You aren't likely to see the next Barry Manilow or Bette Midler play there any time soon. It just isn't that type of bathhouse. It never was. Nor was it originally meant to be a theater. Yet the Bathhouse Theatre has been entertaining Seattle audiences for over 50 years now.
The Bathhouse was built in 1927 as a place for bathers to change before plunging into the adjacent Green Lake. In 1970, the city of Seattle converted it into a theater, which it operated for a decade, hiring local director Arne Zaslove as its artistic director in 1980. Imagine that: a parks department with a full-time theater director on staff. Great while it lasted. Two years later, the city slashed its arts budget, cutting loose Zaslove and his theater. So although he was no longer a parks employee, Zaslove stayed in the Bathhouse, opting to lease the space from the city until his company shuttered in 1999. At that point, the city sought out new long-term renters, settling on the previously homeless Seattle Public Theater in 2000. The Bathhouse has been their home ever since, but it nearly wasn't so.
"They almost folded within a few months," admitted Managing Director Keith Dahlgren, who joined Seattle Public Theater in 2006. "They didn't know how to run a building." Luckily, the company did not fold. They found a cash cow in their holiday show, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, which is now mounted annually at the Bathhouse. A steady stream of income is important when you have an 86-year-old building with a leaky roof that wasn't originally designed to be a performance space.
Dahlgren lobbied the city hard to get the heating and roof fixed, and finally last year they acquiesced. Of course, in a climate as rainy as Seattle's, roofs don't stay fixed for long. "One of my staff told me that the roof was leaking again the other day," Dahlgren said as he stood on the stage of the Bathhouse. "So I'm here waiting for the contractor to come out and take a look at it."
The stage is quite small — you might say "intimate" if you were a New York City real estate broker. The playing space is 28 feet wide and 25 feet deep, with 19 feet from the floor to the lighting grid. Of course, such intimacy does have its advantages. Seattle Public Theater crammed ten large men on stage for their 2009 production of Of Mice and Men, allowing these depression-era migrant field hands to get up close and personal with the audience. "The audience was cringing when Lennie beat up Curly," Dahlgren gleefully remembered. "It was great."
Of course, there are also drawbacks. The Bathhouse is still owned by the Parks Department, with changing rooms and lifeguard stations along the back of the building. In the summertime, the area is flooded by bathers and joggers and cyclists. An artificial beach occupies the space between the building and the water. And like any proper beach, it becomes a hangout for rowdy teenagers on long summer nights, a fact that Dahlgren finds irksome. "It's like a high school back there," he said. "I'm always calling the graffiti patrol."
Unfortunately, the massive amount of foot traffic in Green Lake Park, the busiest in Washington State, doesn't necessarily translate into ticket sales. "Attracting the attention of people in the park is like handing out flyers in Times Square," Dahlgren said. "Ninety-nine percent of people at the park really don't care."
The shared aspect of the theater and the limitation of the space never bothered Arne Zaslove, however. "I poked a hole in the back wall from the lifeguard station behind the building to create a center entrance," he said. "The space never stopped me from creating the play I wanted to make." Zaslove made some of his best work in the Bathhouse, from his updated productions of Shakespeare to his perennial hit The Big Broadcast, about the golden age of radio.
Naturally, Zaslove wanted to share his plays with an audience wider than the 165 seats of the Bathhouse could entertain. "I just got stuck there!" he said. "I wanted to get out, but we didn't have the money for a larger space." By the '90s, the size was no longer the problem. Zaslove was entirely focused on saving the space he had.
"The real story here is the death of the mid-sized theater in Seattle," argued Zaslove, who has published his thoughts on the subject in Crosscut.com. "Ten companies have closed in the last two decades. We were the second."
Zaslove largely blames an unscrupulous general manager for the demise of his company and its glorious reign in the Bathhouse. "He was a liar and a scoundrel," Zaslove recalled. "A guy in a trench coat showed up at the door from the IRS. We owed one hundred thousand dollars in back taxes. We couldn't raise it." The general manager disappeared shortly after and Zaslove's Bathhouse was forced to close its doors in 1999. Zaslove nearly lost his house when the company folded. He had put it up as collateral for a loan to save the theater. Luckily, he was able to keep it. He still lives there today.
Now Zaslove is returning to his old stomping grounds, renting the Bathhouse from Seattle Public Theater for a new play, The Realm of Whispering Ghosts, about a hypothetical meeting between Albert Einstein and Harry Truman. He's thrilled to be back. "It's like putting on an old shoe!" he said. "I'd kick the ass of that general manager if I ever saw him again. But it feels comfortable to be home."