What We Talk About When We Talk About the Pantages

One of the reasons this blog is so ridiculously wide-ranging, from hotties of yore to the last words of death row inmates, is that we have always been catholic in our reading. An early immersion in Gone With the Wind, for instance, led to our obsession with Old Hollywood, and Truman Capote’s Answered Prayers led to a deep and lasting affection for the case of Ann “Annie Get Your Gun” Woodward, who shot and killed her husband because she thought he was a prowler. A naked prowler.

Anyway, our current reading of Sister Aimee, a biography of Aimee Semple McPherson, revealed a new tangent to follow: the Pantages.

Turns out, the theater impresario Alexander Pantages had quite the life. Calling himself the “King Greek” (in imitation of “Super Jew” Louis B. Mayer), Pantages opened his first theater in the Yukon Territory with brothel owner Klondike Kate. After he left for the States again and married musician Lois Mendenhall (more on her in a moment), Klondike Kate sued him for breach-of-promise to marry, and forced him to settle out of court.

Eunice Pringle testifying

Later, Pantages entered into a partnership with Famous Players, part of Paramount Pictures, and created a vaudeville and motion picture empire. But when Joseph P. Kennedy tried to purchase the chain, Pantages refused. What followed may or may not have had some relation to that failed business deal. But in the midst of the stock market crash of 1929—as in, he was convicted on Oct. 27—Pantages was brought up on charges of raping 17-year-old Eunice Pringle. The press was all over this (and the William Randolph Hearst papers were particularly against the Greek Pantages) and he was ultimately sentenced to 50 years in prison.

Enter Jerry Geisler, who petitioned for a new trial and managed to get submitted into evidence less-than-flattering tidbits about Pringle, and the fact that the alleged rape took place in a broom closet. The case was dismissed in 1931 (the jury deliberated 65 hours) and Pantages was a free man.

A month before his first trial and in the same courtroom, Lois Pantages was found guilty of murder after driving drunk the wrong way down Sunset Boulevard in her Stutz coupe and killing Japanese gardener Juro Rokumoto, collapsing outside the courtroom after the verdict was read (the jury deliberated for 27 hours). Her sentence? Ten years’ probation and damages of $78,500 to be paid to Rokumoto’s family. A year later, her conviction was abruptly overturned in what D.A. Buron Fitts called “a travesty.” She died in 1941 of a heart attack while swimming, five years after Pantages.

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