Willapa Players
"Early Beginnings of Willapa Players"
By Jim Watts


Lying in bed in the wee hours of the night, I was thinking about one of the more important loves of my life—my love of theater.  That love of theater has been personified in the Willapa Players.

I have spent 56 years with that organization, and I was thinking that I’m the only person left, that I know of, with a personal memory of the Willapa Players from virtually their inception.  I thought it might be well if before I am gone from the Willapa Players that I try to tell a little history about them. I would like to tell this history in narrative form.

The first play of the Harbor Players (the earlier name of the Willapa Players) was “Dear Ruth” in the spring of 1956.  Between the ending of that play and the play “You Can’t Take It With You” a member of the “Dear Ruth” cast, Chuck Hutchins, the Pacific-Wahkiakum County Court Reporter, came to my office at Graves Accounting and Tax Service in South Bend and conned me into trying out for a part in “You Can’t Take It With You.” That was how I came to be a member of the Players group.

The Harbor Players was organized in 1955 as an adult-education theater group that met at the Raymond High School. There were four plays performed on the wonderful stage of the old Raymond High School.

In the summer of 1958, Bob Hannan, who was then a local lawyer (not yet a Superior Court Judge), called me and asked me to meet him at his office above the old Raymond Drug Store in Raymond and go with him to look at a possibility for a new home for our theater group. He took me to a building on First Street in Raymond that was owned by Pete Lapinski, Pete and his wife lived in a second floor apartment in the building. (Incidentally, this building no longer exists. It was torn down about five to seven years ago.) The lower floor was vacant, and with some effort, there was a possibility that we could turn it into a theater. (Incidentally that building was torn down and the space is now a vacant lot.)

The group was incorporated as a community theater group in approximately 1958 through the legal help of Bob Hannan, so that they could rent a building. We had an organization meeting in the banquet room in the Willapa Hotel restaurant (which is now an empty lot). As I recall, there were about 12 couples involved in the original incorporation of the Willapa Players, which we did at that meeting. They were, as I recall: Bob and Marie Hannan, Jim and Gloria Kennedy, Bob and Dee Sagen, Cliff and Bev Mathis, Jack and Eleanor Mathis (no relation to Cliff), Jim and Dora Watts, Bill and Virginia McKinney, Guy and Norma Briney, Jack Reavley and Bob Claunch (a local gay couple who owned the radio station), (that’s all I can think of now; there might have been more.) 

Very early in this process of remodeling, we secured the help of Jim Kennedy, a millwright at the Weyerhaeuser Mill, and Cliff Mathis, another employee of the Weyerhaeuser Mill, who were our building experts. They came up with an idea of building a stage and an auditorium in that empty space at Lapinski’s. We were able to buy theater seats from the defunct Tokay Theater in Raymond for $1 per seat, 74 seats in all. We arranged to rent the space from Pete Lapinski, which was never a happy situation, either for the Lapinskis or the theater group. During performances their noises in their apartment could be heard in the auditorium of the theater, and our banging around down stairs could be heard in their apartment or whatever.

For a list of plays performed in that theater, see our official history.

One thing that I should mention is the manner in which we financed the royalties and expenses in the years when we had very little reserves in cash. When Olney and Jeanne Nevitt joined the Willapa Players in the early 1960’s (about 1961, I think), we acquired a musician to help us do musicals. Our first musical performance was “Goldilocks,” in 1964 in the First Street Theater. Musicals are very expensive to perform, with high royalties, a rental cost for scripts and music, and higher costume costs. Bob Hannan or Olney Nevitt would go to the banker and float a personal loan for whatever amount that we needed, personally and in their own name. And then, after the tickets were sold, the first money that was received would go to pay off those notes. Fortunately, there was always enough money made during musicals to pay back those notes.

In the mid-1960’s our presence in the First Street building became a problem for the Lapinskis, so we had to try to find a new home. Bob Hannan discovered an old broken-down Polish Hall on Eighth Street in Raymond. The whole building sagged because of a broken foundation. In my memory, I think we paid $600 for this broken building and its lot. A campaign was instituted to find the money and the talent to rebuild it into a theater. In the summer of 1969, Bob Hannan and myself headed up a campaign to get donations for the renovation of the building. Jim Kennedy, Olney Nevitt, Harold Mullins, Chuck Forsman, and others donated their time and talents to the actual renovation work—all volunteer hours—with Marie Hannan and several of the ladies supervising the interior decoration.

The first play performed in the Eighth Street Playhouse, as it was then called, was the musical “Once Upon A Mattress” in the fall of 1969. We continued to do musicals, as well as straight plays, for many years, doing about 13 musicals in all. However, after Olney Nevitt retired and moved to Olympia, we have been unable to find someone else willing and able to donate all the time and talent to be a musical director and rehearsal pianist.

Bob Hannan retired in the early 1980’s and he and Marie moved to Vancouver, WA, to be nearer their children. In 1989, at the opening of the winter play “Bus Stop,” the building was rededicated as the Hannan Playhouse in their honor. Another old friend and fellow member of the Willapa Players, Chuck Forsman, former industrial arts teacher at Raymond High School, who had himself retired and moved to Mossyrock, made the new sign for the building for the rededication.

After the Hannans left, the theater had some difficult times for lack of a corps of enthusiastic members. Some seasons we had no play to present because of a lack of people. At one meeting of the Board of Trustees, a Board Member even made a motion to sell the building and dissolve the Players. I objected, with my heart in my mouth, and the motion to sell was defeated.

So there have been hard times. We have had trouble finding directors at times but we have persisted. Gradually a new corps of enthusiastic players and technicians came along. They have put in their years and are growing older, and now another crop of new blood has come along. We also have had many of our modern members who have worked their tails off maintaining this building—for instance, Andy Mullen, Denny Wasberg, Dave Lund, Russ Wiitala, Scott Cowell, and many, many others. We have had others who have helped with costumes—one that comes to memory is my own loving wife, LaRayne Watts, who has spent many hours at the theater and at home working on costumes—and other things.

One of the things that we have received over the years is grants. We should be very thankful to the L. V. and Stella J. Raymond Foundation, Weyerhaeuser Foundation, and Willapa Heritage Foundation and many others for helping to keep us going.

The reason I am writing this all down is—as I have said—that I am probably the only person left that knows the history of the players. I was 28 when I joined the Players in 1956. I am now 84; who knows how much longer I will be around.  I love this organization and theater dearly. I shall always love anyone who has anything positive to do with this theater.

Love, Jim Watts



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