The story of the Arabian Theater, now the “I Am” Reading Room,” is slightly disjointed—like the story of the highway it sits on—but stick with us. In 1925, before we knew northern Seattle’s portion of Highway 99 as Aurora Avenue North, or even Highway 99, or even a highway, it was called North Trunk Road.
At least it was after 1904. Before that, when it was little more than a muddy wagon trail, it was called R. F. Morrow Road for about three years, named for San Francisco-based silver mine tycoon General Robert F. Morrow (a quarter of the object of Ambrose Bierce’s distaste in his quadro-poem Four of a Kind). It had no name before then, when it was actually a muddy wagon trail, cleared sometime in the 1880s.
The deluxe, red-bricked, two-lane North Trunk Road had replaced the dirt path in about 1913. It ran from the northern border of Woodland Park up to where King County met Snohomish County. The Firland Sanatorium [sic] had opened near the county line in 1911, in response to a local influx of tuberculosis meningitis—Seattle’s leading cause of death at the time. Despite the grim reason for the extension, once the beautiful new road was completed, fun little businesses started to spring up along it seemingly overnight.
In 1925, the Great Depression had not yet begun, and Seattle was starting to take its place among major American cities—not just due to its new road but also to its scads of dazzling new parks. In 1903, John Charles Olmsted of the Olmsted Brothers landscape architecture firm, which designed Central Park, arrived in Seattle from Brookline, Massachusetts. Olsted partnered with the city to create 37 parks, playgrounds, and boulevards out of the comparably untouched terrain: like it does today, Seattle had a wealth of green spaces that few cities could rival. North Seattle ended up with a bunch of them, including Green Lake Park and Woodland Park, along with the latter’s very cosmopolitan accompanying zoo.
They were all tourist attractions, instantaneously. Because these two parks are located so close to one another, a few motels—not yet called motels, but “tourist camps”—began popping up along North Trunk Road by the early 1920s as more and more folks were able to own their own automobiles. The city built its own tourist camp in Woodland Park, and according to Historylink, for 50 cents a night, “a car full of travelers could get hot showers, laundry facilities, and a telephone, and enjoy the community building overlooking Green Lake, with its veranda and open-air fireplace,” plus a selection of local entertainment.
As a result of North Trunk’s new attractions, families started moving to the area, which was sparsely inhabited only 10 years earlier, and it started to coalesce into a neighborhood that became colloquially known as the North End. Single-family residences started to dot the topography around Green Lake and Woodland Park—many of which are still around. Daniel Bagley School, built in 1907, had to expand into the lot next door by 1917 as its number of students doubled in just a decade. Little local grocery markets came next.
It was this influx in population—and need for entertainment—that made the Arabian possible. In the 1920s, known as the Golden Age of Hollywood, a handful of theaters began to sprout up on or around North Trunk Road—the grandest of which, and possibly the only one that still stands, was the Arabian. Located at 7610 Woodland Park Avenue North—which would adopt its current name “Aurora Avenue North” five years later—it was just five blocks south of where North Trunk Road zagged north from Northwest 85th Street and right across the street from the Bagley School on North 80th Street.
The Arabian was commissioned by film exhibitor, philanthropist, and all-over Seattle pioneer John Danz, who turned up in Seattle around 1900, aged 23, having trekked north from Oregon City. Danz’s family had emigrated to the East Coast from Russia when he was a small child, fleeing the Cossacks, and later sojourned across the country by covered wagon to Portland, Oregon. Danz started in the haberdashery business by opening Sterling Men’s Wear on Second Avenue South, but started showing movies in his shop when the nickelodeon craze began in the early 1910s. He found it a wiser investment than hats, and saw there was money to be made at the beginning of the American silent film age. By 1912, Danz had founded Sterling Recreation Organization (SRO)—which would eventually grow to encompass 130 theatres along the West Coast by the 1990s—and started buying and building movie theaters. (SRO is still in business and primarily owned by the Danz family.)
The venue’s first name was Sterling’s Arabian Theatre, a nod to its ownership by SRO name, which was itself was a nod to his old hat store. It came up fast, made of concrete masonry in a Spanish/Moorish style, with a distinctive pinwheel stained glass window on its facade. When it was done, it was nearly 7,200 square feet and could seat 769 patrons. The Arabian’s auditorium ran parallel to the busy street, with assorted storefronts along the sidewalk, including Schneider Hardware, Arabian Grocery and Delicatessen, Fuller Glass, and the Arabian Tavern. A parking strip ran down the middle of the street—a strange thing to imagine on the same stretch of road today. The Arabian boasted a striking new 2/5 Kimball theatre pipe organ, which popular local organist Eddie Zollman played for several years. Just months after it was built, the Arabian was being touted as an amenity in real estate ads, with agencies bragging on properties’ proximity to the new theatre by late 1925.
Both the theater and the street it was on got new names in 1930: the Arabian Theater became Bruen’s Arabian Theater, when Hugh W. Bruen, who also owned the Guild 45th Theater for a while, purchased it from Danz, while Woodland Park Avenue North became Aurora Avenue. Its red bricks were replaced with more practical asphalt by this time, although a few patches are still visible, such as at Ronald Place near the Shoreline Trader Joe’s.
The venue became Lukan’s Arabian Theatre, when Lorenz Lukan bought it from Bruen—the same year the George Washington Memorial Bridge, better-known as the Aurora Bridge, was built. Once Aurora’s transformation was complete, the theater was sitting on a super-speedy direct route between downtown and Everett—a fact also much-hyped to families seeking real estate in the area. It changed its name again in 1969 to Washington State Route 99, as we know it today, so-called because it followed a section of the now-gone U.S. 99.
More and more family residences went up in and around Green Lake and Woodland Park, and the Arabian definitely knew who its customers were. Although it hosted vaudeville, bands, and silent films for adult crowds in the evenings, a good portion of its programming was aimed at younger viewers. The place was generally packed with neighborhood kids on Saturdays for movie matinees. As of the 1940s, admission for kids’ matinees was 9 cents (rather than 10, so they didn’t have to charge tax), and popcorn or candy were a nickel each.
At night, the shows often erred on the eclectic side. According to historian Paul Dorpat, in 1928, the Arabian showed Clara Bow’s film Ladies of the Mob paired with an onstage dance contest. In 1929, according to Dorpat, a group of Mason men held a drag show, and “dressed and acted like Broadway chorus girls on the Arabian stage for a benefit show they named ‘Vampin Babies Frolic.’”
After 30 years in business, the Arabian closed in 1954, and remained mostly empty for a decade to come. Its lovely Kimball organ was salvaged and sent down the street to the Rivoli Theatre at First and Madison where the Federal Building is now, although organist Zollman would continue to play it there.
The Arabian wasn’t entirely empty, though. Evangelist John H. Will has resurrected it for a time by staging weekly services for his Northwest Salvation and Healing Campaign there, marketing the venue as the “Old Arabian Theatre.”
In 1960, it was listed for sale as a “large, reinforced concrete building.” By 1964, it was Seattle Pet and Hobby Shop. But since at least the 1990s—Dorpat says since 1969—the Arabian Theatre has been owned by the St. Germain Foundation, a “theosophic” religious organization focusing on esoteric New Age-esque teachings that have... something... to do with Mt. Shasta. The building is painted flat white and is easy to speed past without a second glance—although the original pinwheel stained glass window is still there, intended when it was constructed in 1925 to evoke Moorish architecture, although it looks strangely churchy in this modern context.
Meanwhile, Green Lake commands top dollar for those little residential houses that sprang up in the 1910s and 1920s, in order to be—ironically in this day and age—near the freeway. And it’s all thanks, or at least in part, to Johns Danz and Olmsted.