The D&R Theater: A First-Class Power House in Grays Harbor County
By Rocky “Rock Khan” Nelson
There’s a new shining star in the concert crown of Western Washington. One that combines the old school glamour of early 1900’s classic vaudeville venues with 21st century state of the art sound technology. It’s a venue hand-built by craftsmen who knew how to create spaces for community art and entertainment in an era before the advent of “talkies”. It has been majestically restored with loving care by tradesmen devoted to achieving that clear, clean sound so critical to professionals and listeners alike.
Named after founders and builders Dolan and Reynolds, The D&R Theater located at 205 South I Street in Aberdeen, is that shining star. Much consideration has been given to making the entertainment experience both positive and unforgettable. Acute attention to detail and a keen sense of historical conservation shows in the quality of the renovations.
Originally built in 1923, the theater reopened for business in 2009. The D&R Theater today is an intimate venue that offers class, comfort and an allure that is seldom part of a contemporary concert experience. The old pipe organ installed to add sound to silent movies and vaudeville acts is long gone, but the impressive neon marquee is a real work of art that would make the Las Vegas strip envious after dark. An attached coffee shop staffed by friendly baristas serves a bustling crowd and boasts a cozy fireplace to dry your bones while you sip a caffe breve. On the other side of the main entrance is “Scoops,” an ice cream and candy store that has everything for that sweet-tooth moment.
Inside, the concession stand offers up beer or wine for patrons enjoying this “old school” theatrical experience. Photojournalist, digital and film expert Darrell M. Westmoreland’s iconic images grace the front entrance. The roomy building is wheelchair accessible and capable of seating 1,200 comfortably including the mezzanine area. The movie theater style chairs are relaxing in a first class way. It’s cushy with a hip and casual ambience. Well-placed, high-quality monitors give an even surround-sound. Expertly lit, the 32 feet wide stage and 40 foot backdrop sits four feet above the floor and allows the audience an easy, eyes level view from all angles. The open space naturally oozes atmospherics.
Advertised as “up close and personal live entertainment where every seat in the house is a good seat,” the D&R Theater is a labor of love for owner John Yonich. I talked to him briefly while trying to get some information about this new great live music venue that I had heard so much about from a number of knowledgeable blues fans.
One fellow Washington Blues Society member from Vancouver, British Columbia, Suzanne Swanson, told me that she had a wonderful time enjoying the Ventures and didn’t mind the long drive down from Canada to get there. Suzanne’s a frequent contributor to the Bluesletter, and last month’s pictures of Guitar Shorty in action are, like the D & R Theater, first-class.
John was an engaging, civic-minded host who is proud to be able to help revitalize the Aberdeen area. I wondered what motivated him to create such a beautiful entertainment setting. The following is a short recap of part of our conversation at Backstage Espresso, which is located just off the lobby.
RN: “What’s your mission statement?” I asked John as I sat down with him to have a latte. He answered my question with a quote from one of my favorite blues movies.
JY: “We’re on a mission from God,” he said without hesitation.
RN: “Well, that was quite a Blues Brothers moment.” It begged the next question: “What do you think Aretha Franklin would have to say about that bold statement?”
JY: “I would hope she’d say R-E-S-P-E-C-T”!
RN: “Care to elaborate on that?”
JY: “Hopefully, someone like her would appreciate this venue, would come in here and see what a great venue this is. Everyone who has played here respects the quality of the acoustics. People really appreciate the venue, it’s ROCKIN! The Harlem Gospel Choir contacted us to find out what the venue is like. You know they’re not going to come to some sterile environment. They sent someone out here to check it out. They have to see the venue before they come into it. Once he saw the venue, that person had three words to say about it: “This is it!” You know what it’s like in this industry. If you play guitar and you played in here, you’d hear the acoustics and you would know it’s perfect. I don’t know the proper adjective but it’s a feeling. You know it when you hear it.”
RN: “How do folks know about your venue or your lineup of events?”
JY: “From our web site: www.DandRtheater.com . We’re updating it right now. We just got through our season for last year and we started out with the Beach Boys and ended up with Celtic Women and a lot of people in between.”
RN: “Sounds like your marketing for all intents and purposes is word-of-mouth.”
JY: “With social media these days it is a lot more word of mouth. We can put out a clip of our upcoming artists and people can hear what they are going to come to listen to. Nowadays people are starting to hear about us more and more. I do a little bit on the radio and I do a little bit of advertising on TV. You know it’s hard to advertise such high quality shows that we bring to the D&R Theater on a billboard! I do have an email list, more than 20,000 people that have been to our shows here. I send that information out to them.”
RN: “What Blues acts have you had since you opened your doors three years ago?”
J-Y: “It’s quite a list: Robert Cray, Jimmy Vaughn. Duff McKagan from Guns and Roses came in and did a half-blues show. Another guy, local talent Randy Hanson, played blues here. He’s coming back in February to play the Heart Tribute with the original Heart band members. Amy Grant, of all people, showed our audience that she can really sing the blues. In this local market you got to play a little of everything.”
My research showed that a number of national and local acts have played here. Blues Traveler, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Great White, Styx, Soul Asylum, REO Speedwagon, Tower of Power, Spike and the Impalers, The Ventures, Trace Adkins, Loretta Lynn, Travis Tritt, LeAnn Rimes, Clint Black, and Randy Travis.
RN: “Your venue here holds 1,200 patrons in comfort and class. Does this limit you in your search for that quality talent that you want to bring here?”
JY: “If you have the right act here people will come. We had Robert Cray play here twice and he just loves it. This year, we have a lineup from Willie Nelson to BB King. I want to bring national acts into this area. Like Steve Miller, John Mayall, Johnny Lang or Dr. John. They’ve made their money and want to have fun, too. They want to come to an area where they can relax and enjoy themselves and they also want to give back to the people that are there to listen to them. Those types of people don’t play much bigger venues anymore, they just don’t. You’re going to get a good quality act here. Our sales are much higher in beer and wine products with blues acts and blues seems to have a high-class crowd. One thing about the blues crowd and they are great crowd, is they don’t quibble over a dollar here or a dollar there on a ticket. It’s like a fraternity. Even though we do sell beer and wine, it’s an all-ages venue. When we did the Buddy Guy show there was a lot of kids that came to listen. Usually these artists are playing in a casino or a bar and kids don’t get a chance to see them. You can bring your 10 year old here. There’s no smoking. I want everybody to have a good time here. Have a few beverages have some fun, but if you want to get out of hand this is not the place to go. This is our house. That artist is also our guest, and if guests get out of hand, those guests will have to leave.”
RN: “Pretty sure Buddy Guy, being a fun loving guy that he is, would understand that!” (We both laughed). “What type of entertainment mix do you look for that maximizes your out of town draw? “
JY: “Rock, Country, Blues, Comedy, you name it. We have had the Moscow Ballet, and we’ve had the comedy of Bill Cosby to Gallagher. Bill Cosby was my most expensive ticket and I like to keep prices affordable. Gallagher was a riot! He hurt his back and we had to help him get into his “character.”
RN: “Well now, do you have a crash cart here on station for music emergencies?”
JY: (laughing) “Yeah, we took care of it! He’s a professional. His show was supposed to be an hour and a half. He did a three hour show! I didn’t know he was that good with standup. He said in the 1980s he was the highest-paid comedian in America. More than Sam Kennison. Gallagher is a real funny guy.”
RN: “What is your vision to support the community and support live arts and entertainment?”
JY: “Grays Harbor is trying to get an identity as a destination and a place to go. It’s near the beach, it’s in the country, and it’s not very far from the I-5 corridor. One hour forty five minutes from downtown Seattle. I should know, because I work in Bellevue. There is the jazz festival at Ocean Shores once a year, and there’s also the blues Festival in Westport. I would like to have a three day event that includes other venues around the Grays Harbor area.”
RN: What are your thoughts on this festival?”
JY: “Well there’s The D & R Theater, the Aberdeen High School, the Grays Harbor College has a great hall called the Bishop Center, Hoquiam has the 7th Street Theater built in 1926 by the same people, Dolan and Reynolds, who built this place, and there is the Ocean Shores Convention Center, too. If we get some great acts in here, like Bonnie Raitt whom I have been talking too about this, we could have a great weekend event with five shows going on all the time. I am talking to people about Presidents’ Day weekend which is February. I’ve been throwing this around for a while. There’s some tourism money for it. We could have a three day deal here and all the hotels from Aberdeen to Ocean Shores are pretty much empty then and we can get great rates. I’ve talked to agents of musicians and they could go to the beach, have a good time and that’s the key to that. You would be less than five minutes away from any venue. The main event could be on Sunday and end with a big jam. We could have a big deal. But we would need some real heavy hitters to come. BB King, Buddy Guy…people like that. We get them, and people know they will be around for a few days, and so will they.”
As our conversation came to an end, I thought about how this sounded like Beale Street on the Barbary Coast! Lumber, fisheries, and shipbuilding have fueled the local economy for much of the region’s history. So did the “art” of “Shanghai’ing” which was the dubious practice of conscripting men as sailors using rather coercive techniques. Music also is a natural here, too. Kurt Cobain of Nirvana grew up here, Dale Crover of the Melvins, Kurdt Vanderhoof, Kirkland Arrington and Duke Erickson all of Metal Church, and Patrick Simmons of the Doobie Brothers all grew up here as well. Then again, “No Name Jane,” an award-winning pornographic actress also hails from Aberdeen. This recalls the whole early history of the area and the human condition. By 1900, Aberdeen was considered one of the grittiest towns on the west coast with many saloons, whorehouses and gambling establishments in what locals simply call “the harbor.” Aberdeen was nicknamed "The Hellhole of the Pacific," or "The Port of Missing Men," because of its relatively high murder rate. Part of the first revival of Aberdeen began after the whole town burned to the ground in 1903 with the building of The D&R Theatre and the 7th Street Theater, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.
The current revival plans are equally centered on community. John Yonich and crew’s classy resurrection of the D&R Theater is a crowning example. John’s dreams of a community-wide festival is one more way to rebuild the harbor area and exorcise those demons from a town that came of age in a hardscrabble life of hard working, desperate individuals living through tough times. He has a very good start on it too. Scratch the surface patina of Aberdeen, and you’ll find real life underneath. It’s a community filled with honest, good hearted people like John willing to step up and support their community by hard work and dedication. With the recent closings of so many local manufacturing and timber industry job sources, the new D&R Theater is a major step forward in bringing life (through live entertainment) back to the Grays Harbor area.
Despite double digit unemployment rates, along with a rather colorful and troubled past, community-based efforts like The D & R Theater are sure to bring blues fans from throughout the Pacific Northwest (and Canada’s Lower Mainland) to Grays Harbor County.
The D&R Theater can be rented for a variety of community events or functions.
Special rates for non-profits are available. Please contact: http://dandrtheater.com/contact 360-532-9348
By, For, and About Musicians and Artists Since 2007