A toot for Seattle's Showboat

ANYONE who has ever attended a performance at Seattle's historic Showboat Theatre on Portage Bay knows firsthand how important the links between the past and present are. The theater, built in the 1930s, is a replica of a Mississippi riverboat. But the plays presented there over the years reflected the best in American theater -- the new as well as the old. Talent scouts from New York and Hollywood used to wander the aisles. Now the golden curtains of the Showboat -- which was long considered one of the linchpins of theater in the Pacific Northwest, with more than 40,000 people attending plays there in one year during World War II alone -- are drawn. The theater has been closed by its owner, the University of Washington.

The university wants to see the theater razed. The Showboat is said to be unsafe. Renovation would cost perhaps a million dollars; demolition, around $100,000. Besides, there are newer and larger theaters on the Seattle scene. In other words, proponents of razing it say the Showboat's days are behind us. Still, preservationists want to save the theater.

How all this will ultimately be resolved, of course, is a drama not yet fully written. Seattle, perhaps more than many other American cities, has sought to preserve its heritage. Its historic Pioneer Square District and its Pike Place Market both retain vestiges of the heady, pell-mell seaport town of old -- as contrasted with the giant skyscrapers that undergird the aerospace, high-tech, export-oriented community of the present.

All the same, one cannot help regretting that unique institutions such as the Showboat, which have thrilled audiences for years with the words of Ibsen, O'Neill, and Wilder, must face the prospect of demolition. Many theaters of the past were designed with outstanding acoustics, for use by the unamplified voice. The importance of acoustics was especially understandable for a generation that was becoming dependent on radio for information and entertainment and that did not have the distractions of television, with its overpowering visual impact. In part because of acoustical excellence, some older theaters and auditoriums have been maintained or preserved by city or civic groups, including Detroit's Orchestra Hall on Woodward Avenue, Constitution Hall in Washington, and Mechanic's Hall in Worcester, Mass.

It is hard not to register a toot for the old Showboat.

More such links to the past should reach their own private harbors.

However the preservation vs. demolition issue is ultimately resolved, such theaters as the Showboat will always remain rich and treasured reminders of America's diverse history.

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