Hotel Olympian 100th Anniversary Grand Gala Extravaganza: A Radio Project

By Alec Clayton

Subtitled “A Community Comes Together,” the “Hotel Olympian 100th Anniversary Grand Gala Extravaganza” is a recreation of the gala opening celebration of the downtown Hotel Olympian in June 1920. The project is spearheaded by playwright Bryan Willis, founder of the Northwest Playwright Alliance and directed by Deane Shellman, with an all-star cast of local actors. It was recorded at Olympia Family Theatre and will premiere on 95.3 KGY Radio Dec. 20 at 3 p.m.

This 1920s-style radio broadcast recreating the opening night gala and dance will feature a small orchestra, ten songs, what Willis terms a” Stardust-esque love story,” and speeches from the major players who spoke at the original ceremony.

Performing actors are Jana Tyrrell, Brian Tyrrell, John Serembe, Jill Barnes, Carolyn Fry, Xander Leyden, Kim Holm, Russ Holm, Richard Wheeler, Andrew Gordon and Rowin Breaux. The show will be musically directed by Daven Tillinghast. 

Hotel Olympian was called “the hotel that saved our capitol.” Another grand hotel — Hotel Olympia, not to be confused with Hotel Olympian — was built in 1890 and was destroyed by a devastating fire in 1904, after which time Olympia lacked proper accommodations to house legislators, lobbyists and visitors. “The lack of a first-class hotel was used as a club against Olympia in attempts to move the capital to Seattle or, heaven forbid, Tacoma,” Willis says. “Plans for a new hotel were delayed by World War I, the Spanish Influenza and a faltering economy. Just when it appeared our capital would be lost, over 150 private citizens pooled their resources (over $320,000) to build a world class hotel.” 

The new Hotel Olympian became the political and social center of Olympia. 

Participants in the project speak:

Deanne Shellman, director: 
“I first heard about this project from Bryan at a local arts meeting a couple of years ago. It sounded so interesting, and I was thrilled when he asked me to direct. I’m a history buff, and I love community events, so the opportunity to combine those with an immersive theater experience was too much to resist. Our plans were coming together in a really exciting way when COVID hit and we spent months in limbo, first canceling the first live performance dates on the actual anniversary, then pausing, then canceling the replacement dates, then pausing . . . and so on as everything unfolded. As we watched theaters adapt to the ‘new normal,’ we discussed ways we could adapt this show. The KGY opportunity came up, and it seemed like a great solution. Of course, our plan is still to do a live performance when it is safe to do so and we have lots of ideas to make it a fun experience.” (A full production at the Hotel Olympian Ballroom has been rescheduled for July 9, 10 & 11, a week before Capital Lakefair.)

“Rehearsing over Zoom and distanced recording at Olympia Family Theater just reminded me of how present theater is. It really takes the energy of people interacting both onstage and in the audience to make a great show. Our excellent cast really went the extra mile to bring life and that spark of energy to the recording — I think just being in the room together, even distanced, even facing away from each other, made a huge difference. It was a joy to watch, and I hope it’ll be a joy for people to listen to.”

Daven Tillinghast, musical director: 
“This has been a very interesting project to undertake, born out of necessity, as it originally was supposed to be a site-specific live show honoring the 100th anniversary of the grand opening of the Hotel Olympian. But as the springtime wore on, it became clear that we needed to rethink the production. Noticing that a number of other theater companies were pivoting to audio-visual media, and considering that our funding comes mostly by way of grants from local and regional non-profits under ‘use-it-or-lose-it’ terms, we retro-fitted the script, re-vamped our rehearsal process, and channeled all our efforts into a weekend-long, socially-distanced and exceedingly hygienic studio session. This presents technical challenges quite unlike those of a live performance, but we decided as a creative team that we wanted to capture the spirit of the event by erring on the side of verisimilitude, so that the audience could close their eyes and imagine being in the ballroom with us. This audio-adaptation, now bona-fide radio theater, will create the experience of a live re-enactment of the historic gala for listeners to enjoy at home.”

Russ Holm, known for his many performances with Harlequin Productions:

“In the Hotel Olympian Gala radio show, I portray Jesse Mills, who was the Mayor of Olympia at that time in 1920. He was also the founder of Mills Funeral Home & Mortuary, known today, of course, as Mills and Mills Funeral Home. My contribution to the show consists of a speech given to the listening audience concerning growth and advancement in the city and urging Citizens to continue to help with future improvements in Olympia.”

John Serembe, actor with Harlequin, Theater Artists Olympia and other area companies: “I am playing Louis F. Hart, Governor of Washington from 1920 to 1925. Knowing that Hart was previously (and afterwards) a working lawyer and having listened to old broadcasts from that period (and shortly after), I attempted to assume the bluster and vocal tone of speakers and politicians of that time. Showing up late to this particular broadcast, Governor Hart imparts some excellent news.”


Hotel Olympian 100th Anniversary Grand Gala Extravaganza


3 p.m., Dec. 20


95.3 KGY Radio 


Free to listen


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