Palace Theatre to shut down

Building too run-down to keep open, too costly to repair

Posted: Thursday, March 15, 2001

The curtain closes this week on the Palace Theatre. The theater space is too run-down to continue renting, said Lloyd Johnson, vice president of the First National Bank of Anchorage, which owns the building.

"Basically, you're dealing with 100-year-old wiring, and 100-year-old structural situations," said Johnson, who is in Juneau.

The former Vaudeville theater and movie house, which opened as Spickett's Palace Theatre in September 1916, enjoyed a swan song in recent years as the home for the JuneauDouglas Little Theatre. The community theater group is staging "Dancing at Lughnasa" this month at the Palace, and the play closes Saturday.

"This is going to be our last show in the Palace Theatre," said Steve Hamilton, secretary of the JDLT board.

Hamilton said the community theater group has found a promising prospect for a new home.

"We're working on getting a new home," he said. "We had some 99.9 percent good news, but I can't disclose it yet."

"The bank has been good to us, they've been a great landlord," he said. "It's sad, because I don't think the bank has a use for the building, due to the liability. It just costs so much to bring something like this back."

The oddly-shaped building runs through the city block between Front to Franklin Streets. The theater faces Franklin Street, and the bank operates on the Front Street side.

Local electrical and structural engineers recently evaluated the condition of the theater, and the report was not positive.

"We're not talking thousands of dollars - we're talking hundreds of thousands of dollars to make it sound and safe. It became cost prohibitive," Johnson said.

Johnson walked through the building, pointing out repairs made last year on the bank side and problems on the theater side. In addition to the theater and bank, the building formerly housed a number of offices and two apartments.

"The bank's completely out of harm's way. The deterioration is on this side," he said. "It's almost like a time warp, walking back into this environment."

According to R.N. DeArmond's book, "Old Gold, Historical Vignettes of Juneau, Alaska," the Palace Theatre was built in 1916. The Hellenthal brothers, both lawyers, had the structure built on the site of an old saloon and dance hall. It was the first concrete building on Front Street.

When it opened in 1916 as the 650-seat Spickett's Palace Theatre, it was the fourth movie house in town. John Spickett, who also ran the two Orpheum theaters in Juneau and Douglas, competed with W.D. Gross for Juneau's silent film audiences. Gross owned a theater where the Sealaska Building now sits, and built the 20th Century Theater on Front Street in 1939.

The Cuddy family bought the building and the First National Bank of Juneau in 1961. The family still owns the bank, which has 27 branches in the state and is the largest Alaskan-owned banking establishment.

The Capitol Theater operated in the space until the early 1970s. The building later housed Baranof Book Shop and Big City Books.

In 1998 JDLT staged "Sylvia," its first production in the Palace. A few months later the group worked with director John Sayles, who remodeled the theater into "The Gold Nugget Saloon" for several scenes in the film, "Limbo."

The remodel breathed new life into the theater, and over the past two years Juneau-Douglas High School and Juneau Lyric Opera also staged productions at the Palace. Johnson said he's sorry to see JDLT go, and he's enjoyed their tenancy.

"They're fine people. They put on a heck of a production and they're good for the community," he said.

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