The Blue Mouse
By Candace Brown
Drive down Proctor Street, in Tacoma, Washington any night of the week, and on the block between 26th and 27th you’ll see blue mice scampering. Above the marquee of the Blue Mouse Theater, they cavort in a parade of flashing neon animation, racing for a spot in the record books. Except during repairs and renovation, this charming single screen theater has operated continuously for 85 years. It’s still going strong because of 17 neighborhood investors who cared.
One of them is Bill Evans. “Well, I tell you,” he says, “there’s nothing like a theater to bring back traffic to ‘Main Street,’ to build community pride.” Evans owns the Pacific Northwest Shop, located in another of the district’s historic buildings, a brick structure on the corner of Proctor and 27th, across the street and half a block from the theater. He’s a man of many good ideas, one of which saved the Blue Mouse from joining the multitude of small theaters of its vintage that, if they survived at all, often ended up showing “Adults Only” entertainment, or became retail spaces, and not always attractive ones.
The Blue Mouse Theater opened on November 13, 1923 with the showing of a silent film called “The Green Goddess” to a packed house. Now it seats 221, but on that Tuesday it held 420 eager movie goers. A book called “Tacoma’s Proctor District,” written by Evans and Caroline Gallacci, quotes the first owner, John Hammrick referring to it as “one of the most elaborate suburban theaters in the Northwest.” The construction cost $20,000. Times were good in the theater business in 1923. But times would change.
In the year before the 1929 stock market crash, the movie industry, and theaters themselves, experienced a major transition. Most converted to the new technology of “talkies” instead of silent movies, as the equipment dropped in price and became more affordable, even for small theaters. Suddenly the grand “movie palaces,” with their orchestra pits and pipe organs, seemed outmoded.
Right after the crash, business actually increased for awhile. People craved an escape from their troubles and a dime didn’t seem like much for a few hours of distraction. But it wasn’t long before even that dime became too precious to spend on entertainment. Barbara Stones describes the situation in her fascinating book, “America Goes to the Movies – 100 Years of Motion Picture Exhibition,” on page 75 in the chapter called “Depression Years:”
“The public’s continued enthusiasm for the talkies defied the gloom of the stock market’s Great Crash of 1929. More than a year later moviegoing reached a new high of 80 million patrons a week. Despite early indications that motion pictures were somehow ‘Depression-proof,’ the trend didn’t last. Theatres began to see a significant slump in business in 1931. By 1932 theatre admissions had dropped by 25 million people a week and 4,000 theatres were forced to close.”
There is no clear indication that the Depression severely impacted business at the Blue Mouse, which apparently prospered in the years shortly after opening. However, in 1932 it was sold to a man named Will Conner who decided to call it the Proctor Theater. It would change hands again in 1978, this time for $80,000, and get a new name, the Bijou, only to be resold a few years later to Shirley Mayo.
Changes in technology once again affected how Americans watched movies. With cable, satellite, and VCRs, home entertainment flourished. In response, the motion picture industry did everything possible to make going to the movies a spectacular event, with sophisticated sound, special effects, and “blockbusters” with astronomical budgets for promotion. Huge, free-standing multiplexes, with all the amenities, made survival even more difficult for the small-town, or downtown, single-screen theaters from the past. And even though Mayo cited personal reasons behind her decision to sell, the little theater in Proctor that started life happily as the Blue Mouse found itself close enough to the fatal trap of circumstance to smell the cheese.
It was 1993. Mayo wanted $170,000 for the building and land. “Since we were ‘fellow business owners,’ she came to me to ask if I might want to buy her business,” Evans recalls. But he and his wife Ann had just started a new venture and didn’t have that kind of money available. “With the help of others,” he says, “I found 17 investors who were able to invest $10,000 each and we purchased the theater.” What he calls “a tight-knit group of merchants” joined forces to save a valuable feature of the Proctor District.
They dove into the work of restoration with enthusiasm, calling themselves the Blue Mouse Associates. The “History” page of the theater’s website gives us a glimpse of that exciting time:
“Under layers of paint, wood veneer and glass tiles put on in the ‘30s and ‘40s they discovered the original Craftsman-style timbering, stucco, brick pillars, globe light sconces, polished marble terrazzo and original mahogany doors. The same was the case with interior renovation. The theater’s original architectural charm was rediscovered in craftsmen staircases, chandelier surround, an ornate trellis around the proscenium arch, decorated capitals atop side wall columns and Tiffany-style glass exit signs.”
“Building community. That’s what it is,” says Erling Keuster, another member of that group, when asked what the theater means to him. He recalls the restoration effort as being profoundly exhilarating for all involved:
“We offered not only our money, but our talents. The theater was being preserved, the story, the history, and we gave it back its original name. Because of this experience each of us began promoting the theater. First we came in and then the community came in. We preserved the history, but now what we’ve done has itself become a part of that history.”
Beyond the romance of the whole idea, people need to remember that such projects are “wonderful, but very serious,” as Evans points out. “Don’t get into an arrangement to ‘save’ an historic structure and business if you’re into making money,” he says. “You just might not. If anyone has the opportunity to do this they have to realize it’s a business, and you need to make your business part of the community.”
The Blue Mouse Associates are all co-owners of the property and business. They meet only once a year. Many members don’t attend and don’t get involved in small decisions, as a four person board is elected yearly to run day-to-day operations. Currently Keuster’s wife Cherlyn Pijnowski chairs this board. “Everything works very well,” Evans says, “but don’t expect that everyone will participate. They won’t. It isn’t run by volunteers. Everyone who works there is paid. Owners get free admission, but pay for everything else, including concessions.”
In addition to movies shown daily, plus the “Rocky Horror Picture Show, at midnight every second and fourth Saturday, the Blue Mouse features special events like the Sister Cities International Film and Food Festival. “I think what makes the theater a community asset is that it’s open seven days a week,” Evans says.
It’s just before 7 p.m. on a weeknight and all the parking near the theater is taken. That doesn’t bother the many families who live close enough to walk. Going there is a nostalgic, “small town” experience. The crowd gathered outside the box office includes a lot of friends and neighbors, glad to see other. They’ll also see top quality second-run movies for $5.00. It’s even less if you’re under 16, a senior, or during matinees.
On an autumn evening the glowing blue neon mice, designed by renowned glass artist Dale Chihuly, chase each other across the restored marquee like sapphires in motion; perfect for this place Keuster calls “a little jewel right in the heart of the Proctor business district.” The carpeted lobby smells like fresh buttered popcorn. Spiral staircases lead to the restrooms. Varnished wood gleams and heavy velvet drapes pull aside to reveal the aisles. There’s a stage in front of the screen, with an old piano off to one side. Take your seat with eager anticipation, just as they did in 1923. As the lights go down and the curtains part, remember to thank the seventeen people whose efforts made it possible, once again, to enjoy this great experience: a night at the movies in the Blue Mouse Theater.
Caroline Gallacci and Bill Evans, Tacoma’s Proctor District, (Arcadia Publishing, 2007) 48-51
Barbara Stones, America Goes to the Movies-100 Years of Motion Picture Exhibition, (North Hollywood, National Association of Theatre Owners, 1993)
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