A Short History
The Bellingham Theatre Guild was formed in October 1929 by a group of primarily college teachers and students, with many of the charter members being from the Bloedel-Donovan Players. The group had been meeting together frequently to put on plays, readings, and workshops for their own amusement and education, but friends in the community began wanting to see their efforts, and they soon began presenting plays for the public at a nominal charge.
In those early days, one-act plays were performed in private homes, giving experience to actors and directors and entertainment to the audiences. In the 1931-1932 season, the Guild performed its first full-length plays at the Normal School (now Western Washington University) auditorium; the first play was Enter Madam. (Joseph Hillaire, Chief of the Lummi Tribe, played a part in that first play.) They quickly aroused such a following that they were able to set up a temporary home in the then-unused parish hall of St. Paulís Episcopal Church on Eldridge and Walnut Streets. The audiences sat on benches and the homemade denim curtain was worked with clothesline rope and pulleys.
In its first eight seasons, 87 one-act plays and 48 full-length plays were produced by the Guild. In 1937, the Guild moved to the funeral chapel building at the corner of Prospect and Flora Streets. (The painted Guild name is still visible on the alley-side wall of the building.) In 1944, members raised money to purchase the old Congregational Church building from the noted evangelist Aimee Semple MacPherson. Other than a few brief spells in temporary quarters for renovations and the like, the Guild has been housed in this old building, which, with its steeple towering over the local neighborhood, has become a local landmark.
In the 1970s the building was repainted and reroofed, and adjoining lots were acquired and paved for parking. At the end of that decade, an extensive fund-raising campaign throughout the city and county raised over $65,000 for a much-needed addition to the Playhouse. In 1979, the Guild celebrated its 50th year in operation, and a new scene shop with storage space and enlarged costume areas were completed with the donated funds. Other additions over the years were the enhanced main entrance and many other projects inside the building, including expanded costuming areas and major reworkings of the stage rigging and lighting systems.
To answer an often-asked question: no, the Playhouse steeple tower does not house a bell, although over the years it has been home to numerous pigeons and birds. Volunteers did a fine job of patching openings and sealing the tower in the late '90s. (The winged ones have done an even finer job of figuring out how to get back in; so far, none of our fine, feathered friends has made an appearance onstage during a performance. But there have been a few notable walk-ons by local animalia: in the final scene of Night Must Fall, a drama staged in 1946, the murderer would carry a bloody head onstage in a hatbox and show it to the audience just before he got nabbed by the police. One evening during the run, the Guild's mascot, a cat, saw the open box on the prop table and decided to climb in for a nap. When one of the cops reached into the hatbox to pull out the "head" to show it to the audience, all he found was a purring cat and five newborn kittens!)
There is a tradition of innovative theatre in the Pacific Northwest, and Bellingham is no exception. Recent expansion and remodeling efforts at the historic Mount Baker Theatre along with the birth of the iDiOM Theatre downtown point to a burgeoning performing arts scene in the City of Subdued Excitement. The Bellingham Theatre Guild is proud to be a part of this community and takes its role seriously.
As the Northwest grows, so grows the need for the arts. Just as no one will contradict that growing areas need adequate infrastructure and support and social services to help meet the needs of the community, so is it clear that an active arts scene is also vitally important to the health of a region. The celebration of life that is found in the performing arts is a boon to the spirit of a place, and the Bellingham area is the richer for organizations such as the Guild.