The One Reel Vaudeville Show makes its Seattle Center debut during the City of Seattle's Festival '72 music and arts fair on July 21, 1972.

  • By Peter Blecha
  • Posted 9/01/2019
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20850

On the sunny Friday afternoon of July 21, 1972, Festival '72 at the Seattle Center presents a performance by a zany local theatrical collective called the One Reel Vaudeville Show. The annual festival itself had been launched just one year prior, and would be rebranded as Bumbershoot: The Seattle Arts Festival, in 1973. Organized by a new Mayor's Festival Committee under Mayor Wes Uhlman (b. 1935), the goal was to present a "wide variety of shows and bands and art displays and craft booths and sports clinics and all the other stuff that make up Festival '72" (Johnson, July 22).

Festival '72

Following the success of Festival '71, the Seattle Parks Department named William C. McIntyre as coordinator for Festival '72. Lance Wallen, the proprietor of a graphics-design company, was named overall Festival Coordinator, and pianist Stan Keen (1924-2011) -- best known as the longtime music director at both the Seattle Repertory Theatre and A Contemporary Theater (ACT) -- was assigned to coordinate the performing-arts portion of the festival. Famed pop artist Claes Oldenburg (b. 1929) was commissioned by the Contemporary Arts Council of the Seattle Art Museum to design "a poster showing a water faucet coming out of Capitol Hill and pouring water into Lake Union" (Johnson, "Gilkey ..."). Not only did the sale of those 1,500 posters successfully promote Festival '72, it sparked a decades-long scramble by other artists to land the prestigious Bumbershoot poster assignment.

Among Festival '72's offerings from July 21-23 were a Northwest Masters painting exhibit at the Art Museum Pavilion Court; a bring-your-own-ice skates event at the Arena; fencing and mountain-climbing demonstrations; an invitational film fest (in the Eames Theater/Pacific Science Center); rock concerts by local bands including Bighorn, Jr. Cadillac, Sneaky Sam's Lamb, Approaching Storm, and Pierymplezak at the Mural Amphitheater or the Festival Court Bandstand; jazz concerts featuring local legends, trumpeter Floyd Standifer (1929-2007) and pianist Overton Berry (b. 1936) at the Opera House; the Black Arts-West organization's Afro-American Drum & Dance Ensemble (at the Festival Court); a Seattle Opera rehearsal (at the Center Playhouse); a "Rep 'n Rap" show presented by the Seattle Rep; a children's theater show presented by ACT; performances by the Magic Circle Theater troupe -- and the extremely campy One Reel Vaudeville Show.

Brave Barnstorming

The One Reel Vaudeville Show was founded in Seattle in 1972 by a spirited collective of long-haired creatives who wanted to present original and humorous improvisatory skits -- including such melodramatic "epics" as Klondike!, Bride of Bigfoot, and Rocky Jones and the Space Polka Patrol -- to the general public. Among the six original hippie founders were Norman Langill and Louise DiLenge, plus a few fellow travelers from the Empty Space Theater. Langill was an actor while DiLenge had been a cabaret singer ("Louise Lovely") who performed alongside Seattle's gender- and mind-bending performance art /drag cabaret troupe, the Ze Whiz Kidz. That cell of talented misfits had performed at 1970's Sky River Rock Festival, and then sporadically mounted shows at the Double Header gay bar and, just up 2nd Avenue, at the Submarine Room lesbian bar, which was located underground at the base of the Smith Tower.

Langill happened upon one of her shows and invited DiLenge to help form the One Reel Vaudeville Show, which got rolling with a 1931 Ford Model A truck modified with the addition of a fold-down old-timey stage, "a few basic props and costumes, and a passion for transforming public spaces into extraordinary events" ("About -- One Reel"). Kicking off with an offbeat Gold Rush-themed musical farce titled Klondike!, the skit would also be presented at various outdoor events as One Reel barnstormed throughout the Northwest, playing county fairs and city parks in the summer of '72.

"Driving that vehicle into corners of rural Washington where theater tours rarely venture, especially not outrageously campy ones," The Seattle Times would later note, "was an outgrowth of Langill's cultural philosophy and brand of risk-taking. 'It's always organic to me to go into an area where no one else is doing anything. It's great to be a pioneer because you make up your own rules and set your own standards. If I'd been in the old Northwest, I would've been a mountain man rather than a rancher or homesteader. I just like going into unexplored places'" (Berson).

Klondike Fever

One Reel provided multiple shows during Festival '72, including early afternoon performances on the south lawn of the Exhibition Hall, and early evening presentations of Klondike! in the Piccoli Theater. Meanwhile, two firms (Eyecon Systems, and Seattle Souvenir Services) brought a bit of cutting-edge technology to the proceedings -- videotaping various performances and then screening highlights later at the Flag Pavilion Plaza.

One arts critic from The Seattle Times reported his mixed feelings regarding the One Reel Vaudeville Show. Although "impressed by the imagination and the high spirits of the young actors presenting a mellerdrama about the [1896] discovery of gold in the Klondike. But like most shows which develop out of a cast's improvisatory work this one tends too often to be in-groupish and self-indulgent. It has many things that work very well, but they need to be put in sharper focus. The show is, in short, an imaginative entertainment -- in search of a director" (Johnson).

Although Festival '72 attracted between 160,000 and 175,000 attendees over its weekend run, One Reel itself had some maturing yet to do. Its Klondike! show, however, evidently had a greater impact on the imaginations of some locals than one might expect. At least a couple of area businesses latched on to the Gold Rush theme that July. Seattle's grandest hotel ran graphic ads touting "The Olympic Hotel's Klondike Festival Special," while The Bon Marche department store ran a "KLONDIKE '72" ad campaign in an improbable effort to tie the term to the sale of Zenith color televisions.

Such blatant efforts by these established corporations to associate themselves with a rag-tag hippie-steeped show seem of dubious judgment in hindsight. On the other hand, public interest in the mining history of the Klondike area did result in the founding of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park in 1976, with sites in Alaska and one in downtown Seattle at 319 2nd Avenue.

One Reel's Real Impact

The lasting impact of the One Reel Vaudeville Show was assured by the leadership of its president and CEO, Norm Langill, who went on to a successful career as a "stage and screen actor, Emmy award-winning writer, playwright, director, [and] producer" ("About -- One Reel"). Over the years One Reel developed additional shows -- performing from Canada to Idaho to Oregon, and in Washington, from Port Angeles to Bellevue to Spokane to Longview. It won awards and gained enough event-planning experience that on March 19, 1977, One Reel helped launch Seattle's annual Fat Tuesday Mardi Gras-style celebration for the Pioneer Square Association.

In 1980 One Reel was hired by the City of Seattle to help produce the annual Bumbershoot festivals. Later, One Reel ran the Gas Works Fourth of July Bash events as well as the Seattle waterfront's Summer Nights at the Pier concerts (on Piers 62 and 63), becoming a multimillion-dollar production company with a staff of more than 50. In 1995, the now nonprofit organization was contracted to run Bumbershoot on an independent basis, and in 1998 Langill founded -- with Louise DiLenge onboard as chief costumer -- the completely over-the-top Teatro ZinZanni dinner-theater spectacle that would remain a hot ticket for many years.


Sources:

"Festival '72 Set For July At Center," The Seattle Times, May 18, 1972, p. G-1; Wayne Johnson, "Arts Commission Begins To Act," Ibid, June 7, 1972, p. E-4; Wayne Johnson, "Gilkey, Fisher, Johnson Show At White On Stage," Ibid, June 12, 1972, p. A-9; Wayne Johnson, "City Honors Three At Festival '72," Ibid, July 21, 1972, p. C-4; "Festival '72: Music, Art, Hockey, Gymnastics on Agenda," Ibid, July 21, 1972, p. C-7; Wayne Johnson, "Center Swings to Festival '72's Tune," Ibid, July 22, 1972, p. 4; John Bell, "Center's Toe-tapping Fun Festival '72 Has Final Run Today," Ibid, July 23, 1972, p. 1; "Crowd-Pleaser for Festival '72," Ibid, July 23, 1972, p.16; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Bumbershoot's Formative Years (1971-1979)" (by Paul Dorpat), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed June 28, 2019); Misha Berson, "One Reel Wizard -- Just Think of Norm Langill as Seattle's P.T. Barnum," The Seattle Times, August 29, 1999 (http://community.seattletimes.nwsource.com/); "Roger Downey, "One Reel: A History," seattleweekly.com accessed on August 3, 2019 (https://www.seattleweekly.com/news/one-reel-a-history/); "About -- One Reel," onereel.org accessed on August 7, 2019 (https://onereel.org/about).


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