I got my first real newspaper job back in the 1980s on a weekly in Oak Harbor, Whidbey Island’s Navy town. I covered the school board, county government, the “cop shop,” and since I loved theater, I became the de facto dramatic critic for the Whidbey News-Times.
Having done some acting and attended Broadway plays, I was excited to see productions which included Neil Simon and musicals like Godspell. I wrote my first reviews with full recognition that this was a community playhouse, not professional theater. Yet everyone in town seemed to believe local productions equaled those of the Big Apple.
I was young and brash and such local boosterism rubbed me the wrong way. I decided to be brutally honest. I’d write exactly what I thought, as a critic should, I told myself, and damn the consequences.
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The next production was “The Sound of Music,” often called “The Sound of Money” because it reliably brings in audiences. A large crowd filled the theater on opening night, cheering on the cast, though much of it was uneven, amateurish. Afterward though, everyone proclaimed it fabulous.
The next day I wrote my review: “ ‘The Sound of Music’ is a heartwarming, uplifting story but it is too prettily sentimental to give us a real idea of what hope is about.” I praised the leading lady (part of a prominent local family) who played Maria Rainer for her appealing voice. But I panned the actor who played Captain Von Trapp: “Captain has a serious expression frozen on his face throughout the play. He moves so stiffly and talks so monotonously that R2-D2 … could play the role with more personality.”
Reaction was swift. Letters poured in, more than for any story in the newspaper’s history. Readers called me unprintable names. People stormed into the office and yelled that I didn’t know what the heck I was talking about.
The publisher, Wallie V. Funk Jr., went into full damage control. He was a big backer of the theater, and so I feared I would be fired. He took me into his office and sat down behind his desk. He told me he backed my right to say the things I did about the play but questioned my tact. He suggested I take a break from drama-critic duties and work on other stories.
I walked out of the office with a huge sense of relief. I wasn’t fired! I continued to work at the paper for two years, learning from Wallie to spell names correctly, get the facts right and write stories that illuminated all aspects of the life of the community. His interest in people and in telling their individual stories served as an example I learned from and sought to follow in my own work. Though I never wrote another play review, I continued to cover the theater, which, surprisingly, managed to pay off its mortgage after locals responded to my perceived attack by donating generously to its development fund.
The whole spectacle came back to me recently when I attended Wallie’s funeral. At a time when newspapers are under siege and fake news is on the rise, his belief in the critical role newspapers play in a community and democracy seems especially timely. Fittingly, his family suggested that in lieu of flowers well-wishers honor his memory by subscribing to a daily or weekly newspaper, an appropriate tribute to a remarkable man.