UW's Penthouse: Be Ready For A Moving Performance

After attending a play at the University of Washington's Penthouse Theatre in 1941, Nobel Prize-winning author Sinclair Lewis was moved to write a letter in which he said:

``I do not believe I've ever seen a building more brilliantly adapted to its purpose. . . . It should have a place in the history of American architecture.''

Lewis is gone, and The Penthouse - America's first permanent arena-type theater - is coming down sometime next year.

But not to worry. The theater simply is being moved from its lower-campus foundation, on Northeast Pacific Street, to a new home on upper campus, just north of Hutchinson Hall and the archery range.

A new physics-astronomy building, to rise at the theater's present location, will include offices, undergraduate instruction areas and research laboratories.

At its new site, The Penthouse will be placed over a deep hole in the ground, providing the theater with its first basement.

``It's something we've never had,'' said an enthusiastic Barry Witham, chairman of the School of Drama. ``It will give us rehearsal space, storage and more access to the stage.''

Although the school of drama was offered a new theater if the Penthouse were torn down, Witham said he and the staff never seriously considered abandoning a structure that ``has played such a prominent part in the history of the theater.''

The staff wants to make it clear that ``the tradition isn't

ending,'' he said. ``We're just moving to a more desirable location.''

The Penthouse Theatre was the dream of Glenn Hughes, longtime drama professor at the University of Washington, who first experimented with a local theater-in-the-round in 1932 in Mr. and Mrs. T.F. Murphy's penthouse atop the Edmond Meany Hotel, now the Meany Tower Hotel.

For the first performance, Hughes selected four one-act plays, including ``If Men Played Cards as Women Do,'' by George S. Kaufman.

Hughes never pretended the idea was original. It was, he freely admitted, adopted from Greek, Roman and Elizabethan drama, the circus, and experiments in Germany, Russia and in Pasadena's Playbox.

But it was his belief that the technique, rather than being an oddity, could be ``consistently and successfully'' applied to the presentation of modern plays in a permanent theater setting.

Hughes proceeded to establish arena-type theaters in a vacant store, in an old lodge building, in the Meany Hotel's ballroom and even in the downtown Washington Athletic Club's lounge in the mid-and late 1930s.

All the time, he was angling for real theaters on the campus.

The first campus theater to be built, however, was not the Penthouse but The Showboat, which bore a strong resemblance to a Mississippi riverboat. It was finished in the fall of 1938.

Meanwhile, thanks to a grant from the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and a loan from university students' fund, work was begun on the Penthouse.

It finally opened May 16, 1940, with ``Spring Dance,'' starring Ella Raines, a UW student who went on to become a popular stage and screen star of that era. Donal ``Dan'' Harrington, not Hughes, directed the Philip Barry play.

The theater drew raves for its intimate setting - 172 seats, just three rows in a circle - and it immediately attracted everyone who was anybody in Seattle.

Some, however, fretted over the cost: approximately $65,000.

By coincidence, after the Penthouse was renovated in 1981 - at a cost of $363,000 - it was reopened with another Barry play, ``The Philadelphia Story.''

Gary Lundell, who works in the University of Washington archives, could find no record of the university's most famous actress, the late Frances Farmer, having appeared at the Penthouse. She had graduated long before the theater was completed.

However, numerous university drama students who performed at the Penthouse did go on to illustrious careers in the theater and in film.

Among them are Kyle Mac-Lachlan, who plays the FBI agent in TV's popular ``Twin Peaks''; Patrick Duffy of ``Dallas''; Jean Smart of ``Designing Women'' and Pamela Reed, who has had roles in movies and on television.

The last performance in the present Penthouse is scheduled next March 23. The play will be ``The Voysey Inheritance,'' which is described as ``a nice 1912-vintage play that is very Penthousian.''

``We won't do anything special at the time,'' Witham said, ``because we felt that we aren't really closing, we're just starting a new chapter.''

They'll begin boarding up the old theater and taking it apart after the play closes.

Susan Boyle, architect with Boyle Wagoner, said the theater will be trucked to the new site in about three sections.

``We're going to try to cut it up in a way that will do the minimum of damage to the original theater, and make it easy to reassemble,'' said Boyle, whose firm is working on the project with Robert Fossatti, structural engineers.

The present plan: move the lobby and auditorium in one piece; move the west wing ticket office and storage rooms as a unit; then move a greatly disassembled east wing, which will be reconstructed and modified at the site.

The move, Boyle added, will be scheduled at a time (probably on a Sunday morning) that will cause the least disruption to utilities and the community.

Although the shortest distance between two points usually is a straight line, the large number of trees on the campus make it more practical to take a modified Great Circle route - west on Northeast Pacific Street, north on 15th Avenue Northeast and then east on Northeast 45th Street.

The foundation will be poured after the move, because professional architects - like amateur builders everywhere - have, in Boyle's words, ``discovered that no matter how carefully you measure things ahead of time, they never quite come out the way you planned.''

The move won't be cheap - a little less than $3 million, including fees, new basement and rehabilitation work.

In fact, said Witham, the cost will be just about what it would have been to erect a brand new theater.

The grand re-opening on upper campus is tentatively planned for March 1992.