By John Munn
The history of the Lakewood Playhouse mimics the history of the City of Lakewood, not only because of its central location but because of its character.
It was the heart of Lakewood long before there was a Towne Center to put it in.
The year was 1938 when Ray Thompson and Joseph Lanser hired Burton James from the Seattle Repertory Theatre to teach a course about theater and acting
By the spring of 1941, the class was over and the group decided to stage a play under their own auspices. Prior to that time a few plays had been presented in the Lakewood Theatre (located at the Lakewood Colonial Center) under the guiding hand of Ed Cartozian.
For their first venture on their own, the group selected Pomeroy’s Past with Calrin as director.
Following a one night performance of the show, the group met at LITTLE CHURCH ON THE PRAIRIE and organized the LAKEWOOD COMMUNITY PLAYERS, Incorporated. Officers were elected and the constitution under which the Players would operate were drawn up and adapted.
The Players then rented the DeKOVEN INN and started an ambitious program of Plays.
During World War II, as many of the Players were dispersed to man casualty stations and to become Gray Ladies, the FIRST OFFICIAL CARNIVAL was held. The money thus earned was to have bought chairs for the theatre but ended up as Government War Bonds. These Bonds later became part of the “Building Fund.”
In the Spring of 1945, thirty-five enthusiasts gathered to permanently re-start full seasons of plays. Their first president was Carlin Aden.
The group organized and performed five shows in 1946 in what was called the YORK ROOM of the LAKEWOOD TERRACE RESTUARANT in the COLONIAL CENTER along Motor Avenue and in available spaces around the area.
The group then sought a stage of its own. Plans came and went over the years during the late 1940 and 1950s.
The theater was almost 30 years old, and it finally had a home of its own. It had produced 93 shows in donated spaces and meeting halls.
Plans for the current theater’s location began in 1962, when the owners of the VILLA PLAZA DEVELOPMENT CO. donated the land near what is now the Pierce Transit Center. The lease was signed in 1965.
FORT STEILACOOM COMMUNITY COLLEGE, now called PIERCE COLLEGE, leased the theater between 1972 and 1977 to stage its plays as the college grew into a campus overlooking Fort Steilacoom Park.
In 1990, the Playhouse hired its first full-time employee in JOHN OLIVE – the theater’s first artistic director. He served for six years. Olive was followed by RUN VZEL and RAY JAROL, Seattle theater directors who found Community Theater a challenge too large for them.
Then came MARCUS WALKER, who leapfrogged the Playhouse into a regional standing that the founder would find inspiring. Walker so loved the theater that he continued at the stage as he battled cancer. Marcus wanted to leave the theater in good hands.
Those hands belonged to South Sound theater veteran JOHN MUNN, who had more than three decades of experience at the theater and its sister stages around Pierce County.
Munn took the helm in 2011 and has, through the strength of its staff, board, volunteers and patrons, has continued to steer the theatre to fruitful waters.
It is now home to main stage shows, special performances and the LAKEWOOD INSTITUTE OF THEATRE, formerly the Lakewood Youth Theatre and now approaching its 20th Anniversary, as a way to bring the joy of theater to young people.