Jim and LaRayne Watts’ love of theater remains strong at Hannan Playhouse

By Vivian Edersheim


By VIVIAN EDERSHEIM

The love of the theater has played an important part in the lives of Jim and LaRayne Watts. They were active in theater before they met; they have worked in community theater for nearly a century, between the two of them, and performed in more than 100 productions; and they plan to continue to support Raymond’s Willapa Players and Hannan Playhouse any way they can.

What’s more, the theater brought them together as a couple and some of their fondest memories over the years have been from working together in local and regional productions. They recalled their history in drama during a visit at the Hannan Playhouse Jan. 10.

Jim’s history in theater precedes LaRayne’s. Jim’s family moved from Jackson, Mississippi, to Clatskanie, Oregon, during World War II.  His first experience was in a senior class play at Clatskanie High School in 1945. “The play called for a New York detective,” he recalled. “We had to change our location because at that time I had ‘a Mississippi dialect you could cut with a knife, honey’,” he emphasized with a Southern accent and a smile.

After moving to Raymond where he held jobs in accounting for the next 30 years, Jim became involved with the Willapa Players in late 1956. The group had formed during an adult education class at Raymond High School that spring and performed “Dear Ruth” as their first play. They chose “You Can’t Take It With You” for the fall production; Jim had a non-speaking appearance as a cop at the end of the play.

The Willapa Players’ first few productions were held at the high school, but that became uncomfortable for a couple of reasons.

“Most adults smoked and most plays had smoking in those years. Also some plays had lines that offended some people,” Jim said. One of the founders of the Willapa Players – Robert “Bob” Hannan – located an available building on First Street. A family lived on the second floor and rented the first floor to the drama group from 1958 to 1969.

“With the Lipinskis living upstairs and us downstairs, we got in each other’s hair quite a bit,” Jim said. Another search took place, and Bob Hannan found their current building on Eighth Street

“It looked nothing like it does now when he found it,” Jim said. “The foundation was broken; it was a wreck. It had been abandoned and had been down here just rotting.”  The Willapa Players bought the property and building for $600. Then they got to work.

“We got work parties together and people who knew how got us numskulls together and we built a new foundation, with the supervision of Jim Kennedy and Chuck Forsman. When we got the foundation done, they supervised the building of this very stage,” Jim swept an arm toward the deep-set stage. He recalled that Weyerhaueser Company donated the lumber for the stage and numerous fundraisers brought in thousands of dollars to meet the various renovation needs.

During those years, the key people behind the Willapa Players were Bob Hannan, a local attorney and later a Superior Court judge, and his wife, Marie, a local dance teacher and choreographer – “Oh, what a choreographer!” Jim said. In later years, some of Marie’s students, Crystal Bennett, and Gayle Russell, and Michael “Mike” Parks also did choreography for the players.

Jim’s involvement soon included directing. Bob Hannan was directing “Dangerous Corner” when somebody backed out of the cast. “Bob had to take over the part, so I came in as assistant director,” Jim said.

Since then, Jim has been involved in nearly 60 productions with the Willapa Players, 34 as an actor and 23 as a director. LaRayne has acted in 26 productions and directed 30.

Although interested in the theater at a young age, LaRayne’s participation in it came later. “I was always interested in drama,” LaRayne said. “I desperately wanted to take drama in high school, but my mother forbid it. One of my biggest regrets is that in all the years I have been in the theater, she only saw one show I was in and that was in college and only because I was getting an award that day. She did not like theater at all.”

After getting her degree to teach English, with a minor in speech and drama, LaRayne taught in Portland for two years before retiring to raise a family. When her family moved to South Bend in 1966, she was hired as an English teacher at South Bend High School. Not long after that, she began running both the junior high and high school drama programs, and continued those programs for the remaining 28 years she taught at South Bend.

“Soon after I came here, I got to know Bob Hannan and he asked me to get involved with the Willapa Players,” LaRayne said.  “At first I had young kids and we were busy so I didn’t get around to it. Later, Jim’s son, Steve, was in my drama class at school. Jim and I got acquainted. Jim asked me to co-direct ‘The Odd Couple’ with him and I was free at that time so I did it. That was the spring of 1970, and I’ve been active ever since. “

They’ve shared many high points in their theater careers.  Jim is particularly proud for having brought Shakespeare to the local stage in 1996. Since then, five Shakespeare productions have been done here – “Taming of the Shrew”, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (Jim’s all-time favorite play); ”As You Like It”, “Twelfth Night” and “The Merry Wives of Windsor”.

“Merry Wives” holds a special place in their hearts, too, because four members of their family, in addition to Jim and LaRayne, had parts in the play.

“We are very pleased that some of our family members have followed in our footsteps,” LaRayne said. “Jim’s son, Steve, and Rayetta Kenworthy have both acted and directed here. Our granddaughter Sarah got started in the children’s program here and she has continued to act and has done a number of plays. Our granddaughter Amanda was in one play. We had all six of us in one play, and we didn’t direct it – Jim and I had parts, Steve and Rayetta had parts, Sarah had a part and Amanda had a part in ‘Merry Wives of Windsor’.”  LaRayne’s son, Steve Isaksen, and Jim’s daughter, Angela, also have performed with the Willapa Players,

LaRayne’s pride comes from having started a summer youth theater program. “After I retired from teaching and I had been out a couple or three years, I found I kind of missed kids, so I started a summer youth theater program. It ran at least 10 years.

“One of the things I’ve been grateful for,” LaRayne added, “is I have seen the students that I had in drama in school and the kids I have directed in children’s theater go on and continue with our local community theater and even on to other theater groups. That has been very gratifying to me.”

Some of their high points have been in other theater groups in the area.

Although Jim’s all-time favorite drama, “A Midnight Summer’s Dream”, took place at the Hannan Playhouse, his favorite role – as Emile in “South Pacific” – took place in a Grayland Players production. He also performed two musicals with the Grays Harbor Civic Choir – “Most Happy Fella” and “Finian’s Rainbow”.

“I loved that one,” Jim grinned, breaking into a short rendition of “How Are Things in Glocca Mora?”

LaRayne’s favorite performance has a bittersweet memory.

“There was one part that I really, really all my life wanted to play, the part of Amanda Wingfield in ‘The Glass Menagerie’,” LaRayne said. “Jim directed it at the Hannan Playhouse while we were dating. I tried out for the part but I didn’t get it. The next year they did ‘The Glass Menagerie’ at Aberdeen. I tried out for the part, I got it, and I got the Best Actress of the Year award for that role.”

“And I’ve never forgotten it since,” Jim added somewhat sheepishly; “I’m not allowed to forget it.”

“I married him anyway, even if he didn’t cast me,” LaRayne added. “I held it against him a little bit, but not enough to not marry him.”

Altogether, though, their favorite memories are from working together on productions.

“LaRayne and I have done very little acting with one another,” Jim said. “We’ve either been directing or acting in a play separate from what the other one was doing. That’s because we got into the habit of her driving and me doing my lines, or me driving and her doing her lines.

“We’ve had two parts I dearly loved and both of them are small. We had a part in ‘The Whales of August’ in 2005. I was in my 70s. I played this part of an old has-been gigolo. She and I had the closest thing to a love scene you could say for that age. And that was one of the most poignant pieces I’ve ever done. She was so good at it. We got several raves for it.”

LaRayne fondly remembers directing “Da”, the story of an Irish son in America who returns to Ireland after his father passes away.

“We saw it in a professional production in Seattle, and we both fell in love with it,” LaRayne said. “When I came out of the theater, I felt like I was walking 6 feet off the ground. I always wanted to direct it, and if I directed it, I wanted Jim to play the lead. But the set was so difficult I didn’t think we would ever get the chance. A couple of young men around here said they had an idea for the set, and we did it. Jim played the lead and I directed it.”

Another person in that production was Wilma Dunsmoor. “She was so good in that play,” Jim praised.

LaRayne said, “Wilma and I worked together a lot but had never acted together. Finally we got the chance in ‘Arsenic and Old Lace’. We enjoyed that so much.”

Other people they recall with fondness are Russ Wiitala, Andy Mullen, Denny Wasberg and Keith Krueger.

Theater work involves more than taking the lead.

“Jim has acted and directed but only once that I know of did he ever do anything else.  He did props on a play we did in Aberdeen,” LaRayne said. “I did beautifully with props,” Jim grinned.

“But I have done everything,” LaRayne added. “In fact, Marie Hannan and I used to kid about it. If you’re going to be active in community theater, you do everything from scrub the toilets to take the lead, and I have,” she laughed. Besides acting and directing, “I’ve been stage manager a great deal, especially with musicals. I can’t sing but I can stage manage more musicals than you can shake your finger at. And I’ve done costumes.”

Jim: “And she has done costumes, and costumes, and costumes, and costumes!”

“The hardest show I ever did was ‘Twelfth Night’,” LaRayne said. “I was the only costumer, and there were 39 costumes to build. I did them all by myself, 39 of them. I’ve also done lights; they let me do lights a couple of times. I didn’t set them up, I don’t know anything about that but I could run them. Also I have been secretary for the Willapa Players for more years than I can count and Jim has been on the board for I don’t know how long,” LaRayne laughed.

The two have dedicated themselves to the Willapa Players. 

When Bob and Marie Hannan retired and moved to Vancouver, Wash., years ago, some people thought the local theater would die. There even had been talk of selling the property. Jim and LaRayne were very active with the Driftwood Theater in Aberdeen at that time.

“Some thought when Marie and Bob left, the theater left,” Jim said. “It was a legitimate difference of opinion.”

 “We made a conscious decision to dedicate ourselves to the Willapa Players,” LaRayne said. She worked with Grays Harbor College to get an adult education class, with credit, for the production of “The Ant and The Grasshopper” at the Hannan. The production was a success.

“It was fun,” LaRayne recalled, “and it kind of helped to re-energize the group.”

The couple also made sure the Hannans would not be forgotten. Jim instigated re-dedication of the Willapa Playhouse as the Hannan Playhouse. In earlier years, LaRayne worked with Bob Hannan – “he had a “memory like a steel trap!” – to compile the troupe’s history in a written format. The printed and framed lists of Willapa Players’ productions now grace the walls in the building entrance.

The Hannans were special to Jim and LaRayne for another reason. Judge Hannan married Jim and LaRayne in the living room of the Hannan home in 1976.

The couple wants to see the Willapa Players and Hannan Playhouse continue for others to enjoy.

“Generally, if you’re talking to a group of people, the word ‘community’ is synonymous with amateur or less talent,” Jim said. “That’s so far from the truth. People who have been in community theater for a long time are usually in there because they are talented, because they can get parts, or because they get good at lights or one of those things. It’s an act of love.”

Will they continue in the theater?

“You can’t keep us out of it,” LaRayne declared. “Even if we can’t get parts, we will continue to pitch in. I keep looking at the question, ‘What kept you in it?’ I can’t begin to tell you except that we both love it. And if you are both into it, it can be a joy to share.”