Olympia Gets Ready for the Holidays

By Molly Gilmore

Though plans for in-person film screenings have been postponed, The Washington Center for the Performing Arts is still getting into the spirit of the season. It’s what Jill Barnes, the center’s indefatigable executive director, calls “Operation Holiday Cheer.”

The center had planned to reopen Thanksgiving weekend as a movie theater, showing Christmastime classics as well as Ballet Northwest’s new “Nutcracker” film. Then COVID-19 infection rates began to grow, and cinemas were closed, indoor dining at restaurants was halted and a reduced capacity was applied for retail shops — restrictions that are scheduled to end Dec. 14, as of the publishing of this article.

The center is now aiming to welcome physically distanced and masked audience members beginning Dec. 18. “We have some holiday programming planned, but things keep changing,” Barnes said. “If we get the green light, we are going to do it.

But in spite of the restrictions, the center will launch the holiday season with live music: Organist Sharon Stearnes of Gig Harbor will play traditional holiday tunes on the center’s Andy Crow Wurlitzer organ from noon to 1 p.m. Nov. 28 and 29. There’ll be no audience watching, though: Instead, the music will be piped out into the street. The organ will be belting the same music at noon and 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through Dec. 13, but without Stearnes’ presence. The 1924 theatrical organ, it turns out, has a built-in playback feature, so it can repeat the performance exactly, with keys moving and notes sounding though there’s no one playing it.

Sharon Stearnes at the Washington Center’s Andy Crow Wurlitzer organ

Also part of “Operation Holiday Cheer” is a virtual concert by Celtic musicians Natalie MacMaster and Donnell Leahy, who’ve played at the center several times. On Dec. 12, the married duo will welcome audiences into their home for “A Celtic Family Christmas,” available for streaming through Dec. 31. “Natalie and Donnell are so sweet,” Barnes said. “They built their career touring performing arts centers, and they wanted to give something back.”

There will also be a theatrical spectacle happening in front of both the center and Harlequin Productions’ State Theater: snow. “We can confidently promise that it is going to be snowing,” Barnes said, sounding relieved that there’s something she can be sure about after eight months of cancelations and postponements.

The precipitation will fall from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through Christmas outside both the center and the State Theater, and both theaters will have their lobbies open on weekends to offer free gift-wrapping for items purchased at downtown businesses. A receipt to qualify for the wrapping, available from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. through Dec. 13 at the center and through Dec. 20 at the State Theater.

A boy plays in “snow” in front of The Washington Center, part of the center’s offerings for the holidays.

Both the snow and the wrapping are part of the Olympia Downtown Alliance’s annual Downtown for the Holidays, which will go on this year with such socially distanced features as festive lighting, more than a mile of garland, selfie scenes sprinkled through downtown and Oly Twinklefest, a self-guided tour of decorated storefronts.

Snow is also scheduled to fall outside the center for holiday events with live audiences if the current restrictions end on schedule. On the center’s calendar are screenings of Ballet Northwest’s “The Nutcracker” film Nov. 18-20, and a lineup of classic holiday films — being offered for a $4-per-ticket reservation fee — beginning Dec. 21. Masks will be required at screenings, and seats will be sold mostly in blocks of four, with ample space between groups. The center will be able to accommodate about 180 people per physically distanced performance, less than 20 percent of its usual capacity.

On the schedule are:

“It’s a Wonderful Life” (2 p.m. Dec. 21), Frank Capra’s beloved classic  depressed man whose guardian angel shows him what the world would have been like had he never been born

“Elf” (7 p.m. Dec. 21), starring Will Ferrell as Buddy, who grew up at the North Pole believing that he was an elf

“Home Alone” (2 p.m. Dec. 22), the John Hughes comedy about an 8-year-old boy who outwits a pair of bumbling burglars

“Polar Express” (2 p.m. Dec. 23), the computer-animated adventure about a magical journey to the North Pole

“A Christmas Story” (7 p.m. Dec. 23), the seasonal classic about the adventures of young Ralphie, who wants nothing so much as a BB gun

“Frozen” (2 p.m. Dec. 26), Disney’s 2013 musical take on the story of the Snow Queen

“The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” (2 p.m. Dec. 27), the 2005 film based on C.S. Lewis’ classic fantasy 

“The Greatest Showman” (2 p.m. Jan. 2), the 2017 musical based on the life of P.T. Barnum


Operation Holiday Cheer


Nov. 28-Jan. 2


The Washington Center for the Performing Arts

512 Washington St. S.E., Olympia





Downtown for the Holidays


Nov. 28-Dec. 31


Downtown Olympia




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