Movie theater ran from ‘26 through the ‘50s

Owners revived the Charlie Chaplin look-alike contest, brought back old favorites


“Easy to Wed” and “Her Adventurous Night” were playing at the Avalon Theatre on Dec. 15-16, 1946, when this photo was taken. Christmas decorations were courtesy of the Jaycees, who had adorned downtown the week following Thanksgiving. Today, the space is occupied by Hilton’s Shoes and the Downtown Emporium. Photo by J. W. Sandison #1996.10.3479, Whatcom Museum of History & Art.


The Avalon Theatre opened at 113 W. Magnolia on March 25, 1926, promising “good, clean, movies at reasonable prices.”

Owned and operated by Dr. Edward T. Mathes and Al Finkelstein, the Avalon had the most modern features for its day — two $1,100 state-of-the-art projectors, gold-fiber “Super Light” screen and soundproof “cry room” for parents with infants. Ed Ahern was the opening night’s organist on the theater’s Wurlitzer.

Though living in Seattle, Finkelstein was familiar with Bellingham’s theater business. He’d moved here back in 1920 to run the Liberty, Bell Show, and Star theaters when they were leased by Jensen & Von Herberg, a Seattle-based firm known locally as the “Bellingham Amusement Co.” Finkelstein was given free reign to book big name first-run films and spend lavishly on promotion. In the Liberty he had an expensive Wurlitzer pipe organ installed and hired organist Joy Brown to play along with the silent movies. Brown would later be the opening-night organist at the Mt. Baker Theatre, August 29, 1927.

C. S. Jensen and J. Von Herberg operated theaters throughout the Northwest, but they quit Bellingham in 1922 and Finkelstein left town after only two years.

“Doc” Mathes had already reached the zenith of a few careers before starting the Avalon Theatre. He’d arrived in Bellingham in 1899 when it was still two towns, New Whatcom and Fairhaven, to serve as the first president of the State Normal School (today’s Western Washington University). It was a position he held for 15 years.

Retiring from the Normal in 1914, he opened the E.T. Mathes Book Co. at 110 W. Holly, selling “Books, Stationery, Office and School Supplies.” It was the third largest bookstore in Washington. Mathes was also mayor of Bellingham from 1920 to 1924, though he quit politics after an unsuccessful run for governor on the Democratic ticket in 1924.

During a business trip, Mathes sought out Finkelstein’s advice about investing in a movie theater in the Seattle suburbs. But Finkelstein persuaded Mathes that they should build a new theater together in Bellingham. As the “Standard Theater Co.,” the partners dreamed that the Avalon might be the first in a whole chain of motion picture palaces.

Mathes, an elder in the First Presbyterian church, guaranteed that the Avalon would be a “clean house.” The proprietors would “not pollute it” by showing films that were “overloaded” with passion or “scenes of booze and brawling.”

One of Finkelstein’s publicity stunts at the Liberty had been a kids’ Charlie Chaplin look-alike contest for the Bellingham premiere of Chaplin’s The Idle Class on Nov. 6, 1921. The event was captured by commercial photographer J. Wilbur Sandison and it remains his most enduring image from a 58-year career. The look-alike contest was revived at the Avalon in March 1928 to promote Chaplin’s then-latest movie, The Circus. Pre-teen Herbert Roos in his makeshift costume won the contest’s best “Little Tramp.”

The Avalon also brought movies back “by popular demand” for another showing. In April 1928, this was a return engagement of Wolf Fangs starring the actor Thunder, a German shepherd, who was Fox Studios’ answer to Warner Brothers’ famous Rin Tin Tin. Released the previous year, the movie had particular appeal for the Bellingham audience because it was filmed at Mt. Baker.

The Avalon building had two small storefronts, one on each side of the theater’s entrance. The west side was originally occupied by the two-chair Avalon Barber Shop run by William Shirk and Alfred Stanley. The east side was first an insurance agency and then a realtor, neither profiting from their proximity to the Avalon’s lobby.

But following the real estate office and a complete remodel, Margaret McLeod’s Green Rooster malted-milk shop opened in the space on July 3, 1928. Decorated with “apple green as the predominating shade,” the Green Rooster was “just big enough to seat 14 persons on the comfortable counter seats, each with its white porcelain pedestal.” Serving malted-milk drinks, ice cream, sundaes and “green apple pies,” the arrangement of equipment behind the U-shaped counter made it so that “Miss McLeod” could run the entire shop “with scarcely three steps to take in any direction.”

The Green Rooster was the perfect match to the theater’s business since movie-goers were often in the mood for a confection. McLeod’s malted-milk shop would be at 111 W. Magnolia for nearly 20 years.

In 1928, the Avalon became the first theater in Bellingham to be equipped for “talkies” and had both Warner Brothers’ Vitaphone and Fox Movietone systems. Vitaphone was the last of the record-playing methods used to give movies sound before sound-on-film became established. It employed a 16-inch record, of mostly music and sound effects, synchronized to play with the moving picture. Movietone was the first sound-on-film format to gain commercial use.

In August 1929, the Avalon premiered the first color and sound movie ever to play in Bellingham, Warner Brothers’ On with the Show!

In the late 1920s, representatives of Fox West Coast Theatres came to Bellingham on a shopping spree. They bought up the Mt. Baker and American, the city’s largest cinemas, and apparently made Mathes an offer for the Avalon that he couldn’t refuse.

Part of the “deal” elevated Mathes to general manager of “Fox Bellingham Theatres, Inc.” But he was no longer his own boss. The name of the theater, which Doc and Al had started, appeared as the newly hyphenated Fox-Avalon, joining the ranks of the Fox-Mt. Baker and Fox-American.

In the early 1930s, Mathes’ health began to fail. The Great Depression was taking its toll and the Avalon was often left in charge of doorman Marvin Fox and office secretary Emily Willard. Marvin, a capable carpenter, built unique signs to advertise coming attractions. The one he made for the Marx Brothers’ Monkey Business, which played at the Avalon in May 1932, had a mechanism that made cut-outs of Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Zeppo bob up and down from inside beer barrels.

That same year, the Avalon was dropped from the Fox Bellingham Theatres chain and Arthur Hile was given the managerial duties at the Mt. Baker and American theaters.

Illness finally forced Mathes, at the age of 70, to retire in 1936. He died on Nov. 27, 1937. City Hall closed for two hours on the day of his funeral so that staff could attend and flags in Bellingham were lowered to half-mast. Charles H. Fisher, president of Western Washington College of Education, eulogized Dr. Mathes as “a very friendly man” who, as first president of the Normal, “did pioneer work in laying a splendid foundation for the advantages which we of today enjoy.”

The struggling Avalon Theatre was inherited by Doc’s widow, Helen Mathes.


The view toward the screen inside the 750-seat Avalon Theatre in 1926. Photo by J.W. Sandison #1996.10.3483, Whatcom Museum of History & Art.


1940s brought more color films

Through the 1940s nearly 90 percent of all American movies were still made in black and white. Color film remained too expensive for common use. Typical was the mix at the Avalon on Dec. 15 and 16, 1946, pairing the technicolor Easy to Wed, a romantic comedy starring Van Johnson, Esther Williams and Lucille Ball, as the main feature with the black and white Her Adventurous Night as the second feature. Both films were new releases.

In 1948, Gordon Jacobson, former assistant manager at the Mt. Baker, came over to run the Avalon for Mrs. Mathes. She passed away at the age of 79 in 1952.

Eugene Keen then operated the Avalon as an independent for the next two years, showing second-run films as the theater faced increasing competition from some new gizmo called television. The Avalon’s double-feature of Niagara and Bad for Each Other on June 14, 1954, was standard fare during this time. Both movies were more than a year old, though still harder-edged than anything that might appear on TV. According to the trailer, Niagara, starring Marilyn Monroe, was “a raging torrent of emotion that even nature can’t control.”

Two weeks later, Harold Aldrich bought the Avalon. Aldrich was a recently retired oil distributor from Nebraska looking to keep active. In July 1956, Leonard Levine, from California, purchased the property as a $50,000 investment. Levine had no intention of running a movie projector, but announced plans to have the cinema converted into retail space and “leased to a chain-clothing firm.”

Today, occupied by Hilton’s Shoes and the Downtown Emporium, one wouldn’t know that the building had originally been the Avalon Theatre.

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