Seattle Children's Theatre debuts new home on September 20, 1993.

  • By John Caldbick
  • Posted 12/13/2012
  • Essay 10248
On September 20, 1993, Seattle Children's Theatre debuts its new home, located just west of the Pacific Science Center on the grounds of Seattle Center. The new building includes the 482-seat Charlotte Martin Theatre, named for the woman whose foundation provided the first major funding for the long-needed facility. Since its start as Poncho Children's Theatre in 1971, the organization had staged its productions at the much smaller Poncho Theatre at Woodland Park's Children's Zoo, with occasional presentations at the Moore and Intiman theaters. Following successful fundraising efforts in the early 1990s, the new venue opens with a world-premiere  production of Afternoon of the Elves, based on a children's book by Janet Taylor Lisle. Two years later, in 1995, a second, smaller performance space, the Eve Alvord Theatre, is added. Highly respected even before moving to its new home, Seattle Children's Theatre is now (2012) generally considered one of the top two children's theaters in the nation.

Humble Beginnings

In 1971, the private arts-funding charity PONCHO and the City of Seattle's Forward Thrust bond program joined forces to finance a 6,400-square-foot, 280-seat theater in the southeast corner of the Children's Zoo at Seattle's Woodland Park. Designed by architects Fred Bassetti and Co., the theater will host a wide variety of entertainments, ranging from children's theater to conservation talks, movies and slideshows, musical events, classes for zoo volunteers, theater-arts classes for students, and hands-on introductions to some of the zoo's smaller and gentler beasts.

Although plays for younger audiences were regular fare at Poncho Theatre since its 1971 opening, the Seattle Children's Theatre dates its formal founding to 1975, when the nonprofit Poncho Theatre Advisory Council was established to work with the City's parks department  in operating the Children's Zoo venue. For the next several years, the children's theater, with its own acting troupe and production staff, mounted an average of five plays a year for younger audiences, most at the Poncho Theatre, but with a very few at the University of Washington's Meany Theatre (now Meany Hall for the Performing Arts) and Seattle's Intiman Theatre.

The relationship between the Poncho advisory council and the City was not always trouble-free. In 1983 the council formally changed its name to the Seattle Children's Theatre Association, and did so without advising the City, much less seeking its consent. Parks department head Walter R. Hundley (1929-2002) insisted that the name of the venue (Poncho Theatre) and the name of the association's theater program should remain the same. The children's theater went ahead and formally became "Seattle Children's Theatre" on September 30, 1983, despite a threat from Hundley that the City was "seriously contemplating requiring you to vacate the premises at the end of the upcoming season" (Hundley to Conley, September 9, 1983).

As things turned out, the City and the children's theater managed to work together for nearly a decade more, with almost all the productions for young audiences being staged at Poncho Theatre. Financially, there were some lean times, especially  in the early 1980s, when budget woes led to drastic cuts in City funding for the arts. Although the goal of having its own home seemed out of reach, the children's theater continued with full seasons of productions, earning mostly positive reviews and garnering growing renown as one of the best of its kind in the nation. But ever since the disagreements in 1983, the governing board realized that a dedicated, permanent space for the ever-more-popular children's theater must be in its long-term plans.

Making Plans

As early as 1986, Eleanor Nolan, the president of the theater association, contacted Patrick Gordon of McKinley Gordon Architects and inaugurated a series of meetings to discuss what was still just the dream of a new home for Seattle Children's Theatre. Said Gordon:

"The board didn't know what it would do when it lost Poncho. So we started with these sessions. What does the company really need? The board members got excited ... .

"The site at the Seattle Center was available. It seemed like a good idea. Get the kids used to going to theater at the center, and then they can graduate to the other theaters in the area" ("Child's Play").

From these first meetings a plan slowly developed for the new venue, but putting together the financing would take time. In the interim, Seattle Children's Theatre continued to prove season after season just why it was worthy of a huge infusion of public and private capital.

Putting It All Together

Linda Hartzell (b. 1948), with over a decade of experience as an actor and director in regional theater productions, became interim artistic director of the Seattle Children's Theatre in November 1984, after her predecessor, Richard Edwards, left in a dispute with the theater's board. She soon proved to be an inspired (or lucky) choice, and Hartzell was given the permanent post in February 1985. Under her leadership, helped always by managing directors, producers, actors, staff, and a dedicated board, Seattle Children's Theatre over the next several years would establish itself among the very top rank of theaters dedicated to young audiences.

This success was all the more remarkable given the theater's cramped accommodations at the Poncho venue, which had well fewer than 300 seats, no wings, no space for storing scenery, and no costume or scene shops. Despite this, attendance and critical acclaim grew with each passing year. By 1987, Seattle Children's Theatre had nearly doubled the number of season subscribers, from 3,300 to 6,400. Private contributions had more than doubled, from $113,000 to $235,000. The theater had largely overcome the loss of City funding and successfully tapped both private foundations and large corporations for operating capital.

But a dedicated space for the theater remained long overdue. Since Hartzell had taken over as artistic director in late 1984, Seattle Children's Theatre had broken attendance records every year. In October 1991, managing director Thomas Pechar pegged the most recent annual attendance at 185,000, making the theater the second-largest professional children's theater company in the nation, trailing only that in Minneapolis. Spurred at least in part by this success, the funding spigot opened wide.

Priming the Pump

Charlotte Yeoman Martin (1919-1987) was the daughter-in-law of Clarence Martin Sr. (1884-1955), Washington State governor from 1933 to 1941. Along with her husband, Dan (d. 1976), Charlotte Martin had a long history of quiet philanthropy, funding causes that ranged from college athletics to wildlife-habitat preservation. Shortly before her death in 1987, she established the Charlotte Y. Martin Foundation to continue her good works. In August 1990 Seattle Children's Theatre was named recipient of a $1.2-million foundation grant to help fund a new and permanent home, to be built on the grounds of Seattle Center. This was the first major financial impetus, the seed money, and the performance space in the theater's new home would be called the Charlotte Martin Theatre.

Martin's generosity sparked an aggressive fundraising campaign that tapped both public and private sources. A setback came in May 1991, when King County voters defeated a ballot measure that would have provided money for several arts organizations. But this was offset in October of that year when the City of Seattle, which a few years earlier had cut nearly all funding for community theaters, pledged $2 million for the project. The State of Washington added $1.2 million, and 18 foundations pledged over $2 million. In 1992 the King County Council, spurred by Councilman Larry Phillips (b. 1956), stepped up and provided $2 million from its hotel/motel tax fund. Corporate donations eventually totaled $1.1 million, and 3,100 individuals contributed a total of $1.2 million. Most of the cost of the new theater was pledged by June 1992. Additional contributions flowed in, and the final piece dropped into place when a matching grant from the Kreilsheimer Foundation added $500,000 to the pot.

The total project cost was $10.5 million, including a Phase II construction of classrooms, scene shops, and offices. It had to be encouraging to donors to know that the theater was doing extremely well, both artistically and financially -- it was running in the black, building a reserve, and had increased its annual budget by $200,000. In the 1991-1992 season the theater drew more than 220,000 playgoers, mostly to the undersized Poncho Theatre, often presenting multiple performances on a single day.

The New Seattle Children's Theatre

On July 7, 1992, ground was broken for the new Seattle Children's Theatre at the intersection of 2nd Avenue N and Thomas Street, just west of the Pacific Science Center building on the grounds of Seattle Center. It was the first new public facility to be erected at the center since the Bagley Wright Theatre in 1983. From the overall plan to every small detail, the goal was to create a venue uniquely designed for children's theater (it should be pointed out that "children" in this context refers primarily to kids older than toddlers, although the theater does stage a few productions for the very young set). Another important goal was increased capacity -- the previous year, while still at Poncho, the theater turned away more than 20,000 customers.

The administrative offices of Seattle Children's Theatre had been located on the grounds of Seattle Center for some time due to a lack of space at the Woodland park venue. The new theater went in behind them, and was part of a broader plan for the rehabilitation of the center complex, for which Seattle voters had passed a substantial bond issue the previous year. This was the source of the City's $2 million contribution to the theater's building fund.

The new facility was designed by the Seattle architectural firm Mahlum & Nordfors McKinley Gordon. (Note: the design had started as a project of architectural firm McKinley Gordon, which merged with another, Mahlum & Nordfors, in 1993, before construction was completed.) According to architect Gordon, the new building did not conform "to any particular style," but tried to harmonize with the 1950s-modern style of the Nile Temple, (later the Pacific Arts Center), which was attached to the new structure and used for offices and dressing rooms ("Child's Play"). A description of the new building was provided in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:

"The main entry to the theater is on Thomas [Street], penetrating an oversize glazed vault and sheltered by an outward-reaching metal canopy. It leads to a colorful and luminous lobby full of architectural events.

"Structural elements and ceiling vaults are used to define a series of distinct spaces in the lobby, almost like rooms without walls ... .

"The round columns, with plain square capitals, that rise through the lofty space have the look of pieces of a giant construction set. The playful theme is continued with bright, mustard-colored walls, red trim, and a purple carpet with multicolored squiggles" ("Mixing Whimsy and Substance").

A broad staircase led theatergoers to the mezzanine level and the entrance to the Charlotte Martin Theatre. In the performance space itself, the bright colors of the lobby were replaced by muted greens and lavenders. Nearest the stage were broad, carpeted tiers, a place for restless youngster to sprawl while getting close to the action on stage. All the new theater's technical apparatus -- such things as lights, sounds, and staging equipment -- was state-of-the-art. The building's shape and configuration was determined by its interior needs, and this resulted in an unusually deep stage, much to the delight of setmakers and technicians.

Many of the new space's interior and exterior decorative details were created by Seattle artist Garth Edwards. These included 14 "weird and wonderful" steel animals used as canopy support brackets and roof scuppers, which were quickly dubbed "Garthgoyles." More members of Edwards's metal menagerie festooned door surrounds, ventilation grills and handrails ("Underfoot -- In Your Hand -- Before Your Face ... "). His ceramic murals, which, unlike most of his other contributions, are purely decorative, bracket the theater's entryway,

In the lobby, a three-tiered sculptural chandelier by Seattle artist George Loomis provides primary lighting, with an assist from multiple smaller fixtures suspended by thin wires and resembling a flight of birds. Large floor-to-balcony window panels give a view from the lobby to both Puget Sound and the Seattle Center grounds. The building's outer walls are sheathed in spectraglaze blocks, a form of ceramic concrete, forming a geometric mosaic in a variety of muted colors. Landry & Bogan, of Mountainview, California, were the project's theater consultants, and the acoustics were engineered by McKay Conant Brook of Westlake Village, also in California.                  

Success Breeds Success

In January 1993, while construction of its new home was ongoing, the theater received another financial boost when it was awarded a $500,000 grant from the National Arts Stabilization Fund, founded 10 years earlier by the Ford Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and the Rockefeller Foundation. The fund had been established to help local arts organization achieve financial stability by providing them with multi-year financial cushions. As it contemplated moving into the new theater, the grant, in Hartzell's words

"provides us with the stabilizing force to take artistic risks, to not worry that every show be a financial success" ("Seattle Children's Theatre to Receive $500,000").

The money was certainly welcome, but the grant signified more that that. Seattle Children's Theatre was the first such group in the country to receive a grant from the stabilization fund, an important mark of approval and acceptance in the world of non-profit arts funding. Just weeks later, the theater received another grant, $55,000 from the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund, earmarked to help mount a new play titled The Rememberer, written by Seattle dramatist Steven Dietz and to be presented in the theater's first season at its new home.

Opening Night

To celebrate its debut, on September 20, 1993, Seattle Children's Theatre sponsored a free Family Funfest that ran at Seattle Center from 3:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. Appearing at the event were, among others, Tickle Tune Typhoon, the Tropical Rainstorm Steel Band, and the Olympic Windjammer Frisbee Champions. Tours of the theater's new home were provided.

The first play presented in Charlotte Martin Theatre was the world premiere of Afternoon of the Elves, based on a children's book by Janet Taylor Lisle. That first season would be filled by four additional world-premiere plays -- Jack and the Beanstalk, The Hardy Boys in the Mystery of the Haunted House, The Remember, and Just So and Other Stories.

Less than two years later, in February 1995, Seattle Children's Theatre unveiled a second, smaller venue within its confines, named the Eve Alvord Theatre (Bassetti Architects, 1995), in honor of a longtime supporter. It is a more informal space, with a capacity of 280, bleacher seating, less elaborate technical capabilities, and a small play area for younger kids. The theater regularly fills both performance spaces, drawing audiences with high-quality productions that have reaped multiple awards and secured Seattle Children's Theatre's reputation as one of the nation's, and perhaps the world's, leading theaters for young audiences.

Sources: "Seattle Children's Theatre Getting  New Home," Theatre Crafts magazine, Vol. 26, No. 3, March 1992, p. 17; "Sleekness In Seattle,"  Ibid., Vol. 28, No. 1 (1994), p. 14; "Mahlum and Nordfors McKinley Gordon, Architects," Pacific Coast Architecture Database (PCAD) website accessed November 13, 2012 (; Misha Berson, "Change Of Scene -- Local Nonprofit Troupes Make Dramatic Plans and Go In Theater Space," The Seattle Times, August 16, 1992, p. L-1; Melinda Bargreen, "SCT: In The Money and On the Move," Ibid., February 1, 1993, p. C-7; Misha Berson, "Children's Theatre Gets Major Grant," Ibid., February 19, 1993, p. E-2; Delores Tarzan Ament, "Underfoot -- In Your Hand -- Before Your Face -- Garth Edwards Festoons Seattle's Public Spaces With Art You'll Never Find In Galleries or Corporate Lobbies," Ibid., July 4, 1993, p. F-1; "Seattle Children's Theatre to Receive $500,000," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 28, 1993, p. C-4; Joe Adcock, "Child's Play," Ibid., May 20, 1993, p. C-1; Don Canty, "Mixing Whimsy and Substance," Ibid., September 23, 1993, p. C-1, C-6; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Seattle Children's Theatre" (by John Caldbick), (accessed November 12, 2012).

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