Actresses and Artifacts

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The Auditorium Theater in Spokane, 1899. Source: Ned M. Barnes Northwest Room.

Show Town by Holly George was a fascinating read about early Spokane. One of the most interesting stories told in Show Town is the public battle between actress Jessie Shirley and evangelist Billy Sunday in 1909. Shirley was an actress from the East that took up residence at the Auditorium for over four years. She became a darling of Spokane society, and the Spokanites “adopted her as one of their own.” (154) Billy Sunday came to town with the hope that “his plainspoken, slang-filled style would appeal to the masses of workingmen” that filtered in and out of Spokane. (154) During his stay in town, the newspapers devoted a lot of space to broadcasting his views. He asserted that all actresses were harlots and that theater had no place in a decent Spokane. Shirley fought back by penning an eloquent letter in defense of theater and her piety, then she got her letter published in the Chronicle. Many Spokanites ended up siding with Shirley, and the theater scene in Spokane lived to see another day. This story is interesting because it shows the struggle between old Victorian values and the new wave of “twentieth-century progress.” (155)

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A Spokane actress in a risqué costume during the 1920s. Source: Joel E. Ferris Archives.

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An actress posing on the Liberty Theater stage in 1920s Spokane. Source: Joel E. Ferris Archives.

Something that Show Town does well it using theater to delve into other avenues of life in Spokane during the turn of the century. This is especially true when it comes to gender relations and the changing role of women in society. The story of Shirley vs. Sunday already shows that the role of women was changing. An actress openly disagreed with a man of God, and she wasn’t chastised for it. She actually received “numerous notes and telephone calls, most of them approving her position.” (155) George also gives the background on some other main players in Spokane’s social scene like Helen Campbell and the Murphey sisters. This is important because it gives the reader background on the women in Spokane that were not actresses, but enjoyed attending the high class theaters.

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Helen Campbell in Europe, 1910. Source: Joel E. Ferris Archives

Something that is lacking in Show Town is a more detailed look at the common folk that went to vaudeville and other “lower” forms of theatre. In Show Town’s introduction, George acknowledged that most of her sources came from the perspective of middle class Spokanites. Although it may not be George’s fault that there isn’t much source information about this particular demographic, it is still a disappointment not to see more information about a group that was so large and influential in the theater scene. Knowing more about the people that funneled their money into theater and made it grow into a huge social force in Spokane would be interesting.

On a slightly unrelated note, the reading in Nearby History touched on what artifacts are to a local historian and why they are important. Artifacts, unlike pictures, are actual physical objects from the past. Photographs show us one moment in time, while artifacts can be a tool, furniture, or clothing that was possibly used on a daily basis. Artifacts help historians “understand how earlier generations solved daily problems.” (166) They are extremely useful to nearby historians because they help us “understand an earlier culture and the events that went into the making of it.” (166)

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2 comments

  1. lachku0130 · 7 Days Ago

    I definitely agree that Show Town could have done a lot better if it showed a wider perspective on who was attending the other kinds of theater. I also liked the specific stories you picked out, like the one with Shirley, I think that those are the ones that really capture what that section of the book was about and the story it was trying to convey. Great work! -Lauren K.

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  2. Josh V · 7 Days Ago

    I enjoyed the story about Jessie Shirley and Billy Sunday as well. We see little bits of drama in stories like that throughout the book that remind us of how personal the theater culture was back then. Some of these people were local celebrities and their conflict with each other helps demonstrate wider social issues, which Holly George points out throughout the book. The Hollywood actor and actress would be todays version of it, but film has such a wider audience that the actors seem larger than life at times.

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