UW News

May 14, 2018

Jackson School’s Taso Lagos pens ‘American Zeus,’ biography of theater mogul Alexander Pantages

UW News

 "American Zeus: The Life of Alexander Pantages, Theater Mogul," by Taso Lagos, was published by McFarland.

“American Zeus: The Life of Alexander Pantages, Theater Mogul,” by Taso Lagos, was published by McFarland.

It’s a challenge to write a biography of a man who was functionally illiterate and whose papers were mostly destroyed, but University of Washington lecturer Taso Lagos has achieved it with his new book, “American Zeus: The Life of Alexander Pantages, Theater Mogul.” The book was published early this year by McFarland.

Pantages was a vastly successful early 20th century theater owner and entrepreneur in the days of vaudeville and early motion pictures. At one point he owned 78 theaters across the United States and Canada — despite being virtually unable to read or write English.

Lagos, a lecturer in Hellenic Studies in the Jackson School’s European Studies Program, said he became intrigued by the movie mogul years ago when completing his master’s thesis at the UW on early Seattle motion picture history.

“I share Pantages’ Greek heritage,” Lagos said. “He was born on the island adjacent to mine in the Aegean, and he left home when he was nine, just like I did with my family. That was the initial draw.”

Lagos to discuss Pantages biography May 19
Taso Lagos will discuss his biography of theater mogul Alexander Pantages in a free event at 1 p.m. at the University Bookstore in the Mill Creek Town Center.

Pantages rose during an era — about 1902 to 1929 — “that required tough, ruthless, hard working but visionary business types” to thrive, Lagos said. There were few movie theaters in the country, and few mainstream investors willing to finance the fledgling art of moviemaking.

“Films were considered pornographic art, which left the door open for immigrants who saw movie theaters as an opportunity to start their own businesses,” Lagos said. Pantages opened his first theater in Seattle in 1902.

“No one in 1902 ever could imagine that films one day would become a dominant art form, with the rise of huge Hollywood studios and enormous profits. So in that sense, he was lucky — he entered the business when few others dared and he rode the wave of growing popularity of films.

Taso Lagos

Taso Lagos

“When he started building movie palaces, with ornate bathrooms, foyers, chandeliers and white-gloved ushers, for working-class audiences it felt like being in a European palace — which was precisely the point,” Lagos said. “He never booked an act or a movie in his theaters unless he saw it first, with a paying audience; never, absolutely never relying on the word of agents or salespeople.”

The many theaters Pantages built “were meant to last,” Lagos said. To this day, five Pantages theaters still stand, and Seattle just lost its last one in 2011. Tacoma’s Pantages Theater had many names and owners over the decades, but was refurbished and reopened under the Pantages name in 1983.

Pantages’ life, however, was never the same after a widely publicized 1929 conviction for rape — though he was exonerated in a subsequent trial. Because of the scandal, his name has been omitted from many theater histories of the era. “Even in Greek-American circles,” Lagos said, “he remains a pariah.”

Lagos researched the case deeply for his book, reading all available testimony (some had mysteriously disappeared) and even visiting the room where the assault is said to have taken place. He said as he began his research he was convinced that the rape took place; when his research was done he had “strong doubts” — but is still uncertain.

Primary sources for the research were scarce, Lagos said. Pantages being illiterate, he left few papers behind and corporate papers relating to the theater chain were destroyed over the years. Lagos used newspaper accounts to piece together Pantages’ biography, which strives “to showcase the life, both the triumphs and the tragedies,” he said.

“Besides his name, there are few traces of his life,” Lagos added. “Although the gargoyles at his famous theater in Hollywood seem to have a striking resemblance to his face.”


For more information, contact Lagos at 206-351-7495 or taso@uw.edu