"With talents like these on this island, the least you can do is put a roof over their heads."
The audience rose, applauding wildly as America's First Lady of the Theatre took her bows at the tiny Royal movie theatre. Always a lover of the intimate playhouse, Helen Hayes performed that evening in June of 1985 at the invitation of producer David Skinner (Smoke Signals), at the time, a resident of San Juan, and a man fully involved in the creation of a community theatre; an arena in which creative ghosts from Shakespeare to Hammerstein could infuse their talents wide and tread the boards again.
That night, Miss Hayes was part of a fund raising gala. A gala orchestrated in part by the Straights of Juan de Fuca, the nucleus of a talented team, behind and in front of the curtain who, too, envisioned a full theatrical experience. The common goal was to build and maintain a legitimate theatre. A stage not shared with the movie house or the Grange Hall or the firehouse on a slow night. A permanent arena in which to showcase extraordinary talents.
At the end of the evening, Miss Hayes returned to the stage and addressed the cheering audience . . . "With talents like these on this island, the least you can do is put a roof over their heads." Philanthropist Paul Whittier and his wife Lucy, longtime residents, had already purchased and donated the site for the new theatre, so the planning and commitment rested on the shoulders of San Juan's residents.
That early summer fundraiser was part of a diverse series of events involving over twelve hundred islanders, all anxious to produce a permanent show place. And so the vision began to take form.
Celebrity golf tournaments; gourmet dinners; pledges from individuals, businesses and government; local art and fashion shows; 8.8-K runs; Big Band concerts; movie premiers; extravagant Straights productions of Oklahoma and Hello Dolly, and Elizabeth Burton's San Juan Singers were so effective in attracting needed revenue that over $500,000 was raised and later matched by Paul Whittier.
Three years and one month later the groundbreaking ceremony brought the Grand Idee closer to reality. And during the ensuing year, experts in their fields donated everything from labor and plumbing to lumber and landscaping. A marketing campaign was begun to attract patrons. A theatre auxiliary was founded. And although another 'once in a hundred years' storm ripped the island apart in February, the show indeed went on.
The San Juan Community Theatre and Arts Center opened its doors as scheduled, playing to a full and exuberant house on June 30, 1989.
Since then, the Playwright's Festival has uncovered unknown and prolific talents, which showcase juried original one act plays each year. Actors, singers, dancers, set directors and journeymen have recreated the auras of Annie, The Miracle Worker, Wizard of Oz, Harvey, Music Man, Steel Magnolias, Shenandoah, Mame, West Side Story, The Mousetrap, Les Miserables, Brigadoon, Uncle Vanya, Noises Off, Mister Roberts, Sound of Music and Sylvia. Three original glitz and glamour musicals: Bye, Bye, Bijou, Flat Foot Follies, and Hello Bijou, Hello! boasted standing room only. And music lovers have thrilled to the works of Tchaikovsky, Brahms and Prokofiev presented through the Chamber Music Concert Series.
This daunting undertaking, rife with challenges and successes, has produced an extraordinary body of work, unthinkable for most legitimate theatres. For us, it's . . . only the beginning!
"Nothing good ever ends."