Edmonds Cultural Organizations

  • By Charles LeWarne
  • Posted 11/27/2018
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20676
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Edmonds is a waterfront city in South Snohomish County with more than 40,000 residents. Three events a few years apart in the mid twentieth century played key roles the city's thriving cultural life: formation of the Edmonds Arts Festival, the Driftwood Players, and the Cascade Symphony Orchestra. These groups spurred and encouraged future cultural activities, in both Edmonds and adjacent communities, which continue to diversify and develop in the twenty-first century. They collectively define the life and character of Edmonds and affect adjacent communities.

A New Town Finds Expression

Fifteen miles north of Seattle, the Snohomish County waterfront town of Edmonds rises along a broad hillside. Although a Seattle suburb, Edmonds has an increasingly metropolitan complexion, complemented by adjacent towns.

The land was dense with timber and other vegetation when George Brackett (1841-1927), a Canadian logger, arrived in 1876. He platted a town in 1884 and in 1890 Edmonds incorporated. As small boats linked waterside towns, more people arrived to start homes, businesses, and public facilities.

Cultural expression accompanied physical growth in the new city. An 1890s school day began with "songs ... sung before taking up the daily study" (Astell). The first year at the new Edmonds Elementary School concluded in 1929 as children wearing various national costumes danced around colorful Maypoles to music from an amplified Victrola.

Shows from Near and Far

Stage plays, including occasional road shows, were presented in Edmonds at the Odd Fellows Hall built in 1891 and at the 1904 Opera House. Chautauquas, educational presentations featuring lecturers and debates, were occasionally held outdoors or in tents. Suspended during World War I, they resumed briefly but soon succumbed to the competition of radio and film. The Opera House and other downtown venues began showing motion pictures in the early twentieth century. In 1916 the Union Theater advertised regular shows and 10 years later the Princess Theater opened on Main Street.

Schools also put on plays. One "new teacher ... started small plays with the home talent and was a good instructor" (Arp). A hall was built on Main Street to house these productions. The Music and Art Study Club presented an operetta, "The Castaways," at the school auditorium in March 1930.

More specialized community groups also began to form. By 1902 Edmonds had a brass band, possibly including the 19 uniformed members who posed for a 1910 photograph. Historian Archie Satterfield (1933-2011) suggested that "city bands were about as important to community pride as baseball teams" (Satterfield, 52). After a shaky start, by 1922 the band had reorganized and stabilized enough to present concerts at a bandstand erected in the city park and even across the Cascades at the Wenatchee Apple Blossom Festival. Dressed in full uniform, the band was aboard for the first automobile-ferry run from Edmonds to Kingston in 1923.

A choral society formed in 1910 and continued to present concerts the following year. During the early 1920s, Edmonds also had a community chorus, a musical society, a male quartet, and in the mid-1930s a civic orchestra. Traveling groups sometimes performed at the high school auditorium.

Building a Cultural Community

The Coterie Club, a women's organization established in 1909, was among several groups that sought civic and cultural advancement including "the attainment of a higher literary culture" (Cloud, 130). Coterie members joined efforts for civic social betterment, sponsored the Campfire Girls and Bluebirds, and promoted the sale of World War I savings bonds. The club acquired its own building, moving the former First Church of Christ, Scientist, building to property it owned downtown, improving it, and renting out portions.

A "gala event" in 1894 was the opening of the first hotel, "a magnificent three-story frame building" (Cloud, 16). In a community dominated by wood-frame houses and buildings, occasional example of distinctive architecture eventually began to appear. Notable architectural ventures included new church buildings. The Matthew Simpson Hughes Memorial M. E. Church, constructed in the early 1920s, was designed by Chicago architects. The building boasted an "elaborate and artistic" interior finished with four kinds of oak and polished mahogany, panels of French glass, and other fashionable highlights (History of Snohomish County ..., 582-83). The brick Carnegie Library, built in 1910, was another notable addition.

By the late 1930s Edmonds High School was a center of community activities. Its new Art Deco auditorium, partially funded by the federal Works Progress Administration, enabled local programs and school activities, as well as cultural programs including performances by the visiting Seattle Symphony Orchestra. If Edmonds had a cultural center in the mid twentieth century, it was the high school auditorium.

Small-town Edmonds was home to several prominent artists including Guy Anderson (1906-1998). Born to early residents, he began his painting career on the family property. Morris Graves (1910-2001) also had a studio nearby. Adopting Northwest and Asian themes, both were influential members of what became known as the Northwest School. They were featured in a prominent 1953 Life magazine article, "Mystic Painters of the Northwest." Both later moved elsewhere, though Anderson spent most of the rest of his life in nearby La Conner.

Forging a Suburban Identity

World War II forced the suspension of many cultural activities, but the postwar years brought dramatic changes. As the regional population expanded, Edmonds increasingly fell within the sphere of growing Seattle, but also strove to establish itself as a suburban entity influenced by its own growth and that of neighboring Lynnwood and Mountlake Terrace. Satterfield observed that the postwar period was "devoted to refining the city, expanding its boundaries, improving the livability with parks, acquiring a new identity, filling in the blanks, so to speak, that were left by the pioneers" (Satterfield,78-79). The community grew not only economically but also socially and culturally.

Within a five-year span, three enduring groups were formed that helped to shape the cultural atmosphere of Edmonds. These were the Edmonds Arts Festival and the Driftwood Players, both begun in 1958, and the Cascade Symphony Orchestra in 1962.

Edmonds Arts Festival

A half century after its 1909 founding, the Edmonds Coterie Club continued to promote cultural and service activities and to sponsor local art exhibits. In 1958, JoAnn Warner, the president of Coterie, found space for a larger exhibit at the Surf and Sand Marina, a notable waterfront building. After hurried preparation, the second floor was opened May 19 for a six-day exhibit and sale of local arts and crafts. There were no more than 15 participants that first year, but it marked the beginning of a distinctive annual event.

That September, Coterie members began planning an expanded event for the following summer. As they developed more formal goals, the women drew support from other organizations and even dreamed of having a building where artwork could be displayed and sold year-around. That second festival and the next two were held outdoors on Edmonds's Main Street and at the local library. The arts festival grew at these sites, attracting additional artists and patrons.

The festival continued at other downtown venues until 1980, when it moved to what became its permanent site, the former Edmonds Elementary School that the city had recently acquired and transformed into the Frances Anderson Cultural Center. Galleries were set up in the gymnasium, former classrooms, hallways, and an outdoor plaza. Playfields were filled with tents and booths housing artists' displays and ongoing work. A stage enabled entertainment, and food vendors lined the periphery.

From the informal group of devotees who created a small local display, the festival became a well-knit complex of organization, procedures, and professionalism. Back in 1965 its incorporation papers cited impressive goals. The festival aspired to stimulate interest in producing and distributing creative arts, to invite sponsorship by groups and individuals, to develop a permanent Art Center, to encourage potential artists, and to "make Fine Arts available to every segment of the population" ("Articles of Incorporation ...").

Each year, months of planning and preparation culminated in the final push to register and display works. Entries from throughout the state faced a juried selection. Premier selections were arranged in the Anderson Center gymnasium, with additional paintings, sculptures, ceramics, and photographs displayed in individual rooms. Outdoors, artists and craftspeople directly engaged with the public in more than 200 tents and booths. Many pieces were for sale. Awards were given in specific categories and for overall quality. Works by local schoolchildren Iined the halls, and space was set aside where even the very young could indulge in creative endeavors. Professionals and amateurs including school groups provided entertainment.

Traditions developed. Each year a poster featuring a local scene promoted the festival and raised funds. Similarly, a poster designed by a schoolchild was honored. Such posters became collector's items. A several-page program guided visitors through exhibits and other features. For many years a sandpiper logo symbolized the festival; a later logo represented aspects of the waterfront town.

Each festival week began with a patrons party, perhaps the most elegant event in town, preceding the Fathers Day weekend opening. At mid-morning on Friday the event opened, drawing crowds from Edmonds and beyond. The small group of volunteers who organized that first festival evolved into a large cadre handling jobs from publicity to registering artists to mounting exhibits to serving in information booths to handling sales to a variety of other duties.

Activities extended beyond that annual weekend event. The festival provided scholarships to students and others, and a permanent foundation was created to encourage the arts in Edmonds. In 2018 the 61st annual festival was held on a warm June weekend. Crowds arrived to view exhibits and works that extended from paintings in varied media to glass, wood, metal work, and photography. The Edmonds Arts Festival had grown from a halting experiment by a few enthusiasts to a permanent, widely respected event that helped shape the cultural growth of Edmonds and the region.

Edmonds Driftwood Players

The Edmonds Driftwood Players is one of the oldest continuing community-theater groups in Washington. Its annual schedule of plays is complemented by other programs, especially during the summer. Driftwood Players began "over a cup of coffee in an Edmonds living room one day in 1957," when several friends gently complained about traveling to Seattle or Everett for performances ("History of the Driftwood Players"). Surely Edmonds had the resources and the talent to form its own local theater! Headed in part by Edmonds resident and Seattle high school drama instructor Earl Prebezac (1924-2018) and his wife Nann (b. 1931), an actor, the friends founded a community theater.

They formally organized on April 11, 1958, with Earl Prebezac as president. Their first production was the comedy George Washington Slept Here by Moss Hart (1904-1961) and George S. Kaufman (1889-1961), which Prebezac directed. That performance took place at Meyring Hall (the American Legion Hall) on the corner of 6th Avenue and Dayton Street. Other early sites were school auditoriums and makeshift venues. Since 1968 Driftwood Players' home stage has been a 215-seat theater on Main Street just east of downtown. The building was designed by local architect Wade James (1931-1976), who with his wife Jan was among Driftwood's founders. It opened on March 15, 1969, with Nann Prebezac in the title role of The Mad Woman of Chaillot. After James's passing, the theater was named for him. Owned and managed by Driftwood Players, the building is on city property and enjoys city support.

Driftwood presents about 80 performances annually before approximately 14,000 audience members. The Mainstage Productions segment consists of five offerings a year and includes comedies, serious dramas, mysteries, and musicals. Productions over the years have included Annie, To Kill a Mockingbird, Bus Stop, Death of a Salesman, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Fantasticks, and Spoon River Anthology. The December selection is traditionally something fitting the holiday season and aimed at a family audience. Most of the actors and production staff are from the community or nearby areas.

Along with its productions, the Driftwood Players group has extended its scope to other activities. It provides scholarships to budding actors, the first given in 1961 to Bridget Hanley (1941-2021), who grew up in Edmonds and became a prominent television actress.

A midsummer Festival of Shorts draws short plays from around the world that have not previously been produced onstage; audience members vote on their favorites from among eight offerings. A January series features local playwrights. The Theater of Intriguing Possibilities (TIPS) includes plays that attempt to challenge the audience with new perceptions. Driftwood Players started classes for young people early on and offers a summer program for teenagers. The widely known Missoula Children's Theater visits for a week each summer.

In its six decades the Driftwood Players -- run by volunteers with a small paid staff -- has built a loyal following in Edmonds and neighboring towns. Its impact extends beyond the confines of its small theater on Main Street.

Cascade Symphony

The Cascade Symphony was created in 1962 under the leadership of Robert Anderson (1917-2012), an Edmonds School District music teacher and director of music. The district's school population grew rapidly, and Anderson built a strong music program. He had been a violinist and strings teacher before serving in the U.S. Army during World War II. He believed music had the potential to create a healing, cultural atmosphere following war. For nine years he directed the Bremerton Symphony Orchestra, and he and several Edmonds musicians regularly traveled across Puget Sound for practices and performances in that city. One evening as they were ferrying home from Bremerton, they discussed forming their own orchestra in Edmonds. Why, they wondered, should they journey across Puget Sound when there was both talent and a potential audience at home?

Preparations and practice got underway. Sixty community members performed in the first concert on June 4, 1962, in the Edmonds Junior High School auditorium. University of Washington director of music Stanley Chapple (1900-1987) opened the program with Samuel Barber's (1910-1981) First Essay for Orchestra. Then Anderson mounted the podium to lead works by Johannes Brahms (1833-1897), Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904), and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908), and selections from the 1960 production Camelot by Alan J. Lerner (1918-1986) and Frederick Loewe (1901-1988). Thus began annual seasons of symphony concerts.

The symphony's quality grew as it established itself in Edmonds. Many new musicians came, auditioned, and became stalwart members.

"[T]he musicians grew up, grew middle-aged, grew gray; their children were born and grandchildren arrived; their careers developed and vanished into retirement. In their changing lives, one aspect has remained constant -- Monday evening is always 'Cascade night.' As the nucleus of charter members has dwindled and new musicians have joined the ranks, the tradition continues" ("A Ferry Tale").

By 2018, only three original members continued to perform.

In 1976 the symphony spawned the Cascade Youth Symphony for teenage musicians; nine years later that group became independent. Cascade Symphony continued its interest in students, however, providing them scholarships and performance opportunities. It also offered annual presentations aimed at younger children.

Dissension and Reformation

Anderson retired in 1992 after 30 years, starting a string of events that challenged the orchestra. Under a new director, dissension grew within the ranks over issues involving performance, personalities, and finances. Most of the players left the group, and then took matters into their own hands. They organized to create a new entity. The "Cascade Symphony Orchestra" was incorporated in May 2000, led by familiar musicians. The two competing groups dueled for a short time until the original "Cascade Symphony" was dissolved. Despite the distress caused by this upheaval, the players had much community support, and the orchestra moved into a new eventful era.

Work got underway to organize, finance, and build a new program upon the remains of the old. The search for a music director led in 2002 to the enthusiastic selection of Seattle Symphony violinist Michael Miropolsky (b. 1955). Born in the Soviet Union, Miropolsky began to play violin at the age of seven. He advanced rapidly, eventually joining the Moscow State Symphony and performing internationally. In 1990 he moved to the United States and was performing in San Francisco when he was hired by the Seattle Symphony. He quickly became involved in local music circles, developing a solid reputation as both performer and conductor. When Miropolsky learned of the position with the Cascade Symphony Orchestra in 2001, he auditioned and was enthusiastically received. His musical acumen, his personality, and a quick sense of humor ingratiated him with both performers and audiences.

The quality and extension of performances grew under Miropolsky's direction. The symphony released its first CD of a local performance in 2011. Two years later a collaborative effort with travel guru and lifelong Edmonds resident Rick Steves (b. 1955) led to a CD and DVD production titled Europe, a Symphonic Journey, which aired nationally on public television. Other sidelights included publication of a symphony cookbook and Miropolsky's memoir.

But it was the music that truly mattered. The Cascade Symphony Orchestra became an organization with a reputation and influence extending beyond Edmonds itself. For the music community, a fitting and sad event was the final concert of the orchestra's 50th-anniversary season in 2012. The 94-year-old Anderson was planning to attend and be honored, but he passed away two days before. Miropolsky conducted the concert as a memorial to him.

Later Years

The Edmonds Arts Festival, the Driftwood Players, and the Cascade Symphony Orchestra all continued to thrive more than 60 years after their founding.

The arts festival and its Edmonds Arts Festival Foundation (EAFF) continue to promote the arts. Led for more than 20 years by Darlene McLellan, the foundation raises funds and fosters varied events. Along with scholarships and grants totaling $65,000 annually, the foundation has given more than a million dollars for public art and other projects. It opened a permanent gallery in the Anderson Center in 1979. In 1999 it helped establish monthly Art Walks in the business district and five years later it helped facilitate ArtWorks, a space on 2nd Avenue where artists and craftspeople can work on their projects, borrow from a lending library, use a kitchen for events, and take classes. The City of Edmonds established an Arts Commission in 1975. Long headed by Frances White Chapin, it promotes diverse cultural endeavors. Community groups have cooperated to place sculptures, paintings, and murals in public places, including sculpture by Richard Beyer (1925-2012), Lewis "Buster" Simpson (b. 1942), and C. J. Rench (b. 1967). In 2009 the Edmonds Mural Society was founded to paint murals on downtown buildings.

Such an artistic atmosphere encouraged commercial galleries, work centers, and an annual art walk with studios open to the public. In 2015, a former grocery building on Sunset Avenue was remodeled to create the Cascadia Art Museum, which exhibits Northwest art from the late nineteenth through the mid twentieth century.

Driftwood Players remains a backbone of an acting community that has expanded and specialized. At the small Firdale Village theater in south Edmonds, successive groups -- including the Phoenix Theater that specializes in comedies -- have attracted core audiences and general applause. Local schools and Edmonds Community College have play-production programs, and the Madrona Children's Theater evolved from a K-8 school. The 1926 Princess Theater on Main Street thrives as the iconic Edmonds Theater, showing first-run films in a cozy 1930s atmosphere.

While he was music director of the Edmonds School District, Robert Anderson hired a staff of educators who also influenced the larger community. One of them, Edward "Ed" Aliverti (1932-2010), developed strong music programs both in the public schools and at Edmonds Community College; he also became a noted wrestling announcer. At the college, Aliverti organized a choral group that evolved into the broader Sno-King Community Chorale. Directed for 17 years by Frank DeMiero, another Anderson protégé, the chorale became a mainstay of Edmonds's cultural life. DeMiero also created an annual Jazz Festival to highlight local performers and national and international artists. DeMiero retired from the chorale in 2018, replaced by Dustin Willetts.

A significant nonprofit venture was the Olympic Ballet School, which John and Helen Wilkins developed from an existing dance school in 1981. Their efforts extended beyond training to build a regionally renowned dance troupe.

The 1910 Carnegie Library, a classic brick building in the heart of town, became the Edmonds-South Snohomish Historical Society Museum in 1973. Its community influence continued to extend well beyond displaying local history. Attention to such historic structures led the city to create a Historic Preservation Commission in 2002. Edmonds also continued to host Write on the Sound, an annual writers conference begun in 1985.

More Room for Culture

As cultural events expanded, the lack of adequate facilities for performing arts became a concern. Groups continued to rely on small, often makeshift, venues, including school auditoriums and gymnasiums. A solution arose in the first years of the twenty-first century. The 1939 Art Moderne style auditorium that adjoined the former Edmonds High School in the city's downtown was used for performances even as the school building itself became a junior high school and then a Christian college. When the school district made that property available, community efforts to save the auditorium and several attached facilities began. In April 2001, the city created a Public Facilities District, which acquired the building and saved the auditorium and gymnasium even as the former school itself was demolished. With guidance and fundraising, the auditorium was developed into a modern facility that became the Edmonds Center for the Arts. It opened with a Cascade Symphony Orchestra concert on October 23, 2006, followed by a grand-opening celebration the following January. The new center immediately became a major community asset. It is home to the Cascade Symphony Orchestra, Olympic Ballet, the Sno-King Chorale, and other groups. Under director Joseph McIalwain (b. 1971), the center also brings in noted performers and touring groups.

Cultural activities have also contributed to the local economy. A 2018 city report noted there were "at least 100 arts/culture-related organizations, programs, and businesses" responsible for 440 full-time jobs ("The Results Are In"). The city estimated that $19 million in direct revenues from arts and culture would translate into more than $50 million in the region's economic impact. But to many, the unmeasurable cultural sense remains most significant. Edmonds increasingly views itself as an arts community, an asset to and a leader in the region. Fittingly, on November 27, 2018, Governor Jay Inslee (b. 1951) announced that a central portion of Edmonds had been designated as the state's first certified Creative District, recognizing the city's long and continuing commitment to many aspects of the arts.


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