Cris Dillon can already hear the dance steps. Walking through the loft-like 1,800-square-foot second floor of the landmark 1902 Odd Fellows' Hall she's renovating in downtown Snoqualmie, the dancer-choreographer enthusiastically points out where the stage, seating, mirrors, and barre will go in her anticipated rehearsal/performance space. "I've got to have this building," she recalls saying to herself when it came on the market in 1995.
Now, after three years of considerable effort and expense, her plans have culminated in the hall's just-concluded inaugural production of Sam Shepard's A Lie of the Mind, and in the October 19 opening of Dillon's Snoqualmie Center of the Performing Arts. Surveying the dilapidated old building, located just off the sleepy downtown strip along Railroad Avenue, one has to wonder if Snoqualmie is ready for Dillon's grand cultural plans. We're 3,000 miles west of Lincoln Center, after all, in a mossy backwater whose residents would seem to be more familiar with buzz saws than Balanchine.
The enthusiastic 36-year-old Dillon hardly seems daunted as she describes the building's history and future. "I used to come here and drink," she recalls, noting how the local Eagles club—which bought out the Odd Fellows after WWII—formerly had a bar downstairs. But, she adds, "I never thought twice about the building until it was vacant." Yet this is where she has chosen to base her performing arts school and intends to stage more theatrical productions.
How did this California native come to be lifting brews with the Eagles in the riverside hamlet of Snoqualmie? After her family relocated to the Northwest, she graduated from Issaquah High School and Central Washington University, then found herself teaching dance in North Bend in 1985. In the same year, she and family members opened an upholstery, consignment, and antiques business in downtown Snoqualmie, and by 1990 she bought out a nearby gift shop. Rechristened Isadora's Antiques & Cafe (after Isadora Duncan), her establishment now caters to morning coffee regulars and weekend visitors who've made Snoqualmie a minor destination on the Northwest antiques circuit.
In the meantime, Dillon danced with Seattle companies led by Winnie Chapin Young and Erica Angelakos, and continued to teach dance. In 1996 she helped found the People's Theater group (with former members of the Village Theatre of Issaquah), which has since performed its small cabaret-style shows at Isadora's. Since that space only seats about 35, "we usually turn people away."
The Eagles' 1995 decision to sell their hall thus came at an opportune time for both Dillon and the budding Snoqualmie arts scene. Backed by a family partnership, she plunked down $120,000 to purchase the two-story building, outbidding the Puget Sound Historic Railway Association. "I go to a lot of auctions, so I don't like to lose," says Dillon. During the following year and a half she spent some $45,000 on much-needed improvements including a new roof and foundation. (Improvised labor has been essential to the no-frills project, Dillon explains: "I'm a big barterer.") Another $10,000 is presently budgeted to finish the job by the end of 1998, aided by a $5,000 King County Landmarks and Heritage Commission (KCLHC) grant for fire code measures.
Experienced in the landmarking and grant process from a home she owns in Carnation, Dillon says of the KCLHC, "They like to target buildings of historical significance to the area that are at risk," which the decrepit Odd Fellows' Hall certainly was. She recalls worrying her new structure looked like a "wreck," only to be reassured by a KCLHC representative, "Don't worry, they all look that way." With the structural work completed, Dillon explains, "Now we do interior work and the fire escape." She adds, "The upstairs interior is designated a landmark space as well, which is very unusual." The KCLHC allows for fire code improvements, she says, "but as far as decor goes, they want it restored as close to the 1902 original design as possible."
Dillon's prominent building has already helped stir some life into downtown Snoqualmie. Local residents are already quizzing Dillon about her plans. At Isadora's, she says, "People ask me all the time when I'm making coffee, 'So when is the dance studio opening up?'"
Dillon hopes to open her venue formally in January 1999, and to begin teaching and rehearsals after installing a fire escape this year. Noting the tremendous population growth on the outer Eastside (and the coming Snoqualmie Ridge development nearby), she believes that her planned Snoqualmie School of the Performing Arts can have a viable local base of students in dance, yoga, and drama. She also anticipates renting what will be the town's preeminent performance/rehearsal space to other arts groups. Music, gallery openings, antiques shows and even film screenings are among the other profitable uses Dillon optimistically foresees for her building. "The reality is that you've got to make money," she acknowledges. "Even though you're doing something great for the community, you've got to pay the bills and the actors."
That pragmatism may ultimately be Dillon's best tool in nurturing the performing arts in the yet-to-be-gentrified Snoqualmie Valley. Local residents "support the arts, but they don't want to drive into Seattle necessarily to see a show." But will they come to her performances, then perhaps show up later to take lessons in tap or jazz dance? "That is the big gamble," she admits, and gets back to work.