RIDGEFIELD, Wash. (KOIN) — Decades after its grand opening, the Old Liberty Theater found its groove.
The historic theater resides on tranquil North Main Street in Ridgefield. It has a welcoming appearance with a vertical neon sign and false-front architecture from another age when American show business was much younger. A cheery coffee shop complete with smiling baristas and cans of locally-roasted coffee beans greets those who enter through its front doors. Heavy red curtains on either side of the coffee bar hint at the building’s original purpose.
Enter through those curtains and discover a cavernous space waiting patiently for its next chance to make people smile.
Don Griswold and his family own the Old Liberty Theater. They bought it back in 1995 after renting it for two years and using it as a Muay Thai training facility. Muay Thai is a type of boxing developed in Thailand. But the Griswolds were certainly not the first to use the theater as something other than a theater.
Built in the mid-1940s, the theater — then known as just the Liberty Theater — was designed for the son of a local man named Red Hicks. Hicks, who was an original owner of The Reflector newspaper, wanted his son to have a place to live and work after he got out of World War II.
The young man made it through the war — only to die tragically in an airshow, Griswold explained.
“The son was killed three months before the grand opening,” he said. “The war was over but he was killed. He was their only child.”
Griswold said the Liberty Theater’s first movie played on April 25, 1946. But the building’s days as a movie theater were shortlived.
“TV came out big time and so it never really fully realized that dream,” Griswold said. “I think TV gave them a hard hit and I don’t know exactly when it closed down — it was dormant. Then another fella tried like in ’75 for a couple years to do a cinema.”
But nothing stuck.
In between owners, the Liberty Theater was rented out for various uses: art studio, bike shop, storage facility, etcetera. The lobby where the coffee shop is now located was sealed off from the back of the building.
By the time the Griswolds entered into the theater’s history, the building had been gutted and was being used for storage. It was a mess. But where many would have seen a ramshackle old place that had left its glory days far behind, the Griswolds saw potential.
“I just fell in love with the place,” Griswold said. “My wife and I had lived in Brookings and I would see these buildings with a storefront and what would be like a living space and I always thought — wouldn’t it be cool if you could find a space where you could live, work and create your own job and sustain a lifestyle that way.”
Not long after purchasing the building, Griswold found an online ad for some used theater seats. He bought them and ended the boxing ring.
It marked the start of a new chapter.
New start, ‘old’ name
Griswold decided to transform the theater into a literal stage where hard-working musicians and original artists could cut their teeth and get exposure.
“I had played music for years before that and played the Satyricon back in the early ’80s when it was an experimental place,” he said. “I always thought it’d be cool if there was a place where you could showcase original music, experimental music.”
He renamed the building the “Old Liberty Theater.”
“The ‘Old Liberty’ kind of reminds me of the old ways. Or the old etiquette. Or the old manners. And it seems like that’s a bit of a struggle these days,” he said.
Elbow grease and thriftiness helped him restore it back to its former glory.
“Most all of this stuff in here is recycled,” he said, pointing to the heavy red stage curtains and explaining how they came from a school that didn’t need them anymore.
The Griswolds opened a coffee business in 1998. It started with a cart on wheels that they’d roll onto the sidewalk.
“I would push the cart out in the morning and do it till about noon, then go to my job in Portland,” Griswold said. “We did that for a while and we eventually just gradually took over the storefront, made it a coffee shop, got the theater licensed; then the two became one.”
Today, the Griswolds work with a family in Yacolt — the Millars — to roast and sell their own wood-roasted coffee called Pull Caffe. They use a Probat roaster imported from Serbia built over a century ago. The cart they once used to sell coffee on the sidewalk is now part of the counter in the coffee shop where an Italian espresso machine — which they built by hand — sits. On show nights, the coffee bar transforms into a concession stand complete with beer and wine service.
Since the Griswolds became owners, the theater has been the location of dances, community Christmas bazaars, weddings, memorials and birthday parties. Every fourth Wednesday of the month, they show a documentary followed by a discussion and the audience gets a chance to talk to local filmmakers.
“It’s a venue with a menu,” Griswold quipped.
But the theater’s true calling is music.
“My original focus was to spotlight original music, original bands, ’cause that’s what I did when I was younger — experimental music, art. Just original stuff — which is hard because people don’t take chances to come see someone they haven’t heard, usually,” Griswold said.
The goal, he said, is to provide a space for motivated artists and producers to work their craft.
“One of my main priorities is I want the musicians and the artists to feel good,” said Griswold. “Like it could be their home — so we can keep working together and sustain it.”
He likened the theater’s purpose to Vaudeville and the opportunity it presented to hard-working performance artists. Speaking of which, Griswold said he’s working on starting a Vaudeville show at the Old Liberty Theater in the near future.
It’s all part of his pursuit of doing what he loves, helping artists do what they love and giving the community memorable experiences.
“The track record, I feel, for what we’ve done here on the shows — people leaving happy and having a good experience — it’s really a high percentage in my mind; it’s in the high 90s,” Griswold said.
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