Play Reveals Hotel’s Little-Known Story

by Molly Gilmore

Bryan Willis wrote the play to share the almost-secret history of the hotel with local audiences. Photo by Patrick Dixon.

If you’ve lived in town for long, you most likely know the Olympia Ballroom, the centerpiece of the Olympian Apartments building on Legion Way and a venue for concerts, art markets and more. But even most natives don’t know much about the historical significance of the 1920 building, originally the Hotel Olympian.

On Sept. 16 and 17, locals will get a chance to learn the rest of the story at Bryan Willis’ Hotel Olympian Gala Extravaganza, a play that re-creates the hotel’s grand opening. The performances, being held in the ballroom, are a fundraiser for the Zonta Club of Olympia, part of an international organization focused on improving the lives of women and girls.

“It’s a very local story — and one that’s very crucial to Olympia’s history — that’s virtually unknown by Olympians,” Willis said. “I say this as someone who was born about half a mile from the hotel. It really changed who we are, in terms of being the capital, for one. It was such a hub for politics and for community. The Kiwanis started there; Zonta started there; the Rotary started there; the Chamber of Commerce met there. The governor’s ball was there until the ’60s.”

Jill Barnes, executive director of The Washington Center for the Performing Arts, plays local celebrity Jillian Barnette. Photo courtesy of The Washington Center for the Performing Arts.

“I was born and raised in Olympia,” said Jenny Greenlee, the play’s director. “I’ve been around this building. My high school had its prom in the ballroom. But I didn’t know any of the history.”

When he learned about the hotel’s storied past, Willis decided to spread the word through Extravaganza, which tells the true story of how Olympia retained its status as state capital when Olympia residents banded together to fund a first-class hotel. Though it’s based on extensive research done by Carol Klacik, Lynn Erickson and Marsha Venables, the play is also packed with humor, period songs played by a live band, romantic subplots and a fictional psychic, Madam Zanahoria (Xander Layden), who predicts the future with the accuracy that comes from hindsight.

Andy Gordon plays hapless emcee George Fotvoye in Hotel Olympian Gala Extravaganza. Photo by Jenny Greenlee.

“In twelve years, you will build a new brewery,” the psychic tells Peter G. Schmidt. “You’ll have a national reputation and your own theme song.” She goes on to regale the crowd with details about the cost of a portable toilet the city will build 100 years hence.

In other words, in 2020, when the play was scheduled to premiere. It was a plan that changed, of course. A radio version, featuring many of the same actors, aired on KGY-FM in 2021. The current production will be a dinner theater of sorts, with attendees seated at round tables where they’re welcome to partake in beverages, charcuterie and desserts during the show. The evening will end with additional period music and dancing. “I hope people will come in costume,” Willis said.

The cast is chockful of familiar names: Kim and Russ Holm, Carolyn Fry, Andrew Gordon, Mark Alford, Jeff Barehand, Jana Tyrrell and Oly Arts publisher John Serembe, who plays Gov. Louis F. Hart. Jill Barnes, executive director of The Washington Center for the Performing Arts, gets a chance to show not only her singing talent but also her flair for comedy. And this writer has a tiny part as one of the journalists covering the gala.

Xander Layden, who plays both hotel employee Martin and psychic Madam Zanahoria, is reprising the roles from the 2021 radio production. Photo by John Manini.

Hotel Olympian Gala Extravaganza

6:30 p.m. Sept. 16 and 2:30 p.m. Sept. 17

Olympia Ballroom, 116 Legion Way SE, Olympia

$85 for table seating with food (available till Sept. 15);
$50 rush tickets with standard theater seating (available Sept. 13-showtime)


Skip to content