Theater Finds A New Haunt -- Ghost With A Grin Appears To Set Stage For A Resurgent Everett Theater Scene

Theatrical types love a good ghost story, so it's fitting that the historic Everett Theatre has acquired a resident spook.

He's not Casper the Friendly Ghost, but he seems jovial. Those who've seen him say he wears a broad grin, so he's been dubbed "Smilin' Al" in honor of Al Jolson, who performed at the theater in 1906 and 1915.

Sherry Penoyer, founder of the new company Wishome Productions, is among five folks who say they've seen or heard him.

In September, her company helped reopen the 91-year-old theater for its first stage production in more than 40 years, a successful run of "Come Back to the Five & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean."

"I had an armful of cleaning supplies . . . and as I start to swing through the front doors this person comes rushing past me and actually pushes me back into the glass door. I look back and there's nobody there," said Penoyer, 36.

"But I know I saw this man - a gray-haired gentleman, huge smile, grinning ear-to-ear. He was rushing, arms open wide, into the theater," she said. "It took me a moment to pause: `OK, are your feet on the ground? How much sleep did you have last night?' "

"Al" is not the only one smiling these days about the local theater scene, which is showing its biggest resurgence in decades.

Although community theater has always been a part of Everett's social scene, it's finally moving out of makeshift venues and back onto professional stages.

Three new theaters

For the first time since Everett's theatrical heyday of 1915-16, Everett has three theaters designed specifically for live stage productions. And all three have opened - or in the case of the Everett Theatre, reopened - this year.

"The amount of theater going on in town has never been greater," said Arden Flom, theater program director for Everett Community College (ECC), who for 26 years has imparted his love of theater to local youth.

"We haven't had as much variety of entertainment experiences in town since I've been here. And certainly we haven't had professional theater in town," he said.

That changed in August, when the $10.67 million Everett Community Theater opened. Its top priority is presenting touring shows - including Broadway musicals, classical concerts, children's shows and a wide variety of folk performances - but its mission also includes some community theater.

Its resident theater company is Flom's ECC program, which this year will produce two shows and a series of student-directed plays.

In addition, the Everett Opera Guild last week presented "Amahl & the Night Visitors" at the community theater, and on Sunday the Everett Chorale will present its Christmas concert there.

The least-known of the trio of new performance halls is the Snohomish County Public Utility District's theater, part of a $23.3 million expansion and renovation of the PUD's headquarters on Everett's California Street.

The PUD calls its $930,000 venue an auditorium, but it features professional sound and light systems, a half-sized fly for scenery, catwalks, a full backstage connected to an outdoor loading ramp and a "green room."

All the PUD facility lacks is a raised stage and an orchestra pit, although it has a loft built into a side wall that seats a five-piece combo.

The Northwest Savoyards, a local musical-theater group, will present its next two productions at the 300-seat PUD theater, beginning with "The Gondoliers" in March. The Savoyards originally signed an agreement to perform at the Everett Community Theater but then severed that relationship due to a dispute over advertising promises.

Made for other uses

PUD officials are squeamish about calling their venue a theater, in part because they don't want anyone to jump to the conclusion they're competing with the Everett Community Theater. That the Savoyards decided to perform at the PUD instead of the community theater complicates the matter.

"We don't want to be competitive with anyone else. We just want to be available for the community," said Peter Newland, a PUD commissioner and an emeritus board member of Seattle's Intiman Theatre.

The PUD facility was built primarily for utility uses such as public hearings, staff meetings, and dramatic educational programs for local schoolchildren, Newland said. But it also was intended for use by the community, he said.

"We never envisioned anything as big as the Savoyards here. It's lovely, really," Newland said. "There's no community benefit in having this place dark."

The Savoyards are delighted, too. Until now, they've been performing in the Immaculate Conception School gymnasium. The new theater is a different world.

Before settling on the PUD theater, the Savoyards also considered using the Everett Theatre or the Kamiak High School theater in Mukilteo.

The high school's 500-seat theater, which was completed in early September, accounted for $4.2 million of the school's $34 million cost. The theater complex includes a set-building area, design rooms, a green room, a theater-arts classroom, a band room, a chorus classroom and practice rooms for musicians.

"One of the reasons we chose the PUD theater over Kamiak is because we're committed to being a part of the downtown (Everett) revitalization," said John Hiestand, the Savoyards' music and artistic director. Mukilteo's Rosehill Players have a similar loyalty to their home town, but they're in no hurry to move to Kamiak. They now perform on a stage in the Rosehill Community Center gymnasium, in a former elementary school in the city's "Old Town" district.

"Different people in the community have said, `Have you seen that beautiful new state-of-the-art theater?' " said David Blacker, co-founder and director of the Rosehill Players.

"At this point I have a real attachment to the Rosehill Community Center," he said. "I'm a dinosaur myself maybe; I just love doing shows in these dinosaur haunts."

`Character and intangibles'

He feels the same way about the historic Everett Theatre vs. the Everett Community Theater. It has something to do with "character and intangibles," said Blacker, a member of the Everett Theatre Society.

"It did my heart so much good a couple months ago when they did `Come Back to the Five & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean,' and I realized a play hadn't been performed on that stage in my lifetime," said Blacker, who in 1967 was in Flom's first directing class at Everett Community College.

Another community theater group, NorthSound Rep, also hopes to perform at the Everett Theatre. That group now uses the Immaculate Conception gym stage, where last weekend it performed "I Do, I Do" during a fund-raiser for the Everett Theatre Society.

"The new (Everett) Community Theater is lovely, but it's too expensive," said Mary Chris Henry, founder of Northsound Rep. "Theater groups like NorthSound Rep flat can't afford to mount a production in a house that big," because royalty fees are charged on a per-seat basis.

Although Everett has traditionally been a mill town, it's turned out many artists, said Henry, 33.

"Being a mill town and blue-collar town does not preclude the possibility of intellectual pursuits," she said.

David Dilgard, an Everett historian who authored a short book about the Everett Theatre, likens the local amateur theater scene to the city's early days of stock-company entertainment.

"It allowed the audience a closer proximity to the performers. They lived in your town, and you got a chance to get closer to them," Dilgard said. "And they also viewed themselves as being citizens. They'd put on benefit activities. The company tradition runs real deep."

In 1915, three of downtown Everett's eight theaters were live stage houses, featuring theater and vaudeville acts.. The Everett Theatre was nearly back-to-back with the Rose Theatre, and facing the Rose was the People's Theatre, which had opened in 1894 as the Central Opera House.

The Everett Theatre is the only remnant of those years, and it too is threatened. Although the Everett Theatre Society in June raised $4,000 in "earnest money" to buy the theater, a $71,000 payment is due by the end of December. So far, about $19,000 has been raised for the $224,000 purchase.

Now the society is gearing up to saturate the business community with requests for donations. If each of 2,000 businesses and individuals on the society's mailing list donate $25, that will raise $50,000.

"It's a wonderful theater," said Penoyer, who hopes to present another play on the old stage in March.

"The acoustics are incredible - I can stand in the back of the house and listen to some of the softest actors. And there's so much history there you can almost feel it," she said.

"Just the tradition of walking the same boards that Helen Hayes has trod . . . You know there's tradition that has come before you and you are just adding to it," she said. "There's something about being a part of the greater whole."