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Wednesday, March 05, 2003

Goodbye 1916

I just found out yesterday that the marquee sign outside Annex Theatre's old digs at 1916 4th Avenue was recently taken down by the new tenants, The Vera Project and the old Annex logo that had been on it since 1988 was removed so they could put something of their own in its place. Although in a sense it's fitting that Vera is recycling the signage (since Annex themselves did the same thing with the "Fred Astaire Dance Studio" panels that were in it originally), still it's a sad moment in the history of a great -- and still very much alive -- organization.

For the handful of you who might read this and don't know the history of Annex Theatre, it was started many, many years ago by a bunch of Bainbridge Island high-school buddies, including the late Dave Skubbina, who I went to school with at Western Washington University in the mid '80's. After graduation, a bunch of us moved down to Seattle, hoping to break into the local theatre scene, which at that time consisted almost exclusively of the major theatres (Seattle Rep, ACT, Intiman) along with a handful of mid-sized theatres like Empty Space, The Group and Pioneer Square Theatre (home of the local legendary long-running "Angry Housewives"). After months of frustration trying to get collective feet in their doors, several of the "Western Alumni" decided to start their own theatre company. Dave and a couple of his friends had produced a production of James McClure's "Lone Star" at The Storefront Theatre on Bainbridge a few years before under the Annex Monicker, and so the name was resurrected for their new venture. For three years they produced a series of shows on the Island, occasionally bringing their work over to various venues in Seattle.

In 1988 the founding members of Annex -- Dave, Micha Rice, John Lawler, Garrett Bennett, Mike Rainey, Mike Shapiro and Brian Cole decided to permanently relocate their company to Seattle, since most of them were already living in town by then. After a search lasting several months, they discovered the long-abandoned "Fred Astaire Dance Studio" on the 2nd floor of a building at 1916 4th Avenue, just up the street from The Bon Marche. Rumor had it that the space had originally been a Prohibition-era speakeasy; it had a large dance floor area just right for a small theatre, along with office space, a box office area, and several ancillary rooms which could serve a variety of functions. It was a perfect venue for doing "big cheap theatre", and everyone who saw it instantly fell in love with the place, including me.

I can still recall the day Dave walked into work at TicketMaster (or as we dubbed it "The Western Alumni Club", since there were so many theatre grads working there at the time) with a rolled up bundle of architectural drawings for the space tucked under his arm. They'd spoken with The Clise Agency, owners of the building, and were in the process of working out a deal that would give them the space on a long-term "handshake lease" of $1 per year. It was all very exciting -- these guys were actually going to start their own theatre company! This was years before the term "fringe theatre" came into common usage in Seattle, when you could count the number of such companies and still have a couple of fingers left over.

Several months, a lot of sweat, paint and plaster later, 1916 4th Ave officially opened with a remounted production of "Straightjacket", a multi-media riff on the "Frankenstein" legend written by Bennett & Lawler. I can still feel the shivers that ran down my spine when the lights went down, a brief film began playing on the back wall of the set showing doctors rushing a gurney down a hospital corridor then (I think it was) Brian Faker bursting through the strip-screen dressed in a lab coat, welder's mask and thick rubber gloves, arms stretched out above his head, his feet widely planted in a gesture of supreme triumph that stated what many of us felt at the time: We were invincible! We could do anything! Nothing could stop us!

That was how it all started. And for 13 years it was a glorious ride, sometimes frightening, but always exhilarating. My involvement in the Company (always run on the concept of a true Socialist Collective) waxed and waned over the years, but even when I became less actively involved in the actual making of theatre there, I was always a patron, a subscriber and a supporter, and always took to heart something John Sylvain, a long-time colleague avouched once when we were all in the throes of yet another in a seemingly endless string of debates on what constituted a "Company Member", "If you think you're a member, then you ARE a member!" he shouted, as was his wont. And so, even when I wasn't doing work there, I always thought of myself as being part of the larger Annex community, and still do.

"So, what does this reminiscence have to do with a lousy piece of plexiglass?" you're probably asking yourself. Well, I'll tell you. Back around 1999 or 2000 Clise announced their intentions to redevelop the site, knock down the building and put up a hotel or office tower or some such, and so we all thought we could see the writing on the wall. Plus, the sweetheart deal brokered by the founders had long since lapsed and the financial costs of maintaining the space were beginning to take their toll. So, we decided to get out on our own terms, which we did, moving a dozen years worth of memories, detritus and equipment either into storage, or more likely into the dumpsters in the alley and out to the landfill. One final major blowout of a party ensued, and then we turned out the lights on 1916.

That's where the sign comes in. It had been up before Annex moved into the space, advertising the "Fred Astaire" location, and someone got the bright idea to take out the panels and redo them with a snazzy updated logo, based on Dave's original "Anarchy symbol" design. For 12 years that was what greeted you as you walked up 4th Ave. It was our public face proclaiming our existence to the world, and faceteously hinting at lascivious doings inside with it's "Live Theatre" motto (based on the "Live Girls" motto of a strip club down by the Pike Place Market). After we left the space, the sign remained, a solitary reminder of what had been a glorious time and place. When I occasionally caught the #17 bus on the corner just down the block, I could always look up and see it there, clutching the side of the building like a climber digging their fingers into the rock to keep from falling. It was the last, solid, tangeable connection to a space that many, many good, great and brilliant people -- some sadly no longer with us -- had the honor and pleasure to work, party, and in a very real sense live in.

And now it's gone. The last trace of the existence of Annex's presence at 1916 4th Avenue has been wiped away, ironically to make room for another small, struggling non-profit organization run for the benefit of a bunch of kids who got tired of waiting for somebody else to provide them with a venue for their creative expression and so decided to just Do It Themselves.

It's sad to think that Clothe has cut the final thread on the life of Annex at 1916, but that's the thing about Fate; it works its own will and all you can do is ride the ride.

Boy, was it a good one...

...And it's not over yet by a long shot.

Posted byCOMTE on 12:26 PM

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