By Ed Echtle
For nearly 90 years, the theater on South Washington Street in Olympia has served as a hub for entertainment, public meetings and social events. Originally built as the Liberty Theater in 1924, it reopened in 1985 after an extensive renovation as the Washington Center for the Performing Arts. Throughout its history, the theater’s programming reflected changing fashions in entertainments as well as the changing fortunes of Olympia’s downtown.
Although it begun as a for-profit venture, the theater’s evolution into an anchor for Olympia’s downtown and as a key cultural space for the larger community parallels the reemergence of Olympia’s historic town center as the South Sound’s principal social space. As the Washington Center for the Performing Arts continues its mission, understanding how the vision for its creation emerged from a combination of the community’s needs and the theater’s past uses is key to understanding its significance in Olympia’s community history.
Grand Theaters for Olympia
By the end of WWI, movies were a booming industry in the US. In the early 1920s, Olympia had two smaller movie houses, the Rex and the Ray. The Olympia Opera House, built in 1890 on East Fourth Ave. by newspaper pioneer John Miller Murphy, was becoming a relic of the past as its earlier grandeur faded with use and time. As 1920s audiences nationwide increasingly expected movie-going to be an elegant experience, competing entrepreneurs planned two new larger, more refined theaters to provide Olympia’s moviegoers with more luxurious facilities.
By 1924, a race was on between construction crews to see which of the two new theaters would open first. The Zabel Family, owners of the Rex and the Ray, were behind the Capitol Theater project on 5th Avenue, designed by prolific local architect Joseph Wohleb. Nearby, the Reed-Ingham Investment Co. developed the Liberty Theater as part of a larger project that included an adjoining indoor garage to help accommodate Olympia’s increasing numbers of automobiles. Situated across Washington Street from the Hotel Olympian and less than a block from what was then the State Capitol, the Liberty Theater and Garage was poised to take advantage of the influx of people and cars that arrived for legislative sessions.
The site of the new Liberty Theater was formerly the location of the Thomas Milburne Reed family home. Reed arrived in 1857 as a Wells Fargo agent, just a few years after Olympia’s founding. By the 1860s he was elected to the Washington Territorial Legislature where he served as speaker of the house in 1862-63. He later served in a number of appointed positions in Washington and Idaho Territories and won election to the legislature again in 1878-79, serving as president of the Council (Senate). Reed was also an astute businessman and developed the Reed business block adjoining his home in 1891 which housed Olympia’s post office until 1914.
By the time Reed died in 1905 his son, Mark Reed, was manager of the Simpson Timber Co. in Shelton, Washington and was married to Irene Simpson, daughter of company founder Sol G Simpson. Mark Reed also later served in the Washington State legislature during the 1910s. As his business interests expanded, he formed the Reed-Ingham investment Co in partnership with Dr. George W Ingham of Olympia. Ingham was married to Emma Reed, Mark’s sister, and was an avid local investor with interests in the South Sound oyster industry and the Olympia Knitting Mills. Among their many projects, they decided to redevelop the site of the old Reed family home on South Washington Street, adjacent to the Reed Block and increasingly surrounded by Olympia’s expanding business district.
The Reed-Ingham investment Co retained Mark Purvis of Seattle as architect for the new facility. Purvis was an accomplished theater designer with decades of experience including Murphy’s 1890 Opera House. Among Purvis’ other projects were the Columbia and the Mack Theaters in Longview and Port Angeles Washington. Reed-Ingham also hired the Seattle firm of Jensen and Von Herberg to build and operate the new facility. Jensen and Von Herberg were renowned in the field of theater building, having managed construction of Liberty theaters in Portland Oregon and Seattle, as well as the Neptune, also in Seattle.
By August 1924 it was apparent the Liberty Theater would open first, beating the Capitol by nearly two months. A two-page feature in the Morning Olympian newspaper lauded the new facility’s fine interior finish and included ads placed by many of the subcontractors and suppliers congratulating the Liberty’s management and touting their own involvement in the construction of the theater.
The well-appointed theater drew lavish praise in the local press. Primary colors of the Liberty’s interior design theme were blue and bronze. Upholstered seats, a new feature in Olympia’s movie houses, offered new levels of comfort to patrons. The Liberty also installed “thick velvet carpet [that] will yield to the tread like beds of moss.” Like its counterparts in larger cities, the Liberty also employed uniformed ushers to escort patrons to their seats.
The grand opening on Saturday August 30, 1924 featured “The Last Hour” a silent melodrama, as well as five vaudeville acts and “two concerts given by premier organist Esther Stayner, from Chicago and Spokane.” The affair brought out large crowds and the opening was standing room only.
The Liberty’s managers intended Stayner’s performance to showcase their impressive Wurlitzer organ. Jensen and Von Herberg made such organs integral parts of their theater designs. The theater’s organ was equipped with two keyboards and nine “ranks” or sets of pipes. Installed by Sandy Balcom of Seattle, a large loft above the stage housed the pipes. The organist also controlled a variety of percussion instruments through the keyboard, including a glockenspiel, snare and bass drums and chimes. The organ also produced sound effects including horse-hoof beats and bird twitters to enhance the silent movie experience. Among the early performers on the Liberty’s Wurlitzer was Oliver Wallace who played for the 1924 New Year’s Eve program. Wallace went on to score several Disney studio features including Cinderella and Alice in Wonderland. Together with collaborator Frank Churchill, Wallace won an Oscar in 1941 for his work on Dumbo.
Shortly after its opening, the Moore Amusement Co of Seattle assumed management of the Liberty Theater as part of a chain of Liberty Theaters in Oregon and Washington. Afterward, the Liberty settled into a routine cycle of programs, mainly movies and vaudeville acts. However, its cache as a well-appointed venue attracted other uses as well. After Roland Hartley was elected Governor, state building engineers raised concerns that the old capitol building on Legion Way and Washington Street was structurally incapable of supporting the crowds expected for the inauguration. Event planners quickly booked the nearby Liberty Theater, where Hartley took the oath of office in January 1925, beginning the theater’s decades-long career as a site for public events.
As the movie industry grew, the Fox Theater Chain acquired the Moore Amusement Co. and later merged with West Coast Theaters becoming Fox West Coast in 1929. That year, the Liberty featured On With The Show, the first ever feature-length color film with sound.
The Great Depression and Wartime
While feature films were the Liberty’s main offering, from early on, weekend matinees for children were a staple at the theater. Former Olympia Mayor Bill Jacobs recalled attending the Liberty as a child, to catch the weekly cartoon lineup billed as “Popeye Theater.” While vaudeville performances were becoming less fashionable, live performances in the theater continued in diverse forms.
One of the more unusual were the midnight “Spook Frolics” presented by performers such as “Francisco” who travelled the west coast in the 1930s and ‘40s. Francisco and similar acts did not claim to be spiritualists but managed to scare audiences with eerie sounds and visual effects, including floating tables, spirit writing, disembodied voices and invoking rapping noises throughout the theater.
Despite its role as a respite from daily life, the realities of the world intruded on moviegoers the afternoon of December 7, 1941. In later years reporter Gus Angelos recalled he and his sister, aged 10 and 11 at the time, were startled when their movie abruptly cut off and the house lights came on. Theater manager Harold Murphy took the stage and announced that Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor and that all military personnel were to report to their posts immediately. “We didn’t stay for the rest of the show. We ran all the way home, and home was on the eastside of town, several miles away.”
During the war theater attendees kept abreast of wartime events through newsreels preceding feature films. In addition, the USO broadcast live musical performances from the Liberty over the radio, to entertain troops stationed nearby at Fort Lewis.
A New Era
As Olympia entered the postwar years, Olympia’s theater owners prepared for increased numbers of moviegoers as servicemen and women returned to civilian life. Nearby, on Fourth Avenue, a third large downtown theater, The State, opened its doors in 1949. The State sported a modern neon marquee including a large backlit reader board. The Capitol Theater also added a similar lighted marquee trimmed in neon, to advertise its offerings and present a more modern façade.
The Liberty needed refreshing to compete as well. After Wes “Mac” McDonald leased the Liberty in 1948, he invested $75,000 in upgrading the theater. McDonald was an experienced manager and owned another small movie house in Olympia, the Avalon, built in 1928. At the Liberty, workers installed updated heating and ventilation systems while the house received new burgundy damask wall coverings, flower-patterned carpet and the first “self-raising” seats installed in Washington State. McDonald also retained artist Robert Berg who added murals to the stairwells depicting scenes of tragedy and comedy described by the press as “Indo-Chinese” in style. Among the areas most improved in the upgrade was the women’s lounge including walls newly upholstered in chartreuse leatherette. The theater also took on a new name, the Olympic, as well as a new backlit marquee with a large revolving “O” in the style of the Olympia Beer brand logo.
The Olympic also continued hosting special events, as when the Washington Federation of Labor held its 54th annual convention there in 1956. United Churches of Olympia held Sunday services at the Olympic after the 1949 earthquake severely damaged their nearby church, until they dedicated a new church in 1951. Producers of the 1961 film “Ring of Fire” booked both the Olympic and the Capitol Theaters to host concurrent premier showings. Shot in Oregon and Washington, the film’s climax featured the wreck of a steam locomotive in the collapse of a high trestle across the Wynoochee River. At the conclusion of the film the cast including David Janssen, Joyce Taylor and Frank Gorshin appeared on the Olympic’s stage to greet the audience.
Despite improvements to the Olympic, its future was increasingly uncertain. American society was in transition as the automobile became central to daily life and new suburban developments took families farther from downtown. In addition, the advent of television made staying home a more appealing option for family entertainment.
New drive-in theaters in the area offered another alternative to the downtown theaters: the Sunset opened in Tumwater in 1949 and Lacey Drive-In in 1953. Drive-ins not only offered convenience, they promoted themselves as a casual, more private alternative to traditional theater going, inviting young working families to “come as you are.” That same privacy especially appealed to young adults with access to cars, who quickly adopted drive-ins as the preferred destination for romantic dates.
Since the coming of sound film, the aging Wurlitzer organ in the Olympic fell into disuse and was in need of repair and maintenance. In 1962 the Olympic theater management contacted Andy Crow to assess the instrument’s needs. Crow, an accomplished organist in the region, regularly performed at the Music Box, Roxy and Temple Theatres in Tacoma, and the Orpheum and Paramount in Seattle. Crow began maintaining the organ with the help of Les Lehne. In 1971 Andy Crow and business partner Marshall Woodbridge purchased the Olympic for their own, to protect the historic structure and the venerable organ.
By the 1950s diffusion of state agencies to other cities in Washington created operational difficulties and legislators determined to reconsolidate government in the Olympia area. Washington State acquired property across Capitol Way from the legislative building and began construction of new office space on the site. In the process, the state demolished William Winlock Miller High School (known locally as Olympia High School) including its large 1000+ seat auditorium. Since its construction in 1919, the Olympia High auditorium served as the main large-capacity venue for local arts organizations and its loss left the Olympia area with no similar sized space for local productions.
While the state capitol campus was growing, the opening of the Interstate 5 freeway bypass in 1958 began a period of economic decline for Olympia’s downtown. Exacerbating the loss of drive-through tourist revenue was the closing of industries and the departure of larger “anchor stores” to new suburban shopping centers. Meanwhile, movie going became less formal and patrons dressed more casually than they had in the past. In response, movie houses no longer vied with one another to maintain their former grandeur and often deferred expensive maintenance to cut costs.
By the 1970s, new movie house design was more utilitarian, foregoing decorative refinements typical of earlier theaters. Near Lacey, a six-screen multiplex opened in 1979, close to the freeway. In 1980 the recently completed Capitol Mall on Olympia’s west side added another four-screen multiplex. The combination of easy access, abundant parking and more modern sound and projection equipment further hastened the decline of Olympia’s aging downtown movie houses, including the Olympic. Coupled with the advent of home video movie rentals, the classic movie palaces struggled to stay viable.
Owners of the State theater, the newest of the downtown venues, attempted to keep it profitable by partitioning its large auditorium into three screens and showing second-run movies at reduced prices. The Olympic and Capitol Theaters increasingly relied on special events including live performances and classic movie revivals to generate income.
The Movement for a Performing Arts Center
Since the loss of the Olympia High School Auditorium, local arts organizations vied for venue space. While the downtown theaters were capable of accommodating large crowds, their need to generate revenue for their owners often made their use expensive for local arts organizations with tight budgets. However, as competition from suburban movie venues and decreasing attendance caused downtown theaters to struggle for business, they became more affordable and local groups began using them more frequently.
In 1966 local arts advocates including the Olympia Fine Arts Guild (founded in 1942), along with Washington First Lady Nancy Evans, launched the Governor’s Festival of the Arts in Olympia, to bring world class artists and performers to the Capitol City and the Olympic theater served as a principle venue. Performers slated for the six-month event included the Seattle Repertory Players, the Seattle Symphony, and an appearance by actress and singer Pearl Bailey. Afterward the Governor’s Festival of the Arts became an annual event for several years, regularly utilizing the Olympic.
By 1968 local arts supporters founded a new group, Patrons of South Sound Cultural Activities (POSSCA) to take on fundraising for community arts events. As the need for a multi-purpose arts venue grew, local arts advocates also founded The Capital Area Association for the Performing Arts (CAAPA) in 1973. The driving force behind CAAPA was Vern Eke, a 1952 graduate of Olympia High School. Eke went on to earn a doctorate in performing arts at UCLA where he became an instructor. A talented musician, performer and production manager, he returned to the Olympia area in the early 1970s where he managed local productions in smaller venues including the Saint Martin College’s Abbey Theater and the Jade Room in the old Hotel Olympian.
Efforts for a new dedicated performing arts center gradually gained momentum. In response, the City of Olympia agreed to dedicate several acres of surplus land on the Westside for the project in 1976; formerly the city’s solid waste landfill. The site, located near the Black Lake Boulevard entrance to Highway 101, followed the commercial trend of outmigration from downtown. Despite the free land, many supporters found this site remote and preferred a downtown location, presaging the movement for revitalization of Olympia’s downtown.
Meanwhile, CAAPA adopted the name, “Washington Center for the Performing Arts” (WCPA) for the project to underscore their vision of the new facility as a regional venue and garner support from beyond Olympia. While CAAPA’s initial attempt to procure state support in 1977 fell short, in 1979 an endorsement from former Washington first family Dan and Nancy Evans helped persuade the legislature to approve a $1.5 million matching grant for the WCPA project.
That same year, the local architects serving as part of the Regional and Urban Design Assistance Team (R/UDAT) weighed in on the project. Founded in 1967 by the American Institute of Architects to offer growth management guidance to cities across America, R/UDAT authored its first assessment of Olympia’s increasingly vacant downtown core in 1979. In addition to their advocacy for a farmers market, new community center and the redevelopment of Percival Landing as a public space, R/UDAT urged the city to support the WCPA project as an anchor attraction for downtown.
Increasing numbers of stakeholders led the City of Olympia to create the Cultural Arts Advisory Committee (CAAC) in 1980 to steer the project. The city also hired Lynn Schrader as coordinator of CAAC which included representatives from POSSCA, CAAPA, R/UDAT and other local arts organizations. CAAC members embraced R/UDATs recommendation for a downtown site and abandoned plans for the Black Lake Boulevard location.
After an unsuccessful attempt by the city to acquire property on State Avenue, the committee turned its efforts toward repurposing an existing theater. The Olympic theater and garage, since purchased from Crow and Woodbridge by the Moyer Theater chain of Portland, seemed to offer the best combination of location and space. However, not everyone was convinced the aging Olympic could meet their needs, including former board member Lynn Brunton who later recalled, “I can remember the first time I walked through this theater and the garage, I thought, no way, this is not going to work!” In 1981 the committee hired architect Richard McCann to study the feasibility of repurposing the site. McCann, whose other projects included refits of the Orpheum in San Francisco, Seattle’s Fifth Avenue Theater and the Pantages in Tacoma, endorsed the Olympic refit as the best course of action.
CAAC members also determined that operations at the new performing arts center should follow the model used by other cities and turn management over to an independent non-profit. The city made the new organization official in September of 1982, registering “Washington Center for the Performing Arts” with the Secretary of State and appointed a 9 member board.
From the outset the board was made up of people from diverse career backgrounds. Local attorney Judy Henderson served on the original board and later recalled there was a steep learning curve for the newly appointed members: “We did not know performing arts, so we went on a road trip. We went to Eugene Oregon, we went to Seattle, we went to Yakima, we studied performing arts centers and learned the business of keeping it in the black instead of the red!
By 1982 events were winding down in the Olympic. One of the last performers to take the stage was American folk singer and social justice activist Odetta, serving as an artist in residence at The Evergreen State College in 1981-82. By August the city appropriated funds to purchase the Olympic theater from the Moyers chain and passed an ordinance to sell $1.5 million in bonds to match the state’s grant. On October 12 the Olympic’s final feature showing, Das Boot, played to a small audience, most attending in honor of the theater’s closing after nearly 60 years of service.
Immediately after the movie, WCPA supporters gathered in the theater and toasted the milestone with champagne in paper cups. Organist Andy Crow entertained on the venerable Wurlitzer with a selection of standards including “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” “Sentimental Journey” and “Tumblin’ Tumbleweed.” In the following weeks Crow also oversaw the removal of the organ’s components to storage, to await reinstallation in the new theater.
While demolition of the original theater interior got underway, the WCPA board began fundraising in earnest. In addition, the CAAC and the WCPA board held numerous meetings with local arts groups to determine their needs and develop an operations plan that would facilitate their use of the new theater. Meanwhile the design was taking shape. McCann enlisted acoustic experts Professor Yoichi Ando of Japan and his protégé Dennis Noson of Seattle to consult on the interior design to maximize its acoustic capabilities. WCPA was Ando’s first project in the US. He and Noson proposed an innovative trapezoidal space with hard surfaces to reflect and enhance sound from the stage.
The facility planners were also concerned with accommodating diverse uses. McCann designed the main stage to be expandable by enabling the orchestra pit to rise to stage level. The design also included a second, smaller rehearsal/conference space connected to the main stage via a shared storage area to facilitate transfer of sets and other materials between stages. This smaller space later evolved into a public performing space, known as the “Black Box Theater.”
As excitement over the project increased among arts supporters, local advocates for historic preservation in Olympia raised concerns over the extent of alterations to the original Liberty theater facade. However, the recently formed Olympia Heritage Commission’s apprehensions were trumped by the fact that the city and architects already made most of the key design decisions and any new changes would result in delays and increased cost. In the final design, the retention of one exterior wall and several architectural elements were intended to allude to the original theater and garage, most recognizably the Liberty’s ornate oval vent ports, which became the symbol for the WCPA. In addition, plans called for the reinstallation of a WWI-era street clock donated by the Kluh Family outside WCPA’s entrance. Previously the historic clock stood for decades outside Kluh jewelers in downtown Olympia.
At the conclusion of the demolition phase, city leaders and WCPA supporters gathered in the gutted building in June 1984 for the formal groundbreaking ceremony. By then the WCPA board’s fundraising efforts passed $1.2 million, well on the way to meeting goals. The city also determined that proceeds from the sale of the surplus land in west Olympia originally proposed as the site of the WCPA be used to create an endowment fund for the new organization.
As construction continued into 1985, Robert Stewart replaced Lynn Schrader as director when Schrader departed to manage Pacific Northwest Ballet. Efforts to complete the facility ahead of its opening date accelerated as workers continued installing new fixtures up through opening day. Longtime volunteer Nancy Walsh later recalled she became involved with WCPA after she saw how much work there was yet to be done just days from opening: “I was horrified when I went inside! There was no carpet, the seats were in the lobby, and I thought, ‘I wonder if they need some help.’ So I went home and I called the number and they said, ‘sure, come on down!’”
Premiere week programs at WCPA commenced on September 28 and lasted through October 7, 1985. Programs included a diverse lineup of performers and offerings including the Olympia Symphony and Masterworks Choral Ensemble, A Salute to Olympia Schools featuring local youth musicians and performers, Olympia Chorale, Ballet Northwest, the Seattle Symphony, and the Modern Jazz Society. National acts included comedian David Brenner and the US Marine Band. Headlining the week was a premier gala and solo appearance by entertainer Ben Vereen on October 1st.
Down to Business
After the festivities of premier week, WCPA settled into the day-to-day business of providing the local performing arts venue its supporters envisioned. While nationally famous performers remained a regular part of programming, more local organizations, including Olympia Junior Programs (OJP,) began utilizing WCPA as well. Founded in 1940, OJP introduces South Sound youth to live theater through daytime matinees in partnership with school districts and was among the number of arts organizations displaced by the loss of the Olympia High School auditorium. Harlequin Productions, founded in 1990 by Linda and Scot Whitney, called the Black Box Theater home until they acquired the nearby State theater as their permanent home in 1997.
While theater and music entertainment dominated WCPA’s programming schedule, it also hosted lectures and public meetings such as the April 1990 appearance of renowned primatologist Jane Goodall who updated the audience on her work since she achieved wide recognition through televised National Geographic documentaries. WCPA also served as a venue for major public policy forums as well. In 1989 the US Department of Fish and Wildlife scheduled a public meeting to stem the controversy over the listing of the spotted owl as an endangered species. Environmentalists and supporters of unrestricted old growth logging squared off in the WCPA to discuss the issue.
In the following years locals nostalgic for the original theater turned out to ensure historical continuity between the WCPA and its predecessor theater. In 1995 WCPA finally gathered enough funds for Andy Crow and friend Les Lehne to reinstall the theater’s historic Wurlitzer, updated with a three-keyboard console connected to 23 ranks of pipes, including many components from the 1924 original. With the organ installed, WCPA paid homage to its past by offering silent movie revivals in the late 1990s. Appreciative audiences got a taste of the silent-film era through showings of Charlie Chaplin movies including “Easy Street,” “The Tramp” and “Those Love Pangs” as well as a presentation of DW Griffith’s “Way Down East,” and Douglas Fairbanks in “The Mark of Zorro,” accompanied by Crow on the theater’s renovated Wurlitzer.
In 2011 Staff, volunteers and supporters celebrated 25 Years of successful performances at the WCPA with a program lineup that included the return of the theater’s inaugural headliner, Ben Vereen. Longtime associates of WCPA also took the opportunity to share their favorite moments in the theater since its opening. Board member Bob Haase recounted Tony Bennett’s performance in 2002 when Bennett asked for the amplification to be switched off so he could demonstrate the exceptional acoustics of the space. Former WCPA director Tom Iovanne recalled Gregory Hines’ appearance shortly before Hines’ death in 2003. Hines’ illness was unknown to the audience at the time but he delivered a memorable performance which included inviting audience members who brought their tap shoes to join him on stage for a number.
In recent years the WCPA facility itself showed increasingly troublesome signs of age. By 2008 its artificial stucco exterior reached the end of its service life and required replacement. Since that time the City of Olympia undertook an extensive renovation of the facility including a new brick and stone exterior. The renovation began in April 2013 with workers replacing the roof, exterior, and the original mechanical systems.
As the WCPA performing arts enters its next phase, it continues to provide the region with a world-class venue for local and nationally-known performers as well as space for community events, lectures and discussions. As of 2013, the number of community arts groups that share use of WCPA has grown to twenty-seven. A new director, Jill Barnes, took on guiding WCPA in spring, bringing her desire to facilitate even more public participation through increased interaction between visiting artists and the community.
Since the opening of the Liberty in 1924, it has been a place where Olympia residents and their friends and neighbors from around the region immersed themselves in an extraordinary diversity of arts and entertainment experiences. The community spirit that led to the creation of the WCPA still inspires the current staff, volunteers and supporters to continue that legacy through ongoing cultivation of programs that transcend the stage, firmly rooted in the community partnerships that made WCPA possible. It’s renewal helps insure it will continue serving as an important cultural anchor for Olympia’s downtown and the surrounding community for generations to come.