Seattle Now & Then: Seattle's First Rep

(click to enlarge photos)

THEN: Some of the 1946 cast for Calico Cargo face-off at the Seattle Repertory Playhouse on University Way at N.E. 41st Street. (Courtesy, University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections Division, Neg. No. UW 30033)
NOW: Kurt E. Armbruster dedicated his new book “to the actors of Seattle, who against all odds have kept theater alive.” This caption for Jean’s “repeat,” is also Kurt’s. “Today, the theater continues the grand tradition as the Floyd and Delores Jones Playhouse, presenting UW School of Drama plays – most recently, a superb and thought-provoking production of David Edgar’s Pentacost. Burton and Florence James would have been proud.”

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.


This group portrait also appears, p.259, in the second of Richard C. Berner's three volumes on "Seattle in the 20th Century." It is titled "Seattle 1921-1940" and is one of our preoccupations. Ron Edge and I are working to illustrate it with the same "splendor" that we contributed to Berner's Vol.1, which can be searched thru this blog. We hope you will. Rich Berner's caption for this photograph, used courtesy of the Special Collections Division, U.W. Libraries, (Neg. No. 14054) reads, ""The Washington State Theatre also was a spinoff of the SRP, once funding was received form the Rockefeller Foundation. That State Department of Public Instruction sponsored this traveling theater group's statewide tour. "No More Frontiers" was written by Idaho's Talbot Jennings."


(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.

Also printed in Rich Berner's Volumn 2, "Seattle 1921 - 1940 From Boom to Bust," appearing on page 258, and captioned . . . "Negro Repertory Theatre was inspired by Florence Bean James as an offspring of the Seattle Repertory Theatre productions, beginning with presentation of 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' in the 1931-32 season. The Jameses got WPA funding for the NRT in 1936. The scene above is from Paul Green's Pulitzer Prize winning play 'In Abraham's Bosom', 1937"
Two of the many opportunities for entertainment advertised in The Seattle Times for Jan. 1, 1937, with the cost of The Natural Man four times that of . . . The Blushing Bride.
Rich Berner at that time, serving with the Ski Patrol during WW2.


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.


Opening night with Lillian Gish on the right.

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.


The Showboat seen across Portage Bay on the right ca, 1946. The fated Fantome on the left. (We’ll attach some of the Fantome’s story later – once we find it.)

[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.]


The Showboat mid-1980s.


PREVIEWING A PREVIEW (Appeared in The Seattle Times, April 14, 1940) Prof. Glenn Hughes, executive director of the U.of W. Division of Drama, Mrs. Hughes and four enthusiastic playgoers stop by the Showboat Theatre on their way to a dinner engagement, to discuss "What a Lie," next Showboat production. Pictures on the top deck of this picturesque playhouse are, standing, Dean Judson Falknor, head of the University Law School, accepting a wafer from the plate offered by Mrs. Hughes; Dr. Charles E. Martin, head of the political science department at the University, and Professor Hughes. Seated are Mrs. Falknor, left and Mrs. Martin.


An earlier example of University drama, here in Meany Hall (the old one) in 1926. (Courtesy, The Seattle Times)



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.

The Times Aug. 8, 1943 of Tryout's first play, "Blue Alert," a wartime drama written by Zoe Schiller, a former U.W. Student, with some editing help from Prof. Savage.
A fine review of Tryout's status with the production of its 40th play in the Spring of 1949. Mack Mathews, the author of the review, not the play, was an admired wit-polymath in the local culture-culture, but with a drinking problem. He wound up in the King County Jail at one point for an alcohol-inspired and botched robbery in a downtown hotel. This Times review dates from March 27, 1949.
The headline reads "Tryout Joins Forces" when in fact it folded by being enfolded within the routines and priorities of the U.W. Drama Department. After this Oct. 29, 1950 clip beside Oscar Peterson at the Civic Auditorium, there was very little news of Tryout. Two clips at best, including the one that follows reporting on the Savage family's trip to New York.
As the last paragraph of this Sept. 9, 1951 report indicates, while in New York George Savage visit an assortment of writers, actors and agents that had been involved in those apparently vibrant eight years of the Tryout Theatre in Seattle. We learn as well that the Savage's boys are having a swell time, we assume, that summer at the Little Meadows Camp for boys, we presume. Now 62 years later we may wonder what became of them, and with the web we might even find out, although not this evening.



The Northwest corner of Republican Street and 2nd Avenue before Century 21. The slide was taken by Les Hamilton, one of the mainstays of the Queen Anne Historical Society for many years.
A clip from Pacific, ca. 2000
The Rep behind a recent Folklife scene.
Folklife, Feb. 28, 2012
May 12, 2012


A Vietnam era example of nearly spontaneous campus theatre - Guerilla Theatre.
Mrs. Hazel Huffman grabs a smoke before testifying before the house un-American Activities Committee in New York on Communist Party interests in the WPA Federal Theatre Project. The members of the committee were all ears as the smoking former Communist puffed thru her recollections of party propaganda. The AP Wirephoto dates from Aug. 19, 1938.


RETURN to AUTHOR KURT E. ARMBRUSTER and his Penultimate Book

Left to right, Alice Stuart, Bill Sheldon and Dallas Williams at the Pamir Folksingers cabaret on “the Ave” in 1962. (Courtesy Alice Stuart)
Forty-nine years later Alice is still singing professionally, sometimes with the same Martin D-18 guitar she carried with her into the coffee houses of Seattle in the early 1960s. Beside her is Kurt Einar Armbruster holding a copy of his latest book, “Before Seattle Rocked.”


(First appeared in Pacific, Dec. 10, 2011)

Jean and I recently met Alice Stuart and Kurt Einar Armbruster on the University District’s “Ave.” in front where the Pamir House – featuring “variety coffees” and folk singing – might have been had it not been replaced by a parking lot more than forty years ago.

Two lots north of 41st Street, Alice led us from the sidewalk thru the parked cars to the eloquent spot where she sang and played her resonant Martin D-18 guitar one year short of a half-century earlier.  It was near the beginning of a remarkable singing career for the then 20-year old folk artist from Lake Chelan and blessed with a beautiful voice.  She still uses it regularly.  (This past year Stuart was on stage “gigging” an average of nearly three times a week – often with her band named Alice Stuart & The Formerlys.)

Alice Stuart is one of the many Seattle musicians that author-musician Kurt E. Armbruster splendidly treats in his new book “Before Seattle Rocked.” The index of this University of Washington Press publication runs 25 pages and covers most imaginable music-related subjects in our community’s past from Bach thru Be-bop to the Wang Doodle Orchestra. This author has a gift for interviewing his subjects.  Stuart expressed amazement at his elegant edit of what she thought of as her “rambling on” about her long career.

Armbruster’s first book, “Whistle Down the Valley” (1991) was built on interviews with railroad workers in the Green River valley.  His second book “The Orphan Road” took a difficult subject, Washington’s first railroads, and unraveled its tangles with wisdom and good wit.   The “Orphan” is easily one of our classics.  Now with “Before Seattle Rocked” Armbruster’s place is insured among those who chose important regional subjects that waited years for their devoted revelators.

Armbruster is a “proud member of Seattle Musicians’ Association, AFM Local 76-493.”  Among other instruments, Kurt plays the bass for music of many kinds including rock and pop.  The book’s dedication reads, “To  Ed ‘Tuba Man’ McMichael (1955-2008), a working musician.”

Alice Stuart on stage at the 1969 Sky River Rock Festival & Lighter Than Air Fair near Tenino, Washington.







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