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One year since Greenwood devastated by arson

Saturday marks the one-year anniversary of the event that devastated Greenwood – the arson that destroyed the Eleanor Roosevelt Building on North 85th Street, housing the Green Bean Coffeehouse, C.C. Teriyaki, Pho Tic Tac and Szechuan Bistro. The Oct. 23, 2009, fire also severely damaged several other businesses, including the neighboring Taproot Theatre, which owned the ERB.
At the time, the arsonist had already struck the neighborhood several times and would set several more fires before being caught. Kevin Todd Swalwell eventually pled guilty and is now serving 30 years in prison.
It’s been a tough year for the neighborhood, as several nearby businesses have closed, perhaps due to the economy, or maybe due to losing foot traffic from the restaurants that were destroyed.
But, Taproot Theatre is celebrating the anniversary in an important way. After being forced to find a new stage for the last week of the play “Enchanted April” after the arson, and having to scrap plans for the premiere of its Christmas show “Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Christmas Carol,” this Saturday Taproot will stage closing night of this season’s final show, “Wedding Belles.”

Left to right: Taproot’s Director of Finance & Operations Rick Rodenbeck, Producing Artistic Director Scott Nolte, Director Karen Lund, and Director of Development Zach Brittle, on the set of “Wedding Belles.”  Brittle started working at Taproot just two days before the Oct. 23, 2009, arson; Rodenbeck had been hired but not yet started when the arson hit.
Producing Artistic Director Scott Nolte plans to address the audience before the show, acknowledging the incredibly difficult – yet ultimately uplifting – past year.
“It’s really been a terrific year in so many ways,” Nolte said earlier this week. The theater was lucky to have good insurance and was able to repair the theater in just three months, in time for the 2010 season opening on Jan. 29.
As with many tragedies, the Greenwood community, as well as the Seattle theater community, rallied around. The community set up a Greenwood Fire Relief Fund for the four businesses, “Enchanted April” finished its run last October with a spare set at Seattle Children’s Theatre, and Taproot staged two readings of “Sherlock Holmes” at Seattle Pacific University.
“Whatever you guys need, let us know,” was the theme of nearly every conversation Nolte and his staff had in the days and weeks after the arson. “So we really felt the love and support of so many people, some of them strangers,” Nolte said.
Subscriptions for Taproot’s 2010 season jumped by 10 percent, and the theater exceeded its attendance goals for January’s “The Great Divorce” by a whopping 30 percent.
“This could have been a make-or-break year,” Nolte said. “But it’s been a year of triumphs.”
Now that the theater is repaired and the 2010 season completed (except for “Sherlock Holmes,” which runs Nov. 19-Dec. 30), Taproot is earnestly working on the replacement for the Eleanor Roosevelt Building. Nolte said they’d like to expand Taproot’s tiny lobby, and would love to move their administrative offices from the corner of 85th and Greenwood into the theater building. But they also want some kind of restaurant or coffee shop there, to give theater patrons a dining option, and for parents waiting to pick up their children after acting classes.

Some of Taproot Theatre’s staff, left to right: Box Office Manager Sarah Madson, Director of Finance & Operations Rick Rodenbeck, Production Stage Manager Anne Hitt, Costume Shop Manager Sarah Burch Gordon, Communications Manager Daytona Strong, Development Associate and actress Anne Kennedy, Producing Artistic Director Scott Nolte, Director Karen Lund, and Director of Development Zach Brittle.
Two months after the arson, three local artists donated their talents to create the colorful Phoenix-rising-from-the-ashes mural that now stretches the length of what was the ERB. It was designed both as a safety measure to keep people away from the hole in the ground, and to beautify the space until a new building is built.

“That’s 89.3 feet of just blank space right now,” Nolte said. “While we’re really proud of the mural, it doesn’t really light up the night.”
So Taproot is working on what Nolte calls “a game changer approach.” The idea is a building that will be lit up day and night, seven days a week, to create vibrancy, not only for the theater, but for the community in general. He cites a dearth of businesses open and lit up at night from Aurora Avenue North to downtown Greenwood.
“You can drive nearly three-quarters of a mile and see just Jack in the Box and a gas station, and not see storefronts lit up at night. So literally from Aurora to Greenwood, there is nothing lit up, and then it’s very spotty from Greenwood to Third. That is not very lively,” Nolte said. “It doesn’t feel like we have a thriving business neighborhood…that is inviting or safe.”
So Taproot is talking to city and state cultural organizations about grants and other resources that will bring something beautiful and useful to the neighborhood.
“I tell them it’s about crime recovery, it’s about safe streets, it’s about economic development, and it’s about jobs,” Nolte said. “We need to reclaim this bit of real estate here and get it lit up.”