Back to Arts

Lakewood Playhouse: Coming of age

The community theater with professional standards celebrates 75 years

The Lakewood Players staged "Arsenic and Old Lace" in 1990. Courtesy photo

Recommend Article
Total Recommendations (0)
Clip Article Email Article Print Article Share Article

The year was 1938-1939. The minimum wage was first established. Hitler marched into Austria after signing a sketchbook for Indiana Jones. Elliot Gould was born, as were Frank Langella, Tommy Chong ... and the Lakewood Playhouse.

Back then, there were two Lakewood Players: a mid-1950s company history identifies them only as "Mrs. Joseph Lanser" and "Mrs. Ray Thompson." They had theater backgrounds and started the ball rolling on a new community troupe by enlisting the services of an acting teacher, "Mrs. Burton James of the Seattle Rep." They and about a dozen compatriots performed several plays in class, starting with the Spewacks' Boy Meets Girl. This new troupe made its public debut with Pomeroy's Past in 1941. Shows were presented at Lakewood Colonial Center - and, for a short time at least, in a mausoleum.

Visiting Lakewood Playhouse's current digs, one imagines how lucky the troupe was to find space in the Lakewood Towne Center mall. Actually, though, the theater predates the mall: it was built in 1965 on then-vacant land purchased by the Lakewood Arts Foundation. The first show in the new space was Taming of the Shrew, and by then the players offered full five-play seasons each year. For a brief period in the late 1960s and early 1970s, most of the ostensible Lakewood Players were Pierce College students, but the company had its own, separate identity and purpose.

"Some of their shows were scripts performed for the first time in the area," says John Munn, the company's managing artistic manager. "They were always trying to do the new thing and the best thing for their audiences."

That tradition endures to the present, as the playhouse balances time-honored favorites with scripts fresh from Broadway debuts.

Munn also revealed the amusing reason the Lakewood Players became the Lakewood Playhouse in the late 1990s: to avoid confusion with another Lakewood business, a strip club called Players. Luckily, that confusion was short lived. Instead, the company grew under a succession of artistic managers, starting with John Olive. Run Vzel's avant-garde tastes gave way to more accessible offerings from Ray Jarol and Mark Englehorn. In 2001, the late, lamented Marcus Walker took the reins.

Munn considers Walker a pivotal figure in the local arts scene. "He just kept saying, ‘We're community theater with professional standards,'" Munn recalled, citing a credo that's still in effect.

Following Walker's death from melanoma in 2011, "we completed Marcus's dream of a new lighting system," Munn said.

Further improvements included cleaner landscaping, a more inviting lobby, and a just-completed project to upgrade seating throughout the theater. Future goals include larger dressing rooms and an on-site scene shop with storage. Despite the improvements, the community helped its playhouse become debt-free by the start of this, the 75th-anniversary season.

In other words, it's time to celebrate. On Friday the 13th of September, Lakewood Playhouse will tempt fate by opening Joseph Kesselring's murder comedy Arsenic and Old Lace, which also debuted during the 1938-1939 season.

The play will be preceded by a number of free community events, starting with an anniversary ribbon cutting at 4:30 p.m. and the civic proclamation of "Lakewood Playhouse Day" at 5:30. A silent auction begins with a wine and cheese reception at 6 p.m. (courtesy of 21 Cellars and Carrs), which continues until a live auction at intermission. Items up for bid include signed Broadway programs and memorabilia, plus a glass sculpture courtesy of the Museum of Glass.

At Lakewood Playhouse, community is synonymous with family. The company is already looking forward to season 76 ... and beyond. So here's to an epic centennial in 2038!

comments powered by Disqus

Site Search