By virtue (if that’s the right word) of being old and here for a long time, I’ve come to be considered something of an expert on the storied Storefront Theatre, which shut its doors for good in 1991. In truth, the world’s filled with people who know the Storefront story far better than I do, because they helped create it. I saw it only from the outside, as a spectator and a journalist. The real experts – people like Henk Pander, Wendy Westerwelle, Teddy and Alice Deane, Izetta Smith, Polly and John Zagone, Leigh Clarkgranville (now Aza Cody), Victoria Mercer, Wrick Jones, Rosalie Brandon, Sharon Knorr and a revolt of fellow Angry Housewives, Ross Huffman-Kerr, Susan Stelljes, David Chelsea, Marychris Mass, and a host of others – lived it.
Storefront shut down 24 years ago, longer than the 21 years it existed, and still it’s something of a legend in Portland. That’s the way legends work: one brief string of shining moments, and a long afterlife.
Storefront sprang to life in 1970 as a direct response to the Kent State killings that shocked the nation and kicked fresh life into America’s antiwar movement. Through the years it leaped and sometimes lurched from being a theater company that was also an alternative community (or maybe an alternative community that also did theater) through various phases that reflected its shifting people and accelerating times. It was hip and bawdy and visually robust, an experiment in romantic-utopian anarchy that went through a crisis when its founders split off, and gradually became more conventional as new people moved in, old people moved on, and the lure of moving mainstream in the brand-new Portland Center for the Performing Arts proved irresistible. In a weird way, Storefront got swallowed by its own success – which, ironically, also left the former shoestring operation with a mountain of bills.
Triangle Productions’ Storefront Revue: The Babes Are Back, which runs through May 31, brings back some of the theater’s glory days, in a format loosely based on the old Babes on Burnside burlesques that Storefront produced after abandoning its original space on industrial North Russell Street and moving into a former porno movie house just off of West Burnside Street in Old Town. Assembled by Triangle’s Don Horn after a prodigious amount of research, it’s the latest in his series of shows based on historical adventures and adventurers in Portland, from the flashy night-club impresario Gracie Hansen to Native American jazz legend Jim Pepper, figure-skating melodramatist Tonya Harding, and a reworking of Westerwelle’s Sophie Tucker show, Soph: An Evening with the Last of the Red Hot Mamas, which was originally developed and produced at Storefront. Horn has a lasting affection for Portland’s historical demimonde, the subterranean old creatives who spiced up the good gray river city before the young creatives came to town and put a tattoo on it.
I never saw a show on Russell Street, where the legend began. Storefront hit the boards in 1970, and I hit town in 1974, and for my first few years in Portland I was otherwise engaged. Besides, co-founders Tom Hill and Anne Gerety didn’t much cotton to the mainstream press: The Babes Are Back includes the infamous (at least, in journalistic circles) tale of Hill threatening to punch my former colleague Ted Mahar in the nose if he ever stepped inside the theater’s door. Mahar once told me he’d also received a pages-long, angry letter from Gerety. It was handwritten, and as she composed she pressed so hard and furiously on the paper that the back of each sheet looked as if it had been embossed. I did, curiously, see Storefront’s original show, its bawdy, largely nude adaptation of Aristophanes’ antiwar satire Lysistrata, a production celebrated and reviled for the large prosthetic decorated penises that the men in the cast waved around. I was living in Bellingham at the time, finishing my studies at Western Washington State College (now WWU), and was part of a small group trying to come up with ways to respond to the Kent State shootings. One of Gerety’s sons, Chris Condon, was there, too, and told the group his mother had started a theater company in Portland that was doing a radical nude Lysistrata, and he was pretty sure he could get her to bring it north. Great, we said, and up they came. The show was a rousing (and, as longtime Portland actor/teacher/director Ed Collier, who happened to be there, too, reminded me, a rather drunken) success: It caught the spirit of the times.
I started following Storefront closely after the company moved to Burnside in 1980. The burlesques were often brilliant: blends of standup, vaudeville, carnival-style burlycue served with a nostalgic wink, topical satire, and terrific songs, mostly written by the talented Teddy Deane, who had come to Portland with the psychedelic folk band Holy Modal Rounders and just stuck around. That’s the format that Horn’s musical at Triangle follows, although not completely: he adds a lot of history, which gives a sense of how the company lived and died but also makes the evening episodic and a bit disjointed. Adding a cabaret-style emcee as a narrator/performer (R. Dee and Huffman-Kerr were naturals in similar roles for Storefront) could help synthesize the history and the show; moving some of the history off the stage and into the program could also tighten things and help the show just be the show. Horn’s cast – led by the sultry earth mama-ish Lisamarie Harrison, whose sass and brass set just the right Storefront tone – sings and performs with verve, and the onstage band, led from the keyboard by John Quesenberry, is a constant and creative presence, underscoring how important Deane was to the success of the original shows.
My memories of Storefront include watching a mouse scamper across the stage during August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (that was nothing compared to the mouse Deane recalls falling out of the ceiling and onto his piano keyboard at Russell Street before skittering away), and the legendary designer/director Ric Young, dressed all in black with silver-white hair and beard, lean and swashbuckling like a pirate of Penzance, strolling through downtown with his retinue of the moment, and a lot of serious plays, like Miguel Piñero’s Short Eyes and Steven Berkoff’s Greek and Romulus Linney’s Holy Ghosts and W.B. Yeats’s astounding Cuchulain Cycle and Young’s A Passion for Fresh Flowers and a gobsmacking version of Sam Shepard’s The Unseen Hand directed by Kelly Brooks. Shepard had played drums briefly with the Holy Modal Rounders in New York, and for a while, when he was working out of San Francisco, his shows would open at the Magic Theatre there and head up the coast shortly after to Storefront. The Burnside Street space was a step up from Russell, but it could still be sketchy. One afternoon, after I’d been sitting in on a rehearsal for a show starring the late, great Peter Fornara – it was Billy Bishop Goes to War, as I recall – I walked outside and straight into a brawl on the sidewalk. Two guys were going at it, with a crowd around them, urging them on. Then one pulled out a knife. I ducked back into the theater, grabbed the house telephone (this was before cell phones) and called 911. By the time I got back outside, both the crowd and the man with the knife were gone, and the other guy was lying on the sidewalk, bleeding from a wound in his thigh as the cops pulled up. Storefront came by its grit honestly.
A friend who saw Triangle’s The Babes Are Back sent me a note afterwards. It’s good to keep the cultural memory of Storefront alive, she wrote. But “it’s equally true that edgy, humorous, original theater ‘like they did in the old days’ is being created anew right now in other theaters — constantly at Action/Adventure, and frequently enough at Post5 (through Cassandra Boice’s Sound & Fury and clown shows).”
Fair enough. Except for Imago and some puppet or dance companies like Tears of Joy and BodyVox, I can’t think of anyone in town who’s doing the astonishing sort of visual theater that Storefront did under the influence of Young and Pander and others. And the stylish, often topical wit of the burlesques, which were closer in spirit to old Saturday Night Live and new The Daily Show than to standard American stage drama, is tough to find in town today. But that old rebellious Storefront spirit has atomized and spread all over town, mutating to fit the changing times. When Storefront finally gave up the ghost in 1991, I wrote that “in today’s theater there are no young radicals. It’s a dutiful, well-trained, may-I-have-a-job-please? generation.” I was wrong. Through exasperation or dismay or a temporary dip in the quality of shows or – who knows? – just a case of the snits, I failed to notice that it was only the tactics, not the core resolve, that had shifted. From Defunkt to Shaking the Tree to Vertigo to PETE and many others, little Storefronts are all over town now, rethinking theater and American culture in their own, contemporary ways. And in another quarter-century, someone will be carrying the torch for them.
In the meantime, all hail the good old days. In their messy, sprawling, abrasive, pretentious, gorgeous, inventive, utopian, flamboyant way, they really were.
Storefront Revue: The Babes Are Back continues through May 31 at Triangle Productions; ticket information is here. At 7 p.m. on Friday, May 22, a half-hour before curtain, Bob Hicks will lead an audience talk on Storefront and its history.