If you drive west on Lincoln Avenue, past Gilbert Park, you may remember the Allied Arts Center that housed the Warehouse Theatre next to the parking lot. In 2013, the City of Yakima discovered the building had a major structural problem. Unfortunately, Allied Arts could not afford to repair it, so the structure was condemned and demolished.
The Warehouse Theatre Company was just finishing a production of “Anne of Green Gables” and had cast “A Christmas Carol” when the city closed the building for safety reasons. The company had only a few days to remove the lights, sound system, rigging, costumes, seats, curtains and place them in six storage units, while frantically looking for a new home. This is the tale of how one of Washington State’s oldest community theater companies survived a near-death experience.
But first let’s go back to 1947 when a handful of intrepid actors banded together to stage plays in Yakima. They were led by Lorna and Hal Millen, recent graduates of Stanford University’s theater program, who returned to Lorna’s hometown. The pair recruited a group of avid thespians who were game to stage plays in Yakima. Calling themselves The Yakima Little Theatre, they performed at a variety of venues, including the Chinook Hotel, and even a Quonset hut on the Yakima Valley Community College campus. The local Arts Association helped bring in an audience by publicizing the group’s first play, “Ice Bound,” which was performed at the Women’s Century Club.
After a few years this vagabond group of players realized they needed a permanent location. It just so happened that fruit grower Elon Gilbert decided to take out his orchards west of 40th Avenue to make way for a housing development. As part of the project he donated land for Gilbert Elementary, and a large parcel of land surrounding his apple warehouse was used to create a park and arts center.
By 1951, The Little Theatre had joined forces with the Yakima Arts Association in renovating the old warehouse building to accommodate both groups. Originally, the Little Theatre’s audience sat on the stage to watch the plays. Eventually, the theater took up half of the building with backstage space, a light loft, and seating for around 200 patrons. The company also changed its name to the Warehouse Theatre and has been presenting plays, comedies, and musicals and even the occasional melodrama for 72 years.
Volunteers are among the most important assets any community theater company can possess. There have been many families who’ve gotten involved with the Warehouse Theatre. The Akin family is a perfect example.
Peggy Akin started the Melody Lane Singers, who performed all over the Valley. Many of the young people involved in the group also were cast in Warehouse productions. Years later, Peggy’s oldest son Tony eventually bought his mom’s business, moving it to a storefront at Wards Plaza and named it The Akin Center Theatre. Besides teaching singing and dance, he also produced plays and musicals. With two community theaters, the local pool of talent found itself juggling parts between both companies. Eventually, the Akins bought their own building on South 24th Ave.
Flash forward to 2013, when the Warehouse Theatre Company found itself homeless and was desperately looking for a place to perform. The WTC board members went to Tony to see if The Warehouse Theatre could rent his theater-in-the-round when his company wasn’t using it. Tony graciously agreed and WTC was saved from disaster.
In the meantime, WTC continued to search for a new home. In the fall of 2018, several WTC members heard that Akin planned to move his family back to Salt Lake City and his building was for sale. Fortunately for The Warehouse Theatre and its patrons, Tony agreed to sell his business to WTC. A fundraising committee was quickly formed, and in just a few short months, it raised enough money to obtain the building and started planning the WTC’s 2018-19 season in its new home.
“Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” kicked off the 2018 season, showcasing a big cast of talented young adults, many new to WTC. Ticket sales have been great and the board is even considering the possibility of building a separate theater that would feature a traditional proscenium stage.
The final show of this year’s season is the 1960s musical “Beehive,” which plays tribute to the fun, finger-snapping, big-bopping music of the girl groups of that era. The musical opens May 3 and runs through May 18. There will also be matinees at 2 p.m. on May 11, 12 (Mother’s Day) and May 18.
Against all odds, the intrepid Warehouse Theatre players have, over the years, managed to land on their feet to perform another day. And if someone who reads this article has a longing to, as Shakespeare would say, “trod the boards,” WTC auditions are always open to the public and dates and times can be found on the Warehouse Theatre Company website, warehousetheatrecompany.org. The theater is at 1610 S. 24th Ave. in Yakima.