(click to enlarge photos)
Seattle is often admired for its live theatres and the many actors who walk their boards and perform for a city that is also known – we are not surprised – for its love of reading, besides listening. Now one of our more prolific historians, Kurt Einar Armbruster, comes with “Playing for Change.” Given its subject – and subtitle – “Burton and Florence James and the Seattle Repertory Playhouse,” we may expect that many of Pacific’s theatre-loving literati will be drawn to it.
In “Orphan Road: The Railroad Comes to Seattle,” (1999) this author untangled the complex early history of Puget Sound’s railroads. In 2011 the University of Washington Press published “Before Seattle Rocked” Armbruster’s early history of Seattle’s musical culture. And now comes his also dramatic history of our first “Rep” written this time with what was surely inspired speed. “Playing for Change” is also self-published, a practice that it getting more-and-more popular, possible, and fast.
Pictured here are some of the cast of Calico Cargo, local actor-playwright Albert Ottenheimer’s musical telling of the then already famous Seattle story of the “Mercer Girls:” the New England women, some of them Civil War widows, who followed Asa Mercer, the University of Washington’s first president, to Seattle to teach and/or have their pick of a well-stocked selection of industrious and lonely bachelors who eagerly awaited them on Yesler’s Wharf. That, it seems, is probably the scene depicted here.
Calico Cargo opened in September 1946, and played to great success, filling the 340-seat Repertory Playhouse at the southwest corner of 41st Street Northeast and University Way for fifteen weeks. George Frederick McKay, the University’s admired composer, was a contributor. (A good selection of his compositions can be found on the Naxos label.)
The Jameses started the Rep in 1928. Thru its long and vigorous life, it played both the classics and original plays, some local and some controversial. For the more than 20 years of the James direction it inspired imagination and reflection in its players and patrons. But that story is told best by Armbruster in his radically affordable book. “Playing for Change” can be had for small change – $13.99. It is found at the University Book Store, Elliott Bay Books and on line.
Anything to add, Paul?
Jean I’ll gather these “extras” as I may, but considering the recurring troubles we are having with this server or program or what? there is – it seems my now – a likelihood that the link will shut its door sometime before I can deliver. This inspired a new attitude that resembles patience on our parts, and we hope on our dear readers too. Someday we will have this sorted out or corrected. Then we will return to our full schedule and perhaps more.
THE STATE’S FIRST THEATER
(First appeared in Pacific, Oct. 4, 1992)
The scene above of the players preparing to take their Washington State Theater to schools across the state is one of the handful of photographs that illustrated former university archivist Richard Berner’s most recent book. “Seattle 1921 – 1940 From Boom To Bust” is volume two in Berner’s projected trilogy, “Seattle in the 20th Century.” Northwest historian Murray Morgan says the 556-page book, “is the best-organized more thoroughly researched, most useful book yet written about the city.”
As for the theater: After teaching drama at Cornish School in the mid-1920s, Florence and Burton James established Seattle Repertory Playhouse in 1928, renting stages around town. They moved out on their own in 1930. The brick playhouse here in the background, was designed for them by local architect Arthur Loveless.
The James persuaded the Rockefeller Foundation and the state’s Department of Public Instruction to sponsor the country’s first state theater. Scenery and costumes were moved about the state in this truck; the caravan of actors trailed in cars.
The theater’s first production, “No More Frontier,” was written by Idaho playwright Talbot Jennings. In their first season, the touring company played – astonishingly – before 70,000 students. After each show the players, in costume, took questions from the audience. They were paid a livable $75 a month. (Actor Howard Duff is third from the right, top row.)
The James were also responsible for securing Works Progress Administration funding for a local “Negro Repertory Theatre,’ which, for some productions, employed as many as 50 African-American actors.
The placid description below of Glenn Hughes and his Showboat Theatre should be supplemented/adjusted with a reading of Kurt Einar Armbruster’s, “Playing for Change.”
(First appeared in Pacific, May 4, 1986)
The old Showboat Theater on the University of Washington campus was recently called “a distant derivation of a derivation of a derivation of the riverboat.” That description was offered by Ellen Miller-Wolfe, coordinator of the local Landmarks Preservation Board [in 1986]. It may be that lack of architectural purity which will eventually doom the sagging Showboat. It is scheduled to be demolished soon.
When or if it bows out, the Showboat will leave a legacy of fine theater and personal stories. (It is said to be haunted by the ghost of its founder Glenn Hughes, a man once known on the English-speaking stage west of Broadway as “Mr. Theater. “)
The theater’s opening night, Sept. 22, 1938, was a banner-draped, lantern-lighted, elegant black-tie setting for the old farce, “Charlie’s Aunt.” One of the showboat’s best remembered offerings was the 1949 production of “Mrs. Carlyle, ” written by Hughes and starring Lillian Gish, the silent screen star and stage actress.
The theatrical variety and often professional quality performances that six nights a week moved upon the Showboat’s stage were a far cry from the fare of the old ”’mellerdrammers” that played the real showboats of the Mississippi River days. Chekhov, Thurber, Sophocles and, of course, Shakespeare all made it onto Seattle’s revolving proscenium stage. And some of its players were Frances Farmer, Robert Culp and Chet Huntley (who later switched careers to the theater of national news).
The original design for the Works Progress Administration-built “boat” came from another member of the UW’s drama faculty, John Ashby Conway, who envisioned it being occasionally tugged about Lakes Washington and Union for off-shore performances. Instead, for its nearly 50 years [by 1986] it has been in permanent port on Portage Bay, supported, for the sake of illusion, a short ways off shore on concrete piling.
[In 1the mid-1980s the destruction of the then unused but not sinking showboat was forestalled for a time by a group called SOS (Save Our Showboat). Many of its members once acted on its stage and have left their sentimental shadows there. As I recall it was long after an SOS denouement that, as if in the night, the Showboat was razed to below its waterline.]
There are 300 clips in the Seattle Times archives with reference to the TRYOUT THEATRE, another theatre group associated with the University of Washington but not necessarily on it. A Dr. Savage in the school’s Department of English was one of the generous drivers of this nearly eight-year program to produce plays written for it – most of them from the region. The last clip is a chatty letter from Savage’s wife to the Times during their visit to the theatre scene in New York City, and after the couple and their family have moved on to California for a new appointment with the Drama Department of U.C.L.A. Printing such a chatty family letter as news would be unlikely these days. It is an old flower that is now refreshing.
A REP REVIVED