What 1920s Movie Theater Impresario's Alleged Abuse of the Casting Couch Cost Him His Career?

A 1920 architectural rendering of the Pantages movie theater in downtown L.A.
Public Domain Image

A 1920 architectural rendering of the Pantages movie theater in downtown L.A.

A trial became a circus, with rumors persisting years afterward.

On the afternoon of Aug. 9, 1929, a disheveled aspiring dancer named Eunice Pringle, 17, ran from the Pantages movie theater, into the bustling streets of downtown Los Angeles. Her stylish red dress was torn, and she was screaming bloody murder. "There's the beast, don't let him get away!" Pringle cried. The man she was referring to was none other than the theater's namesake, the 54-year-old impresario Alexander Pantages.

Handsome and austere, the Greek-born Pantages had risen from a theater manager (and possible drug runner) in the Yukon to the owner of the largest chain of independently owned movie houses in North America. According to his biographer Taso G. Lagos, author of American Zeus: The Life of Alexander Pantages, Theater Mogul, Pantages controlled 78 theaters by 1926, which featured both film and vaudeville. He was also a powerful booking agent, with a reputation for a wandering eye and penchant for cheating vaudeville acts out of money.

Pringle, stage name Solita Deyo, supposedly had been hounding Pantages to produce a one-act play, The Prince of Hollywood, in which she'd star. According to Pringle, on Aug. 9, Pantages lured her into a small office at the theater and sexually assaulted her.

Pantages was arrested, and the story became a media sensation. “If it is the last thing I do on earth, I want to pay him back for this terrible thing he has done to me,” Pringle told reporters.

For the Pantages family, 1929 was truly their annus horribilis. On Sept. 25, 1929, Lois Pantages, Alexander’s society wife, was convicted of manslaughter after a drunken car accident led to the death of gardener Juro Rokumoto.

On Oct. 3, her husband's trial began in the same courtroom in L.A.’s Hall of Justice. It was a circus, with famed Hollywood defense lawyer Jerry Giesler pitted against DA Buron Fitts. The courtroom was packed with hundreds of spectators — including Wild West legend Klondike Kate, Pantages’ jilted former lover and business partner — and sweltering. Pringle fainted on the stand.

During his testimony, Pantages claimed it was Pringle who had attacked him. "Pantages himself is no mean actor," the L.A. Examiner exclaimed. "He achieved heights of dramaturgy."

Pantages was convicted Oct. 27, 1929, and sentenced to one to 50 years in prison. On June 4, 1930, as he lay in a county jail, complaining of heart problems, the new crown jewel in his syndicate — the Hollywood Pantages — held a star-studded opening attended by Buster Keaton, Howard Hughes and Greta Garbo. Pantages listened to the event over the radio.

However, Giesler got Pantages released from jail days later. He was granted a new trial by the California Supreme Court, who ruled that Pringle's character could be discussed in the new trial. While awaiting his second trial, Pantages was almost immediately charged in a sordid case involving underage girls in San Diego, though charges were later dropped.

During the second trial, Giesler relentlessly attacked Pringle, claiming she was a schemer and (gasp) sexually experienced. On Nov. 31, 1931, Pantages was acquitted. "It was in reality Eunice Pringle on trial this time, rather than the gray-haired millionaire showman," the L.A. Examiner noted sadly. Nevertheless, Pantages' reputation was ruined and he began to sell off his theaters. He died in 1936.

Rumors spread about the case years later (and were included in Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon II), including that Pringle had died of poisoning in 1933 and had claimed on her deathbed that movie mogul Joseph Kennedy bribed her to make up the story as part of RKO's attempt to take over the Pantages chain.

Both were lies. After the trials, Pringle went back to school, changed her name to Toni and became known as a cultured and kindly mother and wife in San Diego County. She lived until 1996, never telling her daughter, Marcy, what she had endured all those decades before. "I knew she'd danced in Los Angeles," Marcy Worthington told the Los Angeles Times. "When I asked why she'd stopped, she always said, 'Dancing was too corrupt.'"

A version of this story first appeared in the Jan. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.