In the fall of 2001, Portland’s Musical Theatre Company (“MTC”) put on a production of the musical No, No Nanette, and apparently it’s been playing ever since. At least that’s what the sign outside the historic brick building of the former Eastside Performance Center indicates. It’s October 2014 now, and the sign is still advertising the show. Or a version of the show – either one of the “No’s” got left off or it fell off sometime in the last 13 years. Now the sign simply reads “No Nanette.”
The play opened on Broadway in 1925 and features blackmail, a millionaire Bible publisher, and, of course, Nanette herself, a fun-loving heiress who runs off to Atlantic City after telling everyone she’s visiting her grandmother in Trenton, New Jersey. The hit songs of the show were "I Want to Be Happy" and "Tea for Two."
I never went to see MTC’s production of Nanette, but I used to spend a lot of time in the Eastside Performance Center building, back when its basement was an indoor park. On rainy days, my toddler son and I would go down a long flight of stairs and into a gym that had been turned into a sort of kid heaven with baskets of blocks and puppets and games. It also had a climbing structure and a toy kitchen outfitted with all kinds of cooking utensils and pretend food, but my son’s favorite thing to do there was to drive around in an orange plastic car with a yellow roof.
With his hands holding the steering wheel, he would push his feet along the floor Flinstone-style to make the car move, and I wonder now if the look of concentration on his face meant he'd transported himself to a place where he was on the road, in charge of his destination, and happy. Whatever he was feeling, he never wanted to get out of the car when it was time to leave. Inevitably, we’d play out a little drama of our own that featured coaxing (mine) and tears (his). Sometimes, to take our minds off of this tragedy, I’d say, “Let’s count the stairs on our way out.” It seemed to help both of us to have something concrete to focus on beyond the sadness of parting with the wonders of the indoor park.
Before the building housed this basement play area or the theater company, it was Washington High School, which was decorated with columns and lions’ heads and terracotta trim. The school’s notable alumni include the world-famous chef James Beard; the civic leader and businessman Bill Naito; the former governor of Oregon Vic Atiyeh and the Nobel-prize-winning Linus Pauling.
My dad went to Washington High School too and graduated in 1949 at the age of 17. Even though I drive past there at least a few times every week, I can’t picture him there at all. When he was living, it never occurred to me to ask him about his life back then, and when he passed away in 1995, his stories from that time died too. If I could go back in time about 20 years, I’d ask him, Did you have a favorite book? Did you watch the clock during math? Who did you eat lunch with? What made you laugh?
A developer bought the old high school from the City of Portland last year, and soon the building will be open for business. Maybe the new tenants and patrons alike will hear the echo of a locker door slamming down the hall or the tire of a toy car rolling over the floor or a madcap heiress tapping and trilling across the stage that she wants to be happy but she won’t be happy till you’re happy too.