Musings & Meditations

This Was Seattle Burlesque: The Palace Hip

Posted in Art & Society, Sexuality and Culture, Travel by Pam Keesey on February 21, 2009

Cynthia and I decided we needed a little adventure. Nothing too far, nothing too expensive. So we hightailed it to Portland for the weekend to see what there is to be seen. She and I have both been through Portland, stopping long enough to perhaps eat something, but the chance to explore had escaped us both until now.

We stayed in a hostel in the northwest part of the city which was right near a bohemian arts and shopping area that we knew nothing about until the friendly staff at the pointed us in the right direction. And there we found such treasures!

Before I get too far ahead of myself, Cynthia and I both love burlesque, and we’ve both relished the resurgence of burlesque as an art form. So we were absolutely delighted to find vintage burlesque items in the nooks and crannies of different stores throughout the neighborhood.

One of the stores we stumbled upon was a little boutique full of vintage ephemera. “All things lovely and strange” it said on the sign outside the door, and we found it to be quite true. Upon entering, I spotted an old photograph propped up in a 1950s chair along with some other unrelated items. Very 1920s in style and quite worn, the photograph was of a woman — yes, a dancer — in a faux Chinese sleeveless jacket with unattached kimono-style sleeves, holding a large Chinese style fan above her head. Posed beautifully, it was quite clear that she was one of the star attractions of a long forgotten show.

“How much for this photograph,” I asked one of the clerks.

“Both items go together,” he said. “I can’t sell them separately.”

“Both items?” I asked.

“The fabric on the chair,” he said. “It’s the jacket she’s wearing in the photograph.”

I picked up the fabric and unfolded it. Torn in places, quite threadbare in others, it was most certainly the very same jacket she was wearing. There were a few other delightful items — a 1964 paperback entitled The History of Burlesque which I found propped up next to a statue of the Pope, and a July 1951 issue of Eve: The Woman’s Magazine for Men, part cheesecake, part women’s fashion and feminine culture, but distinctly targeting a male audience. But it was really the photograph with the matching burlesque costume that was the exceptional find.

In looking more closely, I saw the imprint “Anderson/Seattle.” This photograph had been taken in Seattle. I asked the clerk what she knew. “The owner went to a big sale in Seattle back in the 80s. They were tearing down a theater, and she bought lots, brought them back to Portland, and bit by bit has been offering pieces for sale.” I asked her the name of the theater. “The Palace Hip.”

Palace Hip, Seattle, 1921

Palace Hip, Seattle, 1921 (from the Webster & Stevens Collection, MOHAI, Seattle; used with permission and available for purchase directly from MOHAI)

The Palace Hip, it turns out, was the Palace Hippodrome, part of the Ackerman and Harris circuit. It was located on 2nd Avenue and Spring Street in downtown Seattle. The Palace Hip was the most popular vaudeville theater in Seattle, and hosted performers who would later become some of the biggest names in the entertainment industry. Designed as a multipurpose theater, the Palace Hip was also a first-run movie theater in its time. But it was primarily known for its cabaret acts.

Chorus Girls at the Palace Hip, Seattle, 1922

Chorus Girls at the Palace Hip, Seattle, 1922 (from the Webster & Stevens Collection, MOHAI, Seattle; used with permission and available for purchase directly from MOHAI)

These two pieces are now among my favorite possessions. They are both great reminders of burlesque — and Seattle — days of yore. At the same time, I’m disappointed that I’ll never be able to visit the Palace Hippodrome. The theater was torn down in 1981 to make room for a new parking garage. Then again, if the theater hadn’t been torn down, these two items might be, to this day, sitting in a box somewhere in the storage rooms of the once famous Palace Hip.

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