Seattle’s Neptune Theatre, celebrating 100 years, is full of memories and magic


A hundred years ago next week, in the Seattle Daily News, a small article on page 9 announced the opening of a new movie theater. Called U-Neptune at the time, it has been described as “Seattle’s newest photo game palace and the best suburban cinema in this part of the country”.

With a capacity of more than 1,000 people, the U-Neptune (soon to be renamed the Neptune) presented “the latest ideas” in the areas of theater ventilation, lighting and seating, as well as a men’s smoking room, a women’s lounge and “public telephone rooms.” The decorative scheme was nautical, focused on the King of the Seas, after whom the theater was named, and was done in shades of blue and taupe; the newspaper reported that the ushers will be enigmatic and delightful “wearing Dutch costumes.”

“Only the best film entertainment is shown,” says the article, “as well as the best music.”

Propose a century and lo and behold – unlike many of its comrades from the silent movie era, the Neptune Theater is still on the still-bustling corner of Northeast 45th Street and Brooklyn Avenue. Those Dutch costumes have sadly disappeared in the fog of history, as have the smoking rooms and, for the most part, the movies. But after 90 years as a single screen movie theater, most recently under the auspices of the Landmark Theater chain, Neptune still fills the crowd in its new role as a live music and entertainment venue. The Seattle Theater Group has been operating the theater since 2011.

STG will celebrate the centenary with a special free celebration on November 16 that is open to everyone. An art installation by indigenous artist Joseph H. (wahalatsu?) Seymour is unveiled in the lobby, recognizing the land that was once inhabited by indigenous tribes in 45s and Ron Artis II and The Truth.

Inevitably, the theater looks a little different today, but you can still get a feel for what it was like a century ago. “We’re trying to keep the aesthetics but improve the systems,” said Dan Reinharz, theater manager at Neptune in its current STG incarnation, during a recent tour. The theater seats are gone – live concerts require more flexibility in the seating – but the Neptune heads (now equipped with LED-shining eyes) are still looking down at the audience, the elaborate grille that once covered organ pipes is still intact, and the elegant curves of the mezzanine are still alluring as they greeted moviegoers a century ago.

The ramp design, rather than the stairs, is one of the main reasons behind the theater’s architectural importance, said theater historian David Jeffers. “It’s very graceful and was unusual at the time,” he said. It was something of a trademark for local architect Henderson Ryan, who designed the downtown Neptune and Liberty Theaters (1914-1955), a larger movie theater with ramps. (Ryan also designed the Ballard Carnegie Library building, which still stands and now houses the Kangaroo & Kiwi Pub.)

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Jeffers noted that the nautical theme at the time was part of a larger trend towards “atmospheric” themed theaters, such as the 5th Avenue Theater (built in 1926), whose interior was intended to suggest the Forbidden City in China. “It was a style – it goes hand in hand with the fantasy of going to the cinema and escaping into another world.”

In the 1920s, the University District was a haven for many movies: According to a study submitted to the Landmarks Preservation Board in 2012 (which made the building a Seattle landmark), Neptune was one of five cinemas that were in the The neighborhood opened in 2012 during the silent movie era and is the only (mostly) intact survivor. It was built as a mixed-use building, with dental offices (one of which, as the University Herald noted at the time, “has the only separate sterilization room west of New York”) and apartments upstairs. The building is still owned by the descendants of one of these dentists.

After the successful transition from silent films to talkies (the organ was removed in 1943), the Neptun went through several management changes in its 90 years as a cinema – including a brief period in which X-rated films were shown in the early 1970s. Like so many once-great cinemas, it was neglected and in decline for several decades, but Neptune’s fate was reversed in 1981 when Landmark Theaters took the lease and renovated the theater by installing the now-familiar ship-shaped food stand and painting the turquoise interior .

In the 80s and 90s, Landmark operated the Neptune as a repertoire house and showed double and sometimes triple features of film classics, cult favorites and international art house cuisine on a daily basis. It was a popular destination for movie fans during those prestreaming days – if you lived in the U District or anywhere near then you probably had a Neptune calendar on your fridge. “Business was really good,” recalls Dan Long, who ran the theater for ten years from 1982 onwards. “Many regulars bought punch cards. We saw people a couple of times a week, regulars that we got to know. We would have nicknames for many of them. “

And every weekend a different group of regulars worked for Neptune’s trademark with sing-alongs and sing-along performances of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” which began in the 1970s and continued into the 1990s. “Sometimes we had 500 people a night,” Long said. “It was mostly a fun party thing.” For fun, the theater had a security guard on hand to sort out those who didn’t follow the spirit of the occasion – and to check that no one was bringing, say, 50 pound sacks of rice (rice is traditionally thrown in the theater during a wedding scene like many other items during the film’s runtime). “People brought full bags with them, we said, ‘You just donated that to the blackboard.'”

As home video grew in popularity, audiences for Neptune’s repertory programming began to wane in the ’90s, and the theater switched to premieres, beginning, Long said, in 1993 with “Grumpy Old Men.” First operated house until Landmark lost its lease and showed its last film – “The Green Hornet” on January 30, 2011, was not over: STG took over and began a four-month renovation worth $ 720,000 to start a new chapter to back up.

For the past 10 years, the Neptune has been home to live performances: music, comedy, spoken word, and the (very occasional) movie. The reopening began in 2011 with – what else? – A screening of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”, followed by a comedy showcase hosted by Luke Burbank, and a concert by the Total Experience Gospel Choir. Notable artists over the decade included musicians Ann Wilson, Eddie Vedder, Cheap Trick, and Little Feat; Comedians Jimmy O. Yang and Marc Maron; and many more.

Seattle’s Neptune Theatre, celebrating 100 years, is full of memories and magic

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If you visit Neptune today, it’s not quite the place you might remember from popcorn-filled matinees years ago. The stained glass windows depicting Neptune (actually they’re made of plastic; probably from the 1960s, Reinharz said) are now backlit and glow brightly; the floor now has rows of folding chairs and a bar at the back (with a railing, in a nostalgic gesture, made from old rigging from the Moore Theater). A lot has also changed behind the scenes: STG renovated an old apartment on the upper floor into a cozy green area for guest artists and drilled a hole in the stage so that the chairs could be quickly removed and stored. Look up and you’ll see a reconstruction of the theater’s original chandelier, made from old photos.

The “stained glass windows” of the Neptune Theater are actually made of plastic.  Some performing artists like the windows to be bright during their performances;  others think they are distracting so management reduces the brightness.  (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)

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“I think about Neptune the same way I think about the old Fifth and Pike Coliseum,” Jeffers said, referring to a once grand downtown movie palace that was the last place where a (now closed) banana republic took place. “The building is still there physically, but it’s changed so much that it’s not really the same place anymore.”

But for that long-time Neptune visitor, there is still a bit of magic in those graceful corridors where a younger self lingered, danced the Time Warp or marveled at a beautiful movie from a long time ago, or wondered if I had one of those Neptune heads could wink if I stared hard enough. Happy anniversary, Neptune. May the music and memories last for many years.

Celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Neptune Theater

7:30 p.m. Tuesday, November 16; Neptune Theater, 1303 NE 45th St., Seattle; for free; Masks and proof of vaccination required (or negative PCR test within 48 hours for those unable to be vaccinated); RSVP required at