The City of Ashland, originally named Ashland Mills, was officially founded in 1855. Eighty years later, Oregon Shakespeare Festival founder Angus L. Bowmer directed the Festival’s first productions in the remnants of Ashland’s Chautauqua tabernacle. The approaching 80th anniversary of OSF in 2015 means that the City of Ashland has co-existed with the Festival for nearly as long as it ever lived without it.
At first glance, the small town of Ashland--remotely situated hundreds of miles in any direction from a major city--seems an unlikely candidate to host and support a Shakespearean theatre for decade upon decade. Indeed the success of OSF may never have been possible if the city had not, in several ways and at several crucial points in time, been ready and willing to help Angus Bowmer’s artistic vision take root and prosper.
Following the discovery of gold in nearby Table Rock City (now Jacksonville) in 1851, Ashland Mills was established to supply basic supplies and materials to gold seekers and travelers between Oregon and California. The town developed and flourished thanks to its natural resources and multiple mills along its creek. A well-traveled stage coach route through town was replaced by a railroad line connecting San Francisco and Portland in 1887, and a “golden spike” ceremony, marking the completion of the line, was celebrated in Ashland’s own Railroad District.
This new ease of accessibility sparked a period of rapid growth in Ashland, and a new identity as a destination for tourists—both as a spa-town boasting healthful Lithia waters, and as a stop on the Chautauqua circuit. Efforts to promote Ashland as a spa-town never resulted in the success imagined by local businessmen. However the nationwide Chautauqua movement, which brought culture and entertainment to rural areas of the country in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, had a large draw and a more lasting hold in Ashland.
The town’s first Chautauqua building — erected in 1893, mostly by townspeople — saw its first performance on July 5. In 1905 the building was enlarged to accomodate an audience of 1,500. Families traveled from all over Southern Oregon and Northern California to see such performers as John Phillip Sousa and William Jennings Bryan during the Ashland Chatauqua's 10-day seasons.
In 1917 a new building with a capacity of 5,000 and a stage that could hold 700 was erected in the place of the original. This structure had a cement wall foundation and featured 2 domed roofs. It fell into disuse, however, when the movement died out in the early 1920s. The domes were torn down in 1933 but the cement walls remained-- without anyone realizing that those walls would also be the foundation of what was to come next.
Enter Angus L. Bowmer, an enthusiastic young teacher who arrived in Ashland to teach English at Southern Oregon Normal School (now Southern Oregon University) in the midst of the Great Depression in 1931. After his initial disappointment in discovering that the Normal School lacked a proper drama program, Angus was struck by the resemblance of the Chautauqua walls to some sketches he had seen of Elizabethan theatres. He proposed producing a "festival" of two plays within the walls in conjunction with the City of Ashland's Fourth of July celebration. The City cautiously advanced Bowmer a sum "not to exceed $400" for the project. The City was able to use a state-supported crew (funded through the WPA) of largely unemployed Ashland men, to build a stage and an Elizabethan façade. Angus Bowmer sketched a rough plan for the construction manager.
Wary of the financial success these theatrical productions would have, the City requested that the new stage also be used for daytime boxing matches to increase the likelihood of covering their costs.
Angus agreed, assuring officials that these matches were just the sort of preshow entertainment Shakespeare’s audiences would have expected to see. In the end, despite a ticket price of only 50 cents for adults and 25 cents for children, the popularity of Bowmer’s productions allowed the Festival to cover its own expenses while absorbing the losses of the boxing matches.
And so, just as the cast flyer for these 1935 Festival productions prophetically announced them to be the “First Annual Shakespearean Festival,” OSF became an Ashland tradition—a tradition that hinged on a relationship of mutual benefit, commitment and support with its host city throughout the following 77 years. The Festival’s first “Year Round Publicity Plan” was created in 1938 by the public relations representative from the City of Ashland, Gordon Claycombe, as a joint initiative for both City and Festival. While national in scope, the proposal focused on the western states, with an eye towards the opportunity for widespread exposure that the 1939 World’s Fair in San Francisco would provide. Bowmer credited Claycombe’s marketing success as the reason OSF was able to resume and grow after closing for six years during WWII. Following the war, the Ashland Chamber of Commerce appealed to Bowmer to restart the Festival. He replied that it would only be possible if local demand existed saying, “…if the people of Ashland want to start it again, I am available for a price.” In response, Angus was paid for his work as Producing Director for the first time in 1947 with a sum of $1,000 from the Ashland Chamber of Commerce.
City and Festival continued on a steady path of economic growth as Ashland enjoyed a post-war boom as a lumber center, and the nationally acclaimed Festival saw increasingly larger audiences. As Ashland’s resource based economy began to decline in the 1960s, the Festival was taking steps towards building an indoor theatre in order to meet record-breaking ticket demand during its summer season. In cooperation with OSF, the city applied for a federal grant from Economic Development Administration for the expansion of the Festival which resulted in the building of the Angus Bowmer Theatre.
An extended Festival season in the fall and winter made possible by the completion of the indoor 600-seat theatre in 1970, managed to steadily reverse the declining local economy. Increased tourism transformed Ashland from a resource-based to a tourism-based economy and irrevocably changed the Festival, paving the way for previously impossible growth.
Cooperation between the City of Ashland and OSF allowed for the on-going physical expansion of the Festival as OSF remodeled and/or built new properties including administrative offices, classrooms, a scene shop, the Black Swan in 1977, the Allen Pavilion in 1991 and the Thomas Theatre (formerly New Theatre) in 2002.
A more recent reminder of the tightly knit connection between the two institutions was felt when the main support beam of the Angus Bowmer Theatre cracked on June 18, 2011, forcing the closure of the theatre while extensive repairs were made. City officials approved a temporary theatre seating 600 under a tent—called Bowmer in the Park—in Ashland’s Lithia Park. Exemplary leadership and collaboration on all sides quite literally spared OSF and the community from potentially devastating loss in the height of the summer season.
Throughout the inevitable growing pains inherent in nearly 80 years of side-by-side development, the City of Ashland and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival have maintained a healthy relationship of mutual support. The Chautauqua walls remain standing; covered with ivy, they surround the Allen Elizabethan Theatre (formerly Elizabethan Stage/Allen Pavilion) and serve as a reminder of the immense determination, commitment and innovation of all who have come before, making OSF and Ashland what they are today.
Ashland and the Festival. Osfashland.org. (n.d.). https://www.osfashland.org/en/company/our-history/ashland-festival.aspx