Walla Walla's Power House Theatre, new home to a budding Shakespeare troupe and a popular chamber-music festival, puts the spotlight on culture in a town that's recently been famed for its wine.
WALLA WALLA — Not many men can sing a good Frankie Valli cover. (Ooo, those high notes.)
But this rendition of “Working My Way Back to You” felt like it might blow the tin roof off this town’s charming old Power House Theatre, which up until a year ago was just an old powerhouse.
I was at February’s premiere weekend of “The Four Tenors,” a musical showcase for four men who’ve starred on the casino, cruise-ship and musical-theater circuit.
Despite the show title’s wink at famed tenors Pavarotti and Plácido, there was much more here of Branson — mid-America’s capital of cornbread cabaret — than of La Scala.
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But, you know, it was a fun switch from the expected.
People mostly have come to Walla Walla in recent years for the award-winning wines. Swirl a local syrah in one of those big wineglasses that takes two hands and it’s like dunking your head in a bucket of August-picked blackberries.
However, with three colleges, the longest-running symphony west of the Mississippi, a famed sculpture foundry and a corps of artists inspired by the sensuous whorls of nearby Palouse wheat fields, this town of 32,000 — also home to the state’s oldest prison — has long been a sort of stealth incubator for the arts.
Now, with last year’s opening of the privately funded Power House, new home to Shakespeare Walla Walla as well as a year-round playbill of music and theater, you might say it’s official: Culturally speaking there’s, ahem, a lotta lotta to Walla Walla.
Like the Bard built
The 340-seat theater was tailor-made for Shakespeare, with a little help from Harry Hosey, 66, principal in an Edmonds engineering firm and a former Seattle Shakespeare Company board member.
He vacationed here five years ago, sipped some wine, bought some property and partnered with locals who agreed the town could use a Shakespeare troupe.
When Hosey first saw the 1890s-vintage powerhouse on the edge of downtown, the brick relic of dramatic Victorian industrial design was full of dusty equipment and pigeon droppings. Where once gas and electricity was generated for the town’s horse-and-buggy era, Hosey envisioned a theater.
When he showed it to Stephanie Shine, then Seattle Shakespeare’s artistic director, he recalls, “She looked inside and said, ‘Harry, it’s Blackfriars!’ “
Blackfriars Theater in London is where William Shakespeare’s acting company staged winter productions.
With financing from Hosey and two partners, a local bank and a long list of benefactors, the project is $1.4 million into a $2.4 million renovation, replicating the Blackfriars interior.
A fall staging of “Marilyn, Forever Blonde” was virtually a sellout. In January, the building was put on the National Register of Historic Places.
Showing off the Power House like a giddy teenager who’s turned an old wreck into a hot rod, Hosey noted that the brick walls “are within one foot in each direction” of the size of the London playhouse.
The project helped woo Shine away from Seattle Shakespeare last spring to lead Shakespeare Walla Walla, which opens “The Tempest” at the Power House in April. This summer, the theater becomes the new home to the annual Walla Walla Chamber Music Festival.
Inside, the new stage and lighting are world-class, but the old building still has its rough edges — such as no restrooms for theatergoers, who must step outside to a line of Porta-Potties until a capital campaign raises enough for indoor plumbing.
Growing the arts
This is fertile ground for wheat, onions, wine grapes and, locals believe, the arts.
“It’s a place that is relaxed and you feel like you’re getting away, yet there’s a sophistication here,” said Andrew Holt, acting director of Tourism Walla Walla.
Contributing to that, he said, are the wine industry and the colleges, especially Whitman. Within blocks of downtown, it’s often ranked among the nation’s top small liberal-arts colleges.
My wife and I stayed at an art-filled downtown inn owned by a winery and walked 10 minutes to attend Whitman’s annual One-Act Play Contest, written by students and judged by the audience. We cast our votes for a sendup of a family holiday that seemed to combine “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” with “Meet the Fockers.”
Whitman’s Cordiner Hall is home to the 105-year-old Walla Walla Symphony, whose conductor, New Yorker Yaacov Bergman, comes every year for the fall and winter season. (A Rachmaninoff program is its “Spring Celebration” concert April 24; see wallawallasymphony.com.)
The college adds to that everything from visiting rock bands to academic forums.
“I can go to their Visiting Writers Reading Series, in my jeans, after I’ve done the dishes, for free!” I heard from Marilee Schiff, new board president for Art Walla, as she accompanied me on a walking tour of 13 downtown public art installations the nonprofit arts group spearheaded over the past two decades.
Art-filled Main Street
Downtown, we passed handsomely restored brick buildings — many housing wine-tasting rooms — that hark back to the town’s 19th-century origin as a crossroads of pioneer trails and life-giving rivers (Walla Walla, in the native language, means “place of many waters”). Restoration starting in the 1980s won the town honors for having one of the best Main Streets in America.
“Once that got started and it made downtown a more interesting place to be, it just called out for public art,” said Jeana Garske, Art Walla’s former director.
On the corner of First and Main, a playful bronze dog balancing objects on his nose is said to be the most photographed sight in town. It’s by resident Brad Rude, who started his art career at the Walla Walla Foundry, which fabricates metal sculpture for world-renowned artists.
If the Power House is giving a jump start to the arts here, the 32-year-old foundry was the locomotive that first got things moving.
With his 80 employees, foundry owner Mark Anderson, a Whitman art grad and Power House partner, gives form to metal sculpture for artists ranging from Maya Lin, creator of the national Vietnam Veterans Memorial, to Jim Dine, now a part-time Walla Walla resident, whose work is seen from New York galleries to the town of Borås, Sweden, home to his 30-foot-tall Pinocchio sculpture, “Walking to Borås.”
Wine and art
The foundry isn’t open to the public, but Anderson and partners welcome visitors to their nearby wine-tasting room, Foundry Vineyards (13th Avenue and Abadie Street; www.foundryvineyards.com), with a foundry-supplied sculpture garden and showroom (including another big Pinocchio).
Get a glimpse there, too, and on the Whitman campus, of Montana sculptor Deborah Butterfield’s famous “stick horses” — equine statuary cast in bronze from driftwood that she gathers along the Columbia, Snake and other regional rivers.
Butterfield is a big fan of Walla Walla.
“(People there) all seem to realize that if they work together, things happen,” she said. “There’s an awareness that food and art and wine and discourse go together.”
That discourse might take the form of a recent colloquium with actress/activist Anne Archer on human trafficking, or Art Walla talking up the idea of creating an artists’ cooperative gallery.
“Once Mark Anderson started bringing artists from around the world, the synergy just caught on,” Jeana Garske said.
And being a small town means regular folks can be in on big things. Recalls Garske, “I was at a birthday party (decades ago) when Rick Small brought over some of his ‘kitchen wine’ and said, ‘I’m thinking of starting a winery, do you want to try this?’ “
These days, Woodward Canyon Winery owner Small is like a demigod in the Washington wine world.
That’s how things happen here. Someone wants to put on a show, someone else says, “I’ve got a barn!” Or, in Walla Walla, “I’ve got a powerhouse!”
The rest of us get to be the audience. And there’s a nice glass of syrah after the show.
Brian J. Cantwell: 206-748-5724 or email@example.com