The end of everything: The Harvard Exit takes its final bow

The last showing at Seattle
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Last show at the Harvard Exit

The last showing at Seattle

The Harvard Exit marquee read:The Theory of Everything.  Last Day January 8.”

Above it, film spooled through the V of its familiar logo. On Thursday, my favorite movie theater closed its tall green doors forever.

How appropriate that its final night fell on the 73rd birthday of Stephen Hawking, subject of The Theory of Everything. Hawking studies the farthest reaches of space, yet he can barely move a muscle due to the devastation of ALS. The Theory of Everything depicts his graduate years at Cambridge in the 1960s, the courtship of Jane, his first wife and, in the decades following their marriage, the struggle to raise a family as his health declines and career soars.

The Harvard Exit and I first met when I visited Seattle to interview for a job at the old Post- Intelligencer. I encountered the Exit’s leafy Capitol Hill neighborhood, with the Loveless Building across Roy Street, and immediately fell under its Tudor Revival spell.

As I reached for The Exit door’s brass handle, the theater sucked me into its gravitational field and has held me there ever since.

Stephen Hawking dedicated his life to discovering a single theory that explains everything in the Universe, including the possibility of time travel. I found all the answers I needed at The Exit. Ida showed me how a young Polish nun came to terms with her identity; Life Itself showed film critic Roger Ebert’s courage as he publicly battled a disfiguring disease; Oscar, the Grouch — in the person of his creator Caroll Spinney — signed dozens of autographs on the theater’s front steps, proving that even if you play a misanthrope, you can be extraordinarily kind. (Spinney was in town for the SIFF premiere of I Am Big Bird.)

But films were just half The Exit’s magic. Its parlor (below) had a grand piano and arched windows with velvet curtains and comfy chairs and puzzles and candle sconces and a fireplace that crackled daily and some of the finest popcorn in town. “So fresh,” read the chalked promise in the concession area, “you’ll want to slap it.”

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The Exit's cozy lobby was the site of many late-night talk fests. Credit: a href=

Climbing the stairs you’d pass George Raft holding Carole Lombard in a stiff embrace. James Dean, his shirt unbuttoned to his waist, stood guard at the women’s restroom.

The three-story building, at the southeast corner of Roy Street and Harvard Avenue, began life in 1925 as the Woman’s Century Club, an organization founded in 1891 to promote suffrage, along with cultural and intellectual development. Its members included the first female graduate of Yale Law School, and Carrie Chapman Catt, who served as president and a leader of the national suffrage movement. The group paid the salary of the city’s first librarian, and successfully lobbied to raise the age of consent and ban spitting in public.

The Century Club’s activism helped women in Washington State win the right to vote a full decade before the 19th Amendment passed. Its power peaked in 1926 when members worked to elect its former president, Bertha Knight Landes, Seattle’s first and only female mayor. Landes was the first woman to lead any major American city.

The Woman’s Century Club hosted political rallies, musical recitals, guest lectures, weddings and an occasional dance in the third floor ballroom. There were apartments for club members on the second and third floors. The top tier also offered a library and tea room. After the building became a movie theater, a mystical church group held séances in the ground floor parlor, and spirit-summoning instruction in the rooms above.

The Club paid off its $25,000 mortgage in the fall of 1951 — three years ahead of schedule. Then president Ethel Spence ceremoniously burned the mortgage papers. But in coming years the organization had trouble paying for the building’s upkeep. The Woman’s Century Club grew less relevant as the battles it fought paid off in greater opportunities for women in the workplace and in government.

Enter architect Jim O’Steen and Art Bernstein, a Boeing Co. acoustical engineer. In 1967 they attended a political meeting at the Club and fell in love with the building. Later when they served on a committee fighting the construction of high-rise apartments around Volunteer Park, they learned the Club was for sale.

O’Steen and Bernstein were both film buffs. Bernstein, who collected movie posters, had dreamed of owning a cinema since his childhood in Boston. The pair purchased the building in 1968 and the following year opened it as a movie theater. (They agreed to let the Century Club continue to use the building for meetings. )

Their first task was to name it. The choices included Capitol Hill Theatre and Harvard Exit. The latter won out, doubtless due to its evocation of the famed Ivy League university.

On May 20, 1969, The Exit previewed it first feature, Billy Liar, starring Julie Christie. The owners set out free coffee and spice tea, along with cheese and crackers in the parlor. The refreshments became a tradition, encouraging moviegoers to linger afterward, with yack-fests lasting ‘til the wee hours.

Randy Finley was one of those Exit yackers. In 1970, he opened his first theatre, The Movie House. He went on to create the Seven Gables Corp., the largest Northwest chain of art houses. (Seven Gables was eventually acquired by Landmark.)

Upon its opening, The Exit became the second theater in Seattle to focus on foreign and independent films. The other, the Ridgemont, had been running A Man and a Woman for a year straight. Film buffs say The Exit helped stoke a love for cinema that in 1976 sparked the Seattle International Film Fest, the largest festival of its kind in the continental United States.

Before each showing, Bernstein or O’Steen would introduce the film, whether a new release or classic, with an enthusiastic commentary. Even their ads were educational. One placed in The Seattle Times that first year extolled the virtues of Il Diavalo. The film was released in America “under the atrocious title of, To Bed or not To Bed to exploit the sex market,” the ad explained. “It was unfortunate for Il Diavalo is one of the most brilliant Italian comedies ever made.”

Soon, word spread that The Exit was out grossing other movie houses around the country and distributors from Los Angeles and New York flocked here to discover the secret formula.

As their reputation grew, filmmakers offered to fly O’Steen and Bernstein to Los Angeles to get their opinions on rough cuts. That’s how the partners met Robert Altman, who was preparing to open his Welcome to L.A., his 1976 film starring Keith Carradine and Geraldine Chaplin. The Exit hosted its world premiere and Altman fell in love with the theatre, vowing to open all his films there.

So it was that 3 Women, starring Sissy Spacek, premiered at The Exit. O’Steen didn’t care for Altman’s 1978 film A Wedding, with Carol Burnett — and said so. That was end of Altman’s world premieres at the Exit.

Other celebrities made appearances. Actress Liv Ullman hosted a premiere and enjoyed the fireplace between shows. Director Carroll Ballard screened his now-classic Never Cry Wolf.

O’Steen sold his interest in the theater in 1979 but kept his ownership in the building. Sadly, he died of cancer in 1983, at the age of 52. Bernstein went on to become an independent booking agent. In 1979 Landmark Theatres took over operations, and subsequently built a second auditorium in the ballroom on the third floor, which became known as “Top of the Exit.”

No one has reported any visitations by O’Steen, but The Exit has hosted its share of ghosts, according to HauntedHouses.com and the publication Haunted Houses USA. Managers, employees and psychics claim to have seen a variety of spirits and at least one, “thought form,” prowling the theater’s third floor.

Former manager Janet Wainwright’s daily rituals included opening the parlor doors, flicking on the lights and building a fire in the hearth. On one of her first days at work, she was startled to discover a woman seated by the fireplace, reading a book. As she approached, the opaque being vanished. Other times, she would arrive to a roaring fire with chairs grouped around it — even though there hadn’t been anyone else in the building.

Sometimes, Wainwright says she’d see a tall female specter switch on the lights and leave the parlor. Psychic investigators believe this entity is the ectoplasmic remains of former Seattle Mayor Landes, who died in 1943. Whoever she was, mediums agree she was the most persistent spirit at The Exit. When they reportedly asked her to leave, she became indignant and refused.

On several occasions, managers and employees arrived to discover the movie projector showing a film to an unseen audience. A projectionist rushed to the booth one time to find it locked from the inside. Some insist the ghost is a man who was killed in a brawl, thich took place circa 1900 before the house on the site was razed to build the Club.

Alan Blangy, who managed The Exit after Wainwright, and later became a Landmark district manager, reported a hostile presence during his first days on the job. One night as Blangy and an assistant closed up, he heard a bang and discovered a third floor fire escape door ajar. He eventually won a tug-of-war with the invisible force trying to push the door open. But when he cracked the door a few seconds later, the fire escape was empty. Blangy believed that the angry “thought form” had evaporated.

Later, a team of psychics and parapsychologists huddled in the third floor auditorium saw a “ball of energy” race through it toward that fire door.

Some say the séance and spirit communication classes taught in the theater, plus renovation of the third floor, stirred up the restless spirits. Others blame the visitations on the wild drug parties, thrown in the 1960s.

Concession worker David Gordon thinks he knows what, or rather whom may have caused some of the strange happenings in recent years. Gordon described a bearded man who “looks like an average white guy in his sixties” stored movie posters and other possessions in the theater and had access to the building for years. I followed Gordon out of the parlor, through a swinging door, to the auditorium. “There’s an air grate between the first floor and sub-basement,” he confided, pointing to a grid. “He built a platform there.” Late at night when employees are cleaning up, “he’ll stand there and make creepy noises.”

Could Gordon’s bearded man have lit the fireplace or started up a film? “He did strike me as a prankster,” said Gordon.

Any spirits with unfinished business may be further disturbed by changes the building’s new owner has planned. The building’s exterior remains protected as part of the Harvard Belmont Landmark District, but the onetime women’s club and art house theater is destined to become flexible office space, and perhaps, a restaurant and bar.

On its last evening as The Harvard Exit, locals flocked to the treasured movie house as if to visit an old friend in terminal condition. The mood was somber. “Sorry to see it go,” a leather-jacketed young man told Gordon, as he paid for his popcorn. “I come about once a month.”

“Depressing as hell, isn’t it?” grumbled another man, a ponytail poking out of his cap. “For a few people’s greed, it destroys a lot of people’s enjoyment.” Patrons nearly filled the auditorium for the 7 p.m. showing of The Theory of Everything.

While ticket holders waited quietly for that final film Adam Hicks hunched over the keyboard of the Steinway grand and fingered  “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” before switching to a Chopin Nocturne. We toasted The Exit with sparkling cider as the shaggy-haired Hicks broke into the 1966 Sonny & Cher hit, “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down). “

Kristen Welch (below) worked on a jigsaw puzzle nearby, one of several puzzles available for Exit guests. Welch was five when her parents first brought her and her sister to The Exit. While her parents caught a movie, “we’d do puzzles,” she recalls. “It was like daycare.”

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Kristen Welch worked on her first Harvard Exit jigsaw puzzle when she was 5. Credit: Laura Kaufman

Welch’s father is dead now. She came on Thursday night to piece together one last puzzle before The Exit’s final exit. “When a person’s gone and the places [they went to] are still there, you can go to those places and be with your person,” she mused. “When they take the places away, they’re kind of stepping on your memory.”

Many Seattle filmgoers know how she feels.

Outside the theater on that last night manager Brad Mills balanced his lanky frame on a ladder and reached for the letters on the marquee. One by one they disappeared, until all that was left was “Everything…”

Photo of The Harvard Exit's parlor courtesy of nonsequiturlass/Flickr.

  

About the Authors & Contributors

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Laura Kaufman

Laura Kaufman, an award-winning journalist, is writing a book about First & Pike News.