Alexander Pantages was eleven when arrived in the United States in the 1880s after having contracted malaria in Panama. Speaking a few words in many languages and unable to read or write English, by 1902 he had opened his first motion picture theater in Seattle that started his extraordinary journey in ruthlessly and singlehandedly building one of the largest and most powerful theater circuits in the country. By 1929, Pantages owned or operated 72 theaters, stretching across the United States and into Canada, with a personal fortune in the hundreds of millions. He set standards in theater taste and refinement, and religiously focused on pleasing the customer. Some of his theaters still stand today, a testament to his emphasis on quality and high standards. In 1929 he was accused of sexually assaulting a 17 year-old dancer that destroyed his empire and reduced him to a social pariah. The day his grandest theater, the Pantages Hollywood, opened in 1930, he lay a sick man in a jail hospital bed. It took more than a herculean effort to clear his name, but the question remains: how will history judge this great theater pioneer and exemplar of the American Dream?
Taso G. Lagos is a faculty member at the University of Washington's Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies in Seattle where he teaches and conducts research in motion picture and Greek-American immigrant studies.