John Voorhees, a mischievously droll arts writer for both Seattle daily newspapers from the early 1950s to the late 1990s, died Friday, Aug. 15. He was 88.
Mr. Voorhees was born on Aug. 30, 1925, in DeWitt, Iowa. He first came to Seattle in 1946 while serving in the U.S. Army. His typing skills kept him stationed at Fort Lawton, processing military records, rather than being shipped overseas.
After his discharge, he returned to Iowa, where he earned a degree in education and taught high-school social studies for one year. He soon returned to Seattle to study journalism at the University of Washington, where he wrote for the UW Daily. By 1953 he was on staff at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, writing about every facet of the arts — and having a ton of fun with it.
Covering a 1957 Elvis Presley concert, he said the screams that greeted “Hound Dog” sounded like “12,000 girls all having their heads shaved at once. … Elvis’ movements seemed to delight the onlookers much more than the singing,” he added, “which could mean burlesque is on the way back.”
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Mr. Voorhees left the P-I for The Seattle Times in 1969. His first Times piece was an interview with Merce Cunningham. (Seven years later he met the choreographer’s nephew, Michael Cunningham, who became his partner-in-life.) His second Times piece announced that Swedish film succès de scandale, “I Am Curious (Yellow),” was coming to town.
In 1973, he became the Times’ television columnist. He also appeared on KCTS (Channel 9), where he co-hosted a movie-talk show called “VideoScope” with Meta O’Crotty. (One enthusiastic letter-writer to the Times described them as “the greatest team since Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn.”) He retired in 1991 but contributed freelance pieces to the Times until 1999.
Mr. Voorhees covered the highbrow and lowbrow arts with equal panache. Writing about a 1976 Seattle Opera production of “Thaïs,” he said a set depicting a palace “was supposed to be the height of opulence and, instead, looked like a Used Pillow Mart.”
At the same time, in his TV column, he trenchantly commented on broadcast journalism of the day, in addition to PBS fare and popular network series. In 1991, the Corporate Council for the Arts presented him with an “Unsung Hero” award, recognizing “the depth and extent of his knowledge, and his writing ability.”
His friend Melinda Bargreen said, “He knew an astonishing amount about a vast swath of the arts and was a witty encyclopedia of the Northwest and national arts scene. … I don’t know whether I loved more his enthusiasm for the great and the new, or his curmudgeonly trashing of junky pop culture.”
Then there was his personal style. John Braseth, of Woodside/Braseth Gallery, described him as “a wonderful natty dresser … He rocked more than a few sets of cowboy boots in his day.” (Cunningham noted that, in retirement, high-top sneakers became his “signature shoe.”)
“His delight in Broadway musicals and dance performances took him to New York City many times,” Cunningham said. “He also liked to travel abroad and made many trips with friends to Europe, South America and Mexico. Above all, John loved working in his garden. … He would tirelessly water, feed and spruce up the plants, often while humming or singing songs from the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s.”
Unusually for a gay man of his generation, Mr. Voorhees was “out” in an entirely nonchalant way.
Bargreen recalled: “His attitude was: ‘Of course we’re gay, don’t be silly, and it’s not really an issue.’ And it wasn’t.”
Mr. Voorhees is preceded in death by his sister, Mary Donegan, of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He is survived by Cunningham, his partner of more than 37 years, and his brother, Harold Voorhees, of Urbandale, Iowa. He also leaves behind three nephews, five grandnieces and grandnephews, and two great-grand-nephews. Remembrances in his name may be made to an arts organization of your choice.
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