists, vaudeville acts, and touring companies of Broadway plays all performed at the theater through the first two decades of its existence. In 1917, E.J. Reynolds purchased the Cord Theater and changed its name to the Liberty. Reynolds had acquired the Empire Theater in 1916 and consolidated the two theaters under one manager. The Liberty also served as a civic auditorium during this time. In addition to movies which changed daily and a variety of live entertainment shows, the Liberty hosted school plays, high school graduation ceremonies, recitals, and benefit shows.

Reynolds owned the Liberty Theater for eleven years, and constantly made improvements to the building. The most popular additions were installation of a pipe organ to accompany silent movies, and conversion of the unfinished basement into a combination auditorium-dance hall which opened October 14, 1924. With the opening of the dance hall, called “The Bungalow,” the Liberty Theater became a center of social life for Pasco citizens. Reynolds added an outside entrance to the basement, and advertised it as having the finest dance floor in Eastern Washington .Different theories exist as to what type of construction technique gave the maple floor its special springy quality—cork underlay, buggy springs, or three layers of two by four studes are a few of the claimed secret formulas. Many Pasco citizens today still recall the unique bounce of the Bungalow’s floor which kept audiences dancing for hours to live music from bands brought in from Yakima, Walla Walla and Seattle. Popular bands in the 1920’s such as Fat Kerman, the Idaho Strollers, and the Kings of Syncopation regularly performed in Pasco; local residents could choose an entertaining evening at the Liberty either dancing downstairs, or watching a show upstairs.

In 1914, when the theater opened, moviegoers could see a feature for 10 cents or 25 cents; a musical comedy or revue cost 50 cents to two dollars. The huge fly loft and seven miles of rope attached to the backdrops and curtains could accommodate nearly any type of show. One of the most unusual events at the theater occurred on June 17, 1926, when the winner of a city wide contest was to be announced after the regular show. The winner, Eula Morrison, was presented a prize Essex automobile which had been rolled onto the stage.

In late 1927, the Junior Amusement Company of Walla Walla (later called Inland Theater Company), purchased the theater. Owned by Frederick Mercy Senior and Frederick Mercy Junior, the company operated a chain of theaters between Walla Walla and Yakima. The new owners announced that the theater would be completely renovated beginning with a new marquee. In July, 1929, the renovation was completed, and the Liberty Theater, which had originally resembled a Grecian Temple, reopened as a Spanish style edifice, with stained glass windows lit from the inside and a confectionary parlor to serve theater goers on the ground floor. Wider seats were installed, and the step arrangement of the old building was converted to gently sloping floors. The most important changes were modifications made to accommodate sound pictures and to improve ventilation in the structure. Special plaster and a new screen were claimed to improve acoustics, and according to a July 18, 1929, Pasco Herald (3) article “Three people will be in telephone touch at all times to regulate the sound.” The projection room was fireproofed.

In the 1930’s, the theater provided a variety of showy Hollywood attractions and activities to keep a depression era audience entertained. Uniformed ushers directed movie patrons to their seats, and special promotions were offered to keep Pasco residents interested in the theater. In 1976 a newspaper article, Howard McGhee, a former doorman at the Liberty, recalled Bank Night, a popular weekly promotion during the Great Depression when a name was drawn each Thursday for a $25.00 prize; if the person was not present, the amount of the prize grew, so Would the length of the ticket line each Thursday night, often stretching around the street corner. (4)

The Liberty Theater and The Bungalow Dance Hall continued to be a popular entertainment Center through the 1940’s when the town’s population again increased dramatically with the construction of the Naval Air Station and Hanford Atomic Works. But the increasing popularity of television and growing options for entertainment in the 1950’s brought a national trend of declining theater attendance. Though still used for movie showings, business at the Liberty fell off dramatically in the 1960’s. The theater had been taken over by Sterling Recreation Organization, and after a brief closure in the mid-1970’s, was purchased by Roger Forbes who acquired several theaters throughout Washington State for conversion into Pornographic movie houses. Under Forbes’ ownership, the Liberty underwent its third major Renovation with replacement of the marquee and resurfacing of the façade into its present design.

Now seventy years old, the history of the Liberty Theater closely reflects the history of the town and trends in popular entertainment. Built at a time when 4th Avenue was the western edge of town and theater patrons traveled by horse and buggy, the Liberty has transformed to accommodate architectural trends, new inventions of the movie industry and changing tastes in entertainment, as well as the growth and development of Pasco. It has also contributed to the personal history of thousands of individuals over the past three or four generations who lived in Pasco and can recall plays, musicals, graduations, wide-screen extravaganzas, children’s matinees, sitting in the balcony, dancing in the basement, or some other memorable event that happened at the Liberty.

References Cited 1. Pasco Herald, August 14, 1947 2. Pasco Express, July 16, 1915 3. Pasco Herald, July 18, 1929 4. Tri-City Herald, Feb 19.1978