By Megan Rieger
The dramatis personae of the Harrington, Wash., opera house still haunt the century-old stage. A chalked entry above the bathroom doorway reads, "In honor of Macer Scott, the boy who got tough with Teddy the Bear." In the wings, the names of 12 cast members of "Why Smith Left Home" are listed. "The Jolly Entertainers," a group of young musicians from a children's home in Des Moines, Wash., are prominently featured in the dressing room. Some of the graffiti dates back to the first performance, more than 100 years ago.
Now on the National Register of Historic Places, that "ol' opry house" was at one time doomed for destruction. The house was deemed unsafe for crowds in the early 1950s, when a crowd of dancers doing the bunny hop felt the building sway. Over the next 45 years, it fell into such disrepair that city attorney ceded the building to the Harrington Opera House Society for $1 in 1992.
"We were within a year or two of losing the building," says Ed Haugen, co-treasurer of the society. The south brick wall bowed from water damage, leaving the whole structure at risk, so the society quickly put in reinforcements.
After the water damage was repaired, an architect determined that the bunny hoppers had been wrong; the building was structurally sound. Granted, the original shingles had to be replaced with a metal roof, and new windows had to be put in, but everything else, except a few warped rafters, remains the original handiwork of early 20th-century laborers.
The costly renovation project, earmarked at a half-million dollars, has been a long and arduous process for a community populated by fewer than 500 people.
"We have been at a standstill for about four-and-a-half years," says Billie Herron, the other co-treasurer of the society. "After a lot of searching and banging our heads against the wall, we're finally on a roll again."
The searching finally paid off in late 2006, when the Harrington Opera House Society learned it had been awarded nearly $30,000 from the Inland Northwest Community Foundation (formerly Foundation Northwest). When the news came in, enthusiasm spread as fast as the fires that plagued the town in its early days.
"Everyone was so excited, because we always felt like we were shoved under the carpet because we were a small community," Herron says.
The grant will fund the installation of bathrooms on the second floor and construction of a fire escape, an essential step to the goal of holding performances in the hall again. With only one egress to the auditorium, property insurance was impossible to obtain.
In January, the society received more good news when it was awarded an .08% Lincoln County economic-development grant. Funded by .08 percent of the sales tax collected in Lincoln County, the $10,000 grant will be used for the plumbing and wiring in the restrooms.
The Harrington Opera House Society sees the revival of the landmark building as instrumental to the town's revitalization. The society's members envision the opera house becoming a magnet for cultural tourists and patrons of the arts. The renovated opera house will present community plays (the town already has an active theater group, K.P. Productions), and will attract visiting artists from Spokane and Seattle.
"The music groups [we've invited] like the small, intimate atmosphere of the theater," Herron said. "We're not going to have any trouble booking performances once we get the inside completed."
Shelly Haas, a professional artist who lives in Harrington's original City Hall, wants the town to reclaim its heritage as the center of artistic culture in the county.
"There's not a lot of exposure to the arts in the school," Haas says. "I have a vision for having a facility that would be beneficial for the children of this community."
Harrington, located 51 miles west of Spokane in the geographic center of Lincoln County, is an ideal location for a cultural hot spot, Herron says.
The opera house occupies the upper level of the Bank Block Building, completed just three years after Harrington was incorporated, in 1901. The building, constructed with locally made bricks, was also home to the Bank of Harrington, the Palm Barber Shop and Baths and the hometown newspaper. The Harrington City Hall and library now occupy the space where men used to come to shoot pool and have a drink, at the Stag Saloon.
At the turn of the century, "opera" referred to what would be known today as performance events. But the opera house is not to be confused with the sleazy "theaters" that populated many pioneering towns across the West. The 60-by-100-foot auditorium hosted touring vaudeville and minstrel shows, lectures, boxing matches, bands, Saturday-night dances, musical productions and plays.
At the time, only two coal stoves heated the large auditorium, but 89-year-old Doris Henderson insists that as long as she was dancing, she never got cold.
"We must have had really good music, because all the people came from Ritzville and Davenport," Henderson said. "Sometimes we would go out to Ritzville, because there were some good-looking boys there."
Today, the opera house is chilly yet cheery, with sunlight streaming in from three dormers and more than 15 windows.
In addition to the two new grants, just over $200,000 will be needed to finish the electrical wiring, plumbing, heating installation and other refurbishing work before the interior of the auditorium will resemble its glory days. Until then, the gem of Harrington will remain unfinished, awaiting the day when performers will once again add their signatures to its smooth walls.