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Originally published Friday, April 5, 2013 at 10:00 AM

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Seattle's first rep theater drew crowds

Kurt E. Armbruster has a new book out, "Playing for Change: Burton and Florence James and the Seattle Repertory Playhouse."

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SEATTLE IS OFTEN admired for its live theaters and the many actors who walk their boards and perform for a city that is also known for its love of reading. Now one of our more prolific historians, Kurt Einar Armbruster, comes with "Playing for Change: Burton and Florence James and the Seattle Repertory Playhouse," and we expect that many of the Pacific Northwest's theater-loving literati will be drawn to it.

In his 1999 book "Orphan Road: The Railroad Comes to Seattle," Armbruster untangled the complex early history of Puget Sound's railroads. In 2011 he published "Before Seattle Rocked," an early history of Seattle's musical culture. And now comes his also dramatic history of our first "rep."

Pictured here are some of the cast of "Calico Cargo," local actor-playwright Albert Ottenheimer's musical telling of the story of the Mercer Girls, the New England women who followed Asa Mercer, the University of Washington's first president, to Seattle to teach and/or have their pick of lonely bachelors who eagerly awaited them on Yesler's Wharf.

"Calico Cargo" opened in September 1946 and played to great success, filling the 340-seat Repertory Playhouse at Northeast 41st Street and University Way Northeast for 15 weeks. George Frederick McKay, UW's admired composer, contributed.

Florence and Burton James started the Rep in 1928, opening a permanent location in 1930. In the more than 20 years of James direction it inspired imagination and reflection in its players and patrons. But Armbruster tells that story best in his radically affordable book. "Playing for Change" can be had for $13.99 at University Book Store, Elliott Bay Books and online.

Check out Paul Dorpat and Jean Sherrard's blog at

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