Memories of Aqua Theatre

  • By Donovan Gray
  • Posted 7/29/2003
  • Essay 4224

In this People's History, Donovan Gray remembers wonderful times on the stage of the Aqua Theatre, located on Seattle's Green Lake. The Aqua Theatre opened on August 11, 1950, as part of Seattle's first Seafair, and its glory days lasted throughout the 1950s. The Aqua Theatre finally closed in 1969.

The Aqua Theatre

I made my "professional" stage debut in 1956 at the Aqua Theatre as Jerome in "South Pacific," one of Emile de Becque's two "mixed-breed" children. I got paid $5 a performance (not bad for 1956!). My mother made me buy U.S. Savings Bonds with my first-ever paycheck (ugh!).

Martha Wright played Nellie Forbush and Gene Hollmann was Emile. Martha was a good friend of my mother (Maxine Cushing Gray) from earlier days and it was a delight to work with Martha. Irving Sternoff (Sternoff Metals) was Luther Billis, and sang/acted in many of the Aqua Theatre musicals. My "baby book," painstakingly put together over the years of my youth by my mother, is filled with clippings from those experiences.

Gustave Stern was a terrific musical director to work with and a great spirit, full of enthusiasm, and an excellent conductor and leader. Because we got on so well, I was invited back in subsequent seasons to be a call-boy, making sure the stars were aware of their entrances. I recall one performance of "Oklahoma" with John Raitt where he was talking up his co-star in the dressing room and was to make his initial entrance from the other side of the stage. I had to run frantically to get him, which I did at the last moment, so the opening lines of "Oh What A Beautiful Morning" mysteriously moved from stage left to stage right behind the scenery as he trotted to get in place for his entrance. He thanked me profusely later.

I ran into Raitt 11 years later when I was touring back East with musical theatre and he still remembered the incident. We had a great laugh over that. I also worked "The King and I," "Silk Stockings," and another musical I don't recall at the moment.

I remember the singers said the worse problem they had with the Aqua Theatre was inhaling bugs when taking breath. The stage lights attracted just about every insect within miles on those hot summer evenings.

What folks may not know is that the summer musicals at the Aqua Theatre were a proving ground for many future talents. Looking at my program for "South Pacific," I see Pat Finley listed in the chorus (daughter of Washington State Supreme Court Justice Robert O. Finley, famed jazz player with the Red Kelly's trio). Pat went on to a great career in musical theatre, touring Australia in "Bye Bye Birdie," and later returning to Seattle where she chaired the first Imagination Celebration children's arts festival in cooperation with the Kennedy Center in 1979.

Gerry Arpino and Robert Joffrey (also family friends) danced in musicals there (though not in "South Pacific"), and I suspect a careful perusing of programs would reveal many others. I know there were dancers who went on to the Joffrey company, American Ballet Theatre and the New York City Ballet.

Glenn Hughes of UW Drama Dept. fame was Chairman of the "Implementing Committee" (whatever THAT was), and Warren Lounsbury handled lighting.

It was a terrific time to grow up in Seattle, and the Aqua Theatre was my highlight each summer. Since my mother was a theatre reviewer, I was taken along to see everything there until 1962, when the World's Fair got all my attention. The Aqua Follies were a real treat, with the diving clowns (my favorite part), synchronized swimming and the rest. I was sad then, and sad now, for the passing of this great venue.


Donovan Gray.

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