Creating a showcase for performing arts

When The Washington Center for the Performing Arts opened its doors 25 years ago, it filled a void that had been empty for the previous 25.

From the time, the old Olympia High School on Capitol Way had been torn down in 1960, South Sound had only a few small venues for performing arts.

Sally Anacker of Olympia remembers the excitement well. She was starring in the Olympia Chorale and Light Opera’s “HMS Pinafore,” the first production to rent the new center.

“It was thrilling, to say the least,” said Anacker, former president of the center’s board and a former board member of the Capital Area Association for the Performing Arts (CAAPA), which worked for the theater’s creation.

“It was so exciting to walk out on that stage for the first time when an audience was there,” she said. “To walk out and see those rows of seats all filled up and the beauty of the hall was a moment I’ll never forget.”

The singers were particularly excited that Ben Vereen had just used the dressing room during the center’s opening festivities. Vereen is returning to perform at the Silver Gala on Sept. 25.

“We thought that it was really cool to use the dressing room that Ben Vereen had used a few days earlier,” she said.

Previously, the group had performed at the cafitorium at the old high school. Other performances happened at the small Abbey Theater on the Saint Martin’s College campus.

“They had a 200- or 300-seat theater,” Jim This told The Olympian in 2005. This was part of CAAPA and was involved with the original Harlequin Productions, a community theater group that staged summer musicals.

“Other than that, you could perform in the high schools. The facilities were neither large enough nor professional enough, and you were always competing with what their school needs were.”

City-owned land on the west side, which had been a garbage dump, was a proposed site for the center, but city officials came to realize that a downtown performing arts center could be a key to urban revitalization.

“Back then, we had a lot of empty buildings,” former Olympia City Councilwoman Holly Gadbaw said in 2005.

Getting funding was another part of the story, and that’s where CAAPA, Patrons of South Sound Cultural Activities (POSSCA), and others were instrumental.

“It was a great example of a public-private partnership,” Gadbaw said. “The city put in a million dollars, and the state put in a million, and the citizens of Olympia raised a million.”

Anacker said, “The whole community was galvanized behind it. There were many different groups and many different people involved — too numerous to name.”

Verne Eke headed up the efforts of CAAPA, working toward legislation that granted seed money for the construction of a performing arts center and gave arts facilities funding from the lodging tax.

A number of sites were considered before the decision was made to look at the theaters already downtown. The center was carved from the old Liberty Theatre, a movie and vaudeville house that opened in 1924 and was renamed the Olympic in 1949.

“They bought this property, which was the old Olympic Theater and garage,” former board president Lynn Brunton says in a new video the center made about its history. (The 15-minute video will be shown in the lobby during the anniversary events.) “I can remember the first time I walked through the theater and the garage. I thought, ‘No way. This is not going to work.’ ”

In the architecturally post-modern center, what remains of the old theater are a few exterior walls, the Palladian windows, the logo – and the rare original Wurlitzer organ, named for organist Andy Crow, who donated it to the center.

“He owned the theater and sold it to the city so that it could be taken down and rebuilt,” said Tom Iovanne, the center’s executive director. “He took the organ that was in the theater out of here piece by piece and put it in storage. We were able to reinstall it in 1992. He is singlehandedly responsible for the fact that there’s a theater organ in the building.”