“My,” said Grace Gorton Peck, 88, “how this child has grown.”
She ought to know. The “child” is the Spokane Children’s Theatre, and Peck was present for the birth. She directed the second play ever for the Children’s Theatre, “Tom Sawyer” in 1946. Now, 172 productions later, the Spokane Children’s Theatre is about to open its 50th anniversary season. This non-profit institution is celebrating with the most lavish production it has ever mounted, a high-flying version of “Peter Pan,” which opens Friday at The Met.
The rest of the 1996 season is also somewhat of a celebration. They are doing “Snow White,” “Tom Sawyer” and “Cinderella.” Those shows, by no coincidence at all, just happen to be the same three shows they did in their first season.
However, as Peck points out, everything won’t quite be the same as it was in those days.
Back then, the Spokane Children’s Theatre had to scrounge for performance space in area movie theaters. That meant that the performances had to be at 10 a.m. Saturday mornings in order to clear the theater for the first Abbott and Costello matinee. It also meant that set decoration and other advance preparations had to be done at about midnight, after the last movie of the night.
“I have been in more Spokane movie theaters between midnight and 3 a.m.,” said Peck with a sigh. “This was on business, unfortunately.”
They performed at the old Orpheum Theater, the old Post Theatre and even at the massive 2,281-seat Fox Theatre. Since 1968, the theater has staged all of its shows at the Spokane Civic Theatre - except for “Peter Pan,” which is at The Met due to the sheer size of the production and length of the run.
At the beginning, the purpose of the theater was straightforward: “To develop the imagination into suitable and delightful channels for recreation,” said an early mission statement, “and to train the audience to act responsibly in public theaters.”
Crowds were big right from the beginning, but that was hardly Peck’s major concern.
“I was less interested in how large the crowd was than in keeping the (onstage) kids in line,” she said.
Soon, the theater was doing three or four productions a year, which could put quite a strain on the directors, if not the young actors.
“I had to do everything: costuming, properties, managing what bits of stage-settings there could be,” said Peck, who taught drama at North Central High School and Lewis and Clark High School in those days.
“And good scripts were almost impossible to find. It was up to me to find one.”
She and the other directors, such as Ann Reely of Lewis and Clark High School, used some adult actors but also tried to use as many student actors as possible.
“Some shows were cast completely from my drama classes, and every youngster in the class got to be in the play,” said Peck. “We sometimes had a lot of little bunnies sitting around the stage.”
Today, shows are cast through auditions. Adults or high school students often play the adult roles, but there are always lots of parts for kids, too.
“It’s a tremendously wonderful creative outlet for children,” said Bob Farley, the president of the Spokane Children’s Theatre since 1992 and a mighty fine Geppetto in “Pinocchio” in 1982, by all accounts.
“It gives them a chance to use their imaginations, which they don’t always get a chance to use.”
Budgets are a bit higher these days than in the days when Peck and the other directors had to sew the costumes themselves. The average budget now is about $8,000 (although the gala “Peter Pan” goes over the $25,000 mark), raised through local businesses and foundations, and through tickets sales.
Attendance is about 12,000 kids per year, and the normal ticket price is $3 a head ($6 and $5 for “Peter Pan”).
Back in the old days, the ticket price was a dime per kid.
The old standby fairy tales have always been the bread and butter of the Spokane Children’s Theatre: “Snow White” alone has been produced seven times.
But they have also premiered a dozen new works by local playwrights, including “Ogre Here, Ogre There” by Jerry Kraft and Charles Gasset and new versions of “Snow White,” “Robin Hood,” “Tom Sawyer, “Frog Princess” and “The Musicians of Bremen,” all by Carmen Farley, who is married to Bob Farley.
Ever since that original mission statement, the theater has always strived to provide education along with entertainment.
“We often get children who think they are going to see a film,” said Farley. “And they come out with big wide eyes, because they’ve seen real live actors.”
And the participants are affected even more deeply. The Spokane Children’s Theatre produced a 50th anniversary book this fall, filled with reminiscences from actors both large and small. Here are a few samples:
“I remember Toto peeing on the stage, and me trying not to step in it.”
“And so it came to pass that Bill Hutton became almost certainly the only actor in the stage or screen history of ‘Robin Hood’ to utter a line with a lit Winston in his mouth.”
“Jean Hardie played the Fairy Godmother in ‘Twelve Dancing Princesses.’ A child in the audience asked her for a kitty. Jean ad-libbed, ‘I don’t grant wishes with organic tissue.”’
“I also remember the many days that Bob Farley would help me with my geometry between shows. I received an A in class that semester.”
Directors of children’s shows may deserve a special place in heaven, as the above anecdote shows. The Spokane Children’s Theatre’s all-time directing champ is Dale Brannon, a Rogers High School drama teacher who directed 17 shows in the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s.
Other directors of note: Stan Williams, Dorothy Darby Smith, Kathie Doyle-Lipe and Trudy Rogers.
So, as the theater heads into its 50th season, is Grace Gorton Peck proud of the way the “child” has grown?
“Oh, indeed I am! It has grown from such meager beginnings!” she said. “But if I say so myself, we did pretty well in those days with what we had to work with.”
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MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: “Peter Pan” Where: The Met Preview performance: Thursday (Thanksgiving), 7 p.m., $4 Regular performances: Friday, 7 p.m., Saturday, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m., Sunday, 2 p.m., Nov. 30, 7 p.m., Dec. 1, 7 p.m. Tickets: $6 and $5, available by calling 328-4886.