The Bell Show: Bellingham’s First Movie House

The Bell Show was featuring a crime drama, The Tong Man, when commercial photographer J. W. Sandison took this photo of the pioneer movie house. To promote the film, which played at the theater July 7-9, 1921, manager Al Finkelstein had Chinese lanterns strung along both sides of Holly Street between Cornwall and Railroad avenues. From the Whatcom Museum’s J. W. Sandison Collection

The Bell Show was featuring a crime drama, The Tong Man, when commercial photographer J. W. Sandison took this photo of the pioneer movie house. To promote the film, which played at the theater July 7-9, 1921, manager Al Finkelstein had Chinese lanterns strung along both sides of Holly Street between Cornwall and Railroad avenues.
From the Whatcom Museum’s J. W. Sandison Collection

THE BELL SHOW opened at 111 E. Holly in July 1908 as Bellingham’s first theater dedicated exclusively to the showing of motion pictures. Located in what had been Edward Gott’s pharmacy, the Bell was what came to be known as a “store show” or storefront theater. A five-cent “nickelodeon” ticket got you a triple-feature of one-reel movies, each roughly ten minutes long.

Initially financed by two California investors, the Bell Show was purchased in 1910 by Wilfred S. Quinby, who equipped the theater with a sloping floor to give the audience a better view of the screen. He had a $3,000 Kimball pipe organ installed in 1913 and Professor Darwin Wood, organist extraordinaire, played accompaniment to the silent films. By 1918, Quinby owned three Bellingham theaters, the Bell Show, Dream and Liberty, causing the local press to declare him “Movie King of Holly Street.” Quinby’s three theaters were all located within a three-block span on the same side of the street.

The Bell was leased in late 1920 to the Seattle theater chain of Jensen & Von Herberg. The firm’s Bellingham manager, Al Finkelstein, booked first-run films and spent lavishly on promotion. The Bell was one of the first local theaters to show “serials” when it played the 15 episodes of The Lost City over the last six weeks of 1920. In August 1921, the Bell hosted the Bellingham debut of Chaplin’s The Kid. The Bell Show was remodeled and reopened as the Rialto Theatre in Nov. 1921. Bellingham Theaters Inc. bought the Rialto in August 1922, only to close it permanently a short time later. The building was converted into Harry Dawson’s Cafe, one of a few restaurants that would occupy the space over the years, including the Horseshoe Cafe since 1958.

–Jeff Jewell, Whatcom Museum Photo Archives