Washington Center site has long history of entertainment

OlympianOctober 22, 2013 

The site of the Washington Center was the Liberty Theater in 1941.


The space on Washington Street occupied by the Washington Center for the Performing Arts has a nearly 90-year history as a cultural and civic center of activity.
And over the decades, the vitality of the entertainment hub has waxed and waned with the overall health of downtown Olympia.

These are two conclusions to draw from a nine-page history of the performing arts center property compiled by Olympia historian Ed Echtle on behalf of the City of Olympia.
By combining Echtle’s fact-filled work with that of a graphic artist, the city plans to develop a history display for patrons of the arts to enjoy in the lobby of the center.

Echtle is still collecting historic photos of the Liberty Theater for use in the display. Anyone with something to contribute, especially interior shots of the theater, can contact him at tenalquot@gmail.com.

Echtle reminds us there was a two-way race playing out in 1924 to see who could complete construction of a state-of-the-art movie palace first. One was the Liberty Theater on Washington Street under the direction of the Reed-Ingham Investment Co.featuring Mark Reed, manager of the Simpson Timber Co. in Shelton, and Olympia physician Dr. George Ingham. The other was the Capitol Theater on Fifth Avenue, designed by Olympia architect Joseph Wohleb for the Zabel family. The Liberty opened to rave reviews on Aug. 30, 1924, two months ahead of Capitol Theater.

For the first time, movie-goers in Olympia had upholstered seats from which to watch movies and vaudeville acts. Uniformed ushers were on hand to escort patrons to their seats on “thick velvet carpet (that) will yield to the tread like beds of moss,” a story in Olympia News gushed on the eve of the theater opening.

Movies and vaudeville acts weren’t all that drew crowds to the Liberty Theater. In January 1925, the theater played host to the inauguration party for newly elected Gov. Roland Hartley.

The first feature length color film with sound — “On With the Show” — played at the Liberty in 1929. During World War II, troops stationed at Fort Lewis were entertained by USO radio broadcasts from the Liberty Theater.

Under new ownership in 1948, the Liberty received a $75,000 face lift, including new burgundy damask wall coverings, the first self-raising movie theater seats installed in the state and a flower-patterned carpet. The theater’s name changed to the Olympic and its backlit marquee featured a revolving “O” that bore a strong resemblance to the “O” in the Olympia beer logo. Downtown theater competition increased with the opening of the State Theater on Fourth Avenue in 1949.

The ensuring decade brought major changes to the entertainment industry. Television started making inroads in American homes and two drive-in theaters opened in South Sound — the Sunset in Tumwater in 1949 and the Lacey Drive in 1953. Patrons were encouraged to come to the drive-ins in casual attire, a far cry from the earlier grandeur associated with movie palaces. I can remember our family going to the drive-in with my sisters and I often dressed in pajamas.

With the opening of Interstate 5 in Olympia in 1958, downtown Olympia began a period of decline that hurt the downtown theaters. Movie houses deferred expensive maintenance to cut costs. By the 1970s they struggled to keep their doors open as they competed with video movie rentals and multi-screen theaters in Lacey and Olympia’s west side.

In 1982, the Olympic Theater was on its last legs. American folk singer and social justice activist Odetta was the last to perform on the theater’s stage. In August, the City of Olympia secured the funds to buy the Olympic Theater to transform it into the Washington Center for the Performing Arts. On Oct. 12, 1982, a small crowd gathered to see “Das Boot” — the last movie to play at the Olympic Theater.

Since 1985, the old Liberty/Olympic Theater space has been home to the center for the performing arts, which is undergoing a $3.4 million exterior renovation, set for completion in early 2014. The State Theater was purchased by Scot and Linda Whitney in 1997 to be the new home of Harlequin Productions. The Capitol Theater is now owned and operated by the Olympia Film Society.

The three historic theater spaces are in close proximity to each other in downtown Olympia, all filling unique niches in the arts and entertainment world.

Downtown Olympia is a better place because of its theaters. Here’s hoping they prosper in the years ahead as redevelopment of the city center gains steam.

John Dodge: 360-754-5444

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