Playhouse turns 40

It’s time to put on the ruby slippers and celebrate: Whidbey Playhouse is turning 40.

Thousands of locals have appeared in musicals and plays since the first production in 1966. Audiences have enjoyed seeing community members shed their daily work roles and reveal their hidden singing, dancing and acting talents.

“The theater stands as a remarkable testimony to community volunteerism,” said Wallie Funk, fund-raiser for the theater and former publisher of the Whidbey-News Times.

Whidbey Playhouse has enjoyed a successful run in Oak Harbor, punctuated by dramas that unfolded both on and off the stage.

It all began with a call for volunteers to start a Little Theater published in the newspaper on Feb. 9, 1966, according to historian Dottie Morgan. Within 10 days, there was enough response to mount two one-act plays, “Madam President” and “His First Shave” at the Katherine Johnson School of Dance.

The productions were a hit with theater-starved patrons, so a formal organization was established and named “The Whidbey Community Theater.”

The theater group lacked a home, meeting in churches and putting on plays at the high school multi-purpose room and the Circle Theater on the Navy base.

The group changed its name a couple of times before deciding on the Whidbey Playhouse in 1967. A second full season of plays were produced the same year, after the group rented the old Christian School building behind Bartelson’s Funeral Home. They built a stage, installed lighting and the Elks donated chairs, Morgan recalled.

The theater’s run of good luck ran out in its sixth season.

Funk remembers seeing an orange glow in the sky on a February evening as he drove home with his wife MaryAnn.

“Our beloved theater was on fire,” he said.

Fire ripped through the make-up room Feb 10, 1973, and gutted the stage and a newly built set. Thousands of dollars worth of costumes and props were lost. Nothing was insured. A suspected arsonist was arrested but charges were never filed.

Meantime, the show had to go on. “The Wind Between the Houses” opened at Crescent Elementary school instead of at the old playhouse.

Bee Black, the director of the next scheduled show, “Where Did We Go Wrong?” summed up playhouse members’ feelings: “It is really unbelievable how people have rallied around us,” she said.

Opportunity soon knocked. The old Christian Reformed Church went up for sale on Midway Boulevard. Funk led a three-year effort to raise $249,000 to purchase building and land. Then theater members set to work transforming the building into a theater.

On Nov. 29, 1979, “Man of LaMacha” opened at the playhouse’ present home.

Soon after, Jim and Sue Riney joined the theater. They were young parents, so they took turns participating in shows, either on stage or in production.

Once the theater bug bites, it rarely lets go, Jim Riney said. But that’s OK, because the experience is fun-filled.

“What I’ve always liked about the theater is that you can see the whole spectrum,” Riney said.

Some people appear in a production and don’t get involved again for a couple of years. Others, like the die-hard Rineys, are the backbone of the theater.

Jim Riney serves on the board of trustees and also is technical director. He’s got the technical savvy to install lighting and create special effects, which later can be operated on a laptop computer by someone with less expertise.

People with all kinds of talents are involved in the theater and more are always welcome.

Riney chuckles when he recalls Carol Steele offering her painting skills, usually confined to small canvases. She quickly caught on to using a larger brush and plenty of paint, because the backdrop of a set can run 14 feet tall and 35 feet wide.

Other folks learn the kind of construction techniques involved in set-building, landscaping outside the building or handling refreshments.

Janis Powell, business manager, is the person everyone knows. She’s at the theater most weekdays, handling the massive paper flow involved in running the organization.

“A lot of people say we have a resident ghost,” she said. “If we do, it doesn’t like office work. It never shows up when I’m here.”

No matter. Plenty of other characters materialize at the theater. And theater-goers will have a chance to taste a sample Aug. 18, she said. Snippets from the upcoming season will be presented, refreshments served and season tickets sold. Details will be announced later, but if you want more information call the theater at 679-2237.

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