Now 70 years old, Anchorage’s 4th Avenue Theatre is listed as a National Historic Place, but its future is uncertain. Permits have been issued to the owner, Peach Investments, to demolish the building. An effort is underway, however, to save the majestic landmark. An appeal has been made to Gov. Bill Walker to intercede.
The art-deco building was designed by B. Marcus Priteca for A. E. “Cap” Lathrop as a companion movie house for his Empress Theatre located one block to the west. That theater was built in the 1920s when silent movies were the rage. Organist Ken Laughlin was hired to play “mood” music to accompany the scenes on the screen. Construction of the new building started in 1941 but was interrupted due to World War II and it was not completed until 1947.
The theater opened May 31, 1947, with “The Al Jolson Story” shown to a packed house. Designed for a capacity of 960 patrons at a time when the city’s population was fewer than 5,000, the facility was hailed as a modern showcase. First-run movies drew crowds that lined the sidewalk nightly waiting for the doors to open. Anchorage Daily Times editor and publisher Robert B. Atwood heaped praise on the venture, saying the opening heralded a change in the city’s status that ushered in a new level of culture. Comedian Bob Hope during a visit here only a couple of years earlier had called Anchorage’s 4th Avenue, the street, “the world’s longest bar.”
In addition to spacious seating, luxurious carpeting and ornate woodwork, the interior walls adjacent to the stage featured gigantic murals. In the lobby was a gold leaf depiction of Mt. McKinley (now Denali). Murals with images of Alaskan industry and scenery were designed by artisans Anthony Heinsberegen and Frank Bourman of Los Angeles. The ceiling was adorned with lights depicting the Big Dipper and North Star of the Alaska Flag.
The building also housed Lathrop’s KENI radio station and, later, the studios for Channel 2 television. A penthouse apartment was built in 1959. Recessed at ground level at the west end of the building was a small restaurant.
The advent of television was the death-knell of the movie theater. Declining patronage forced closure in the 1980s. Several attempts to utilize the facility were undertaken, with the Rasmuson Foundation agreeing to loan money for remodeling if the Municipality of Anchorage were to take responsibility. The Assembly, however, balked at assuming potential liability for the large cost of bringing the building up to code.
Aside from its status as an example of art in historic architecture, the story of the theater’s creator itself has a big place in local history.
Austin Eugene Lathrop was born in Lapeer, Mich., on Oct. 54, 1865. He dropped out of high school in his freshman year after being wrongfully accused of vandalism and expelled. He did not return to school even after the real perpetrator had been identified. Instead, he helped his father as a teamster and farmer. That experience led him to see opportunity in rebuilding Seattle after a devastating fire there in 1889. Known as “the boy contractor,” he gained attention and a small fortune by employing teams of horses and wagons to haul material during the reconstruction.
He expanded his business interests over the next four years, branching out into other fields. Unfortunately, the depression of 1893 wiped him out.
Hungry, without work and desperate, he stopped one evening at a waterfront bar. There he came across a seafaring acquaintance he knew as Capt. Kelly. Their conversation soon turned to talk of gold discoveries around Cook Inlet, in Alaska. His instincts kicking in, Lathrop recalled a small steamer he had chartered during the Seattle work. Another in the group, John O’Neil, who had maritime experience, showed interest. Although currently without funds, Lathrop still had good credit and connections. He quickly found an investor who financed the purchase of the “L J Perry.”
The “Perry,” a two-masted, 41-ton, 77-foot wooden vessel, had a coal-fired boiler and could sail under steam or wind power. She also had a shallow draft that turned out to be ideal for navigating Turnagain Arm. Partners Kelly signed on as skipper, O’Neil as engineer and Lathrop as purser. They put the craft in dry-dock to prepare it for duty in northern waters and then set sail for Alaska.
Della Murray Banks, whose “Gold Rush Memories” recall when the Hope-Sunrise districts in Upper Turnagain Arm were in their prime from 1896-1910, spoke highly of Lathrop in those days. He was 31 years of age when she met him.
“The L J Perry, with Austin Lathrop purser and part owner, was, I imagine, the basis of one of Alaska’s home-grown fortunes . . . ‘Cap’ always obliging and friendly.”
Lathrop, a fast learner, soon qualified as a sailing master and succeeded Kelly as captain of the “Perry.” He repaid the financier and bought out his partners, becoming sole owner of the small steamer which continue to ply Cook Inlet waters.
Successful in business, Lathrop was not so in love. He had planned to marry a young woman in Washington state, but decided to wait until he could afford the responsibilities of wedded life. With a sizeable stake finally in hand, he returned from Alaska only to find his intended bride had married someone else. After leaving Cook Inlet, he settled in Valdez and there married a widow he met while Outside. Mrs. Lathrop and her daughter from a former marriage became idols of Valdez society. Although Lathrop had been elected mayor of Valdez, his wife and her daughter found they could not tolerate the climate and departed for their former hometown.
Lathrop eventually settled in Fairbanks, but had business interests around much of Alaska. In 1903 he formed a company and drilled for oil in Coal Bay, off the end of the Homer Spit. That operation was not successful, but he turned to coal and developed mines at Healy and elsewhere. He applied his business acumen to many fields—from mining to real estate to entertainment, including movies, radio and newspapers. Fascinated with pictures flashed onto large screens, he opened a chain of theaters named Empress in Cordova, Fairbanks and Anchorage. The 4th Avenue theatre was given a different name and was his most elegant.
Wanting to tell Alaska’s story, he produced the first full-length movie filmed entirely in his new homeland. A silent movie, it debuted in 1923. It was titled “The Chechahcos,” a tale of the Klondike Gold Rush, written and directed by Lewis H. Moomaw and starring William Dills, Albert Van Antwerp and Eva Gordon. Among the movie’s credits was Anchorage artist Sydney Laurence.
Lathrop purchased the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner and was its publisher for many years. He started Alaska’s first radio station, KFAR, in Fairbanks and Anchorage’s second station, KENI.
A philanthropist, Lathrop contributed heavily to civic projects in Alaska. Even though he had fewer than nine years of formal education, he was a strong advocate for the school that was to become the University of Alaska and was named as a member of the Board of Regents.
Lathrop was still active in managing his many business interests at the age of 84. He was at the Healy mine on July 26, 1950, when he was somehow struck and killed by a railroad car as he walked along the track.
The man who contributed so much to Alaska’s history left his mark in the theater he built. Its charm and character represent what he felt for this place. Both he and his theater need to be remembered well into the future.
Lee Jordan has been an Alaskan since 1949, moved to Chugiak in 1962 and in 2016 moved back to Anchorage. An Alaska history buff, he enjoys writing about the place where he did not want to be sent, but came to love. He has written four books on Alaska history and has a blog at www.byleejordan.com. To reach Lee Jordan, email: [email protected]