Whatcom Magazine

Mount Baker Theatre has big-city shows at Bellingham prices

Built in 1927, Mount Baker Theatre combines lovlingly preserved history with updated entertainment facilities.
Built in 1927, Mount Baker Theatre combines lovlingly preserved history with updated entertainment facilities. For The Bellingham Herald

Five hundred shows a year. More than 106,000 people a year in the audience. Nearly 250 volunteers putting in 12,000 hours. A thousand members, each contributing $50 to $10,000. Fifty programs for school kids.

But the Mount Baker Theatre numbers that matter most are these: See a show in Seattle for $150. See the same show in Bellingham for $79.

“Same performance, same actors, same set, same costumes,” says Brad Burdick, Mount Baker’s executive director.

The historic, 90-year-old entertainment venue is lucky to have Bellingham’s diverse audiences, and its location near Interstate 5. Both factors help Mount Baker book a variety of shows.

Throw in the theater’s growing reputation for treating performers well, and Bellingham wins big-time. B.B. King stood on stage and pronounced the theater “a gem.” Vocalist k.d. lang praised the venue. Steve Martin spread the word about his Mount Baker experience, prompting musician John Legend to seek a gig of his own here.

Anyone who hasn’t been to Mount Baker is missing out, Burdick says.

“This is one of the best historic theaters/performance centers in the country,” he says. “It makes Bellingham a unique place to live. We book different shows, to appeal to young, old, college-age. We book different genres: country, jazz, blues, dance, Broadway. There’s something for everyone.”

Evelyn Turner, president of Mount Baker’s volunteers, says people only need to look at the schedule, choose a show and give it a try.

“People think it’s just musicals,” she says, “but we have comedians, magic shows, all kinds of things.”

Mount Baker events fall into four categories:

▪ National touring artists;

▪ Community rentals, such as the Whatcom Symphony Orchestra, youth orchestras and local dance companies;

▪ MBT Rep, a regional company that produces shows for a set run, with “Forever Plaid” opening Oct. 2 in Mount Baker’s Walton Theatre;

▪ The Wade Bennett King Education Series, for area students, now entering its 20th year.

Think of Mount Baker Theatre as three venues next to each other: The 1,517-seat main theater, the smaller Walton Theatre with 160 to 200 seats, and the Encore Room (with kitchen) that fits 120 people standing and 100 seated. All of the spaces are available for rent, and the Encore Room can be free for nonprofit groups.

Mount Baker opened in 1927 as part of the Fox Theatre movie and vaudeville chain. The theaters were built in one of four styles —Chinese, Egyptian, art deco or Spanish galleon.

Mount Baker is Spanish galleon done with a loving touch. Craftsmen of the day, for example, used feathers to paint realistic-looking wood grain on the lobby’s plaster ceiling.

Refurbished true to style, the lobby still has its original furniture and fixtures. Fittingly, theater volunteers spend many hours learning Mount Baker’s history so they can give informative tours.

“The outside doesn’t do it justice,” Turner says. “Come in, even if just to take a free tour.”

Cheryl Stritzel McCarthy is a Bellingham writer.

Coming to Mount Baker Theater

▪ UB40, a British reggae/pop band: Oct. 2

▪ Carlos Núñez, Galician musician: Oct. 9

▪ Jake Shimabukuro, ukulele virtuoso: Oct. 24

▪ “42nd Street,” Tony Award-winning musical, Nov. 2

▪ David Sedaris, humorist and author, Nov. 14

▪ Stunt Dog Experience, family fun with performing canines, Nov. 21

▪ Melissa Etheridge, rock singer, songwriter and guitarist, Nov. 23

▪ LeAnn Rimes, Grammy-winning country and pop singer, Dec. 5

Members and volunteers

Mount Baker Theatre members are invited to pre-show receptions with performing artists in the intimate Walton Theatre before mainstage shows. At the initial $50 level, members receive one pre-show invitation; at higher levels, your reception table is reserved.

“Members love the pre-show events and forge friendships there,” says Kristin Costanza, Mount Baker’s associate director for events and stewardship. “It’s a place to be inspired, a place to be entertained.”

Members at any level get first crack at tickets.

Theater volunteers, combined, put in hours equal to six full-time staff positions, says volunteer president Evelyn Turner, who tried volunteering elsewhere before settling in at Mount Baker four years ago.

“There are plenty of opportunities,” she says. “Choose what you enjoy, play to your strengths.”

For details about membership and volunteering, go to mountbakertheatre.com or call 360-733-5793.