CLEARING OUT MY basement recently, I came upon a dog-eared, water-spotted fragment of Seattle history: a Claes Oldenburg poster announcing an event called Festival '72, to take place the fourth weekend of July at Seattle Center. The poster, a cheeky pencil-and-watercolor image of a gigantic faucet towering above the freeway and the west side of Capitol Hill pouring a thousand-foot cascade of blue-green water into Lake Union, turned out to be Seattle's first and last flirtation with high-art, local-culture symbolism. And try as I may, I can't recall a damn thing about "Festival '72" except that poster. And, well, a tap-dance performed on the back of a flatbed truck, by a Shirley Temple clone and a Swedish miner who never once rose from their knees.
Klondike! was Seattle's (and my) first exposure to the One Reel Vaudeville Show. From that small beginning, more than 28 years ago, the group now known simply as One Reel has grown into the single most significant force shaping Seattle culture today. Though probably not one in 100 people who attend its events—this weekend's 30th annual Bumbershoot, produced by One Reel for the last 20 years; Summer Nights at the Pier; Family Fourth Fireworks on Lake Union; WOMAD—could tell you its name.
Even more anonymous is Norman Langill, one of One Reel's founding members and still its undisputed leader after 28 years. But if it makes any sense at all to name a single person who has had the deepest influence on our city's aesthetic and sense of community over the last 30 years, Langill—not Gerard Schwarz, not Speight Jenkins, not even Kurt Cobain—is that person.
Langill (pronounced LAN-jill) does not look or act like someone responsible for the cultural well-being of our city and region. Notoriously casual in manner and appearance, he'd be perfectly cast in a sitcom as the hero's goofy slacker friend. Indeed, if his life had taken just a slightly different turn upon graduation from the UW's Professional Actor Training Program back in 1971, he might be playing just such a role. In his native Milwaukee he started acting when he was eight and worked in professional summer stock by 15. Becoming a producer was the last thing on his mind when he and some fellow UW graduates were asked to put together a summer outdoor attraction for the still-fledgling Empty Space Theater.
But when the Space canceled the project for lack of funding, Langill was unwilling to let it die. While helping write and rehearse Klondike! he was also scoring free plywood for the set, repairing the company truck, and persuading county fairs to book performances. He also persuaded one of the stars of Seattle's underground theater scene, Whiz Kidz costume designer Louise Lovely, to come aboard for the ride. (As Louise DiLenge, she's still aboard as One Reel's senior vice president.)
As a purely seasonal back-of-a-truck attraction, the One Reel Vaudeville Show lasted just three years. But the early 1970s were yeasty times in Seattle's off-center cultural scene. Langill and early associates like DiLenge, Alan Brandon, and Phil Shallat found themselves creating genre-bending events combining theater, music, dancing, food, drink, and audience participation—in part to pay the rent, but also out of sheer high spirits.
BY AND LARGE, THIS exuberant scene went unremarked upon in official cultural circles. The first established institution to take notice, in fact, was the Space Needle Corporation, which, 15 years after the world's fair, was having a tough time drawing guests. "The problem was that the Needle viewed itself as the Washington Monument, it was just dull," Langill said in a recent interview. "So when the publicity director asked us for ideas, we said, 'Let us turn it into a flying saucer.' We found all these old world's fair decorations in the basement, strings of lights, huge plastic balls, and strung them all over the Needle. We did it for about $1,500."
That, plus a One Reel show entitled Rocky Jones and the Space Polka Patrol, became the first of a series of "Sci-Fi Expos" that each drew upwards of 20,000 people to Seattle Center. One Reel's gift for creating special events for wide audiences began to attract attention from others. The first "Fat Tuesday" celebrations in Pioneer Square were booked and managed by Langill and One Reel. But it was the Seattle Center, like the Space Needle fighting to re-ignite public interest in the post-Fair blahs, that offered the group its big chance. The Center's annual Labor Day "arts festival" (known as "Bumbershoot" since 1973) was tanking, losing attendance and money; could the One Reelers come up with something to save it?
Coming from Milwaukee, Langill had a business model he thought might do the job. "Milwaukee had an event—still has—called Summerfest, a single-ticket multistage event. At the time entrance to Bumbershoot was free, with separate admissions to each event. We offered to take over if the city agreed to gate the event and sell general admission tickets. Well, the idea took a year to get through the City Council, but the first year it took off like a rocket."
So much like a rocket that it attracted the attention of other bookers, who managed to get the ear of a Center management commanded by city budgeteers to cut costs and raise revenues. Bumbershoot was still financed annually by a city loan to One Reel; if rain or poor attendance cut into the take, the city had to cover the loss. Then, in 1985, a local rock-concert promoter promised to pay the city $50,000 up front for the job. Understandably, Center director Ewen Dingwall awarded him the Bumbershoot contract. The plan might have succeeded had Dingwall cleared the move with Bumbershoot's citizen board or the council in advance. Instead, the action released a firestorm of protest, deftly encouraged by Langill & Co. In May, the council reversed him and handed Bumbershoot back to One Reel.
BY 1990, One Reel had achieved sufficient credibility and financial stability that it was able to contract to produce Bumbershoot with advance city financing or risk-sharing. The same year the group was entrusted with booking the performing-arts events for the Goodwill Games, entailing a trip to Moscow to work out a deal with the Bolshoi Ballet. On an earlier outing to Japan, Langill had brought back a contract to present the Grand Kabuki. (He also brought back his future wife, Jane Corddry, who had served as his interpreter.) One Reel was now running on more than one cylinder.
But it was still running very much to the rhythm of its founder. Executive VP Jane Zalutsky, who joined One Reel in 1984 as a sponsorship developer, was driven near the edge by Langill's apparent casualness. But once on the ground, she had nothing but praise. "Norm is unflappable. . . . He keeps going: Do this, do that, go meet those people, go to that meeting, see that show after. It's a mission. Norm believes that if you want to make a deal with a person you have to make it in person, right there, and not follow it up with endless phone calls."
Another aspect of the understated Langill style is tenacity. But something more than tenacity was required to produce One Reel's most idiosyncratic creation to date: the indescribable mixture of dinner, dinner theater, and circus called Teatro ZinZanni.
"Now this, this is completely typical of Norman," Zalutsky recalled fondly. "He came back from the 1992 Olympics where we had taken a show. I hadn't been able to go along, so I wanted to know everything: 'How was Barcelona? How were the opening ceremonies? How was the arts festival?' And all he wanted to talk about was some funky tent he'd seen one night on Las Ramblas. He kept calling it 'the nightclub of your dreams.'"
It took seven years for Langill to realize the nightclub of his dreams, but when Teatro ZinZanni opened here in late October 1998 (in a tent almost identical to the one seen at Las Ramblas) it proved to be the nightclub of Seattle's dreams as well, drawing over 70,000 people willing to spend upwards of $80 apiece.
Behind the scenes, though, there's also an idea that hasn't really changed much in the 28 years since Langill and his friends founded One Reel. Pasted to the window of Langill's office is a note, a thought-for-the-day worth mulling as you wander the Center grounds yourself this weekend: "A festival is a place that will allow people—for a short while at least—to sustain some illusion that they possess common ground."
Check out a timeline of One Reel