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Offbeat Oregon History: Album cover art

Ashland's Shakespeare festival won title match with boxing event

The festival's 1935 debut went head to head with a festival of fistfights, and to the astonishment of many city leaders, the Shakespeare plays kayoed the boxing in the first round.

By Finn J.D. John — July 8, 2009

For some time now, the 2009 season of Shakespeare plays has been under way in Ashland, home of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Virtually every Oregonian knows about the Ashland festival. But did you know that the first Shakespeare plays, held in 1935, went toe-to-toe with a couple boxing matches in a fight for the audience's attention — and won?

Here's the story:

In 1935, a professor named Angus Bowmer at Southern Oregon Normal School (now Southern Oregon University) noticed that the hulk of an old Chautauqua building looked a bit like a sketch he'd seen of an old Elizabethan theater.

So he floated this crazy idea: Let's fix it up and celebrate the Fourth of July with a couple of Shakespeare plays there!

Great idea, the townspeople said, but there's a depression on and we're pretty sure it will lose money hand over fist.

In the end, a compromise was reached: The Shakespeare plays would be held, but so would a couple of boxing matches. The idea was that the expected profit from the fights would cover the expected losses from the plays.

To everyone's astonishment, the exact opposite happened. The boxing matches were money-losers, but that turned out to be OK because the plays were a big hit.

It was such a big hit that they did it again in 1936, without the boxing, and in '37 had incorporated the Oregon Shakespeare Festival as an independent nonprofit entity.

In 1939, the place hit the big time when the company staged a performance at the Golden Gate Festival in San Francisco, which was broadcast all over the place on the radio. By 1958, they had performed every play Shakespeare wrote and, by 1963, attendance was more than 50,000 — not bad for a town still quite tiny at the time.

Today, attendance is more than 400,000. The festival has an annual budget of more than $26 million. Almost 800 performances are on the schedule for this year's season, which basically runs from spring through fall each year now.

Along the way, the festival expanded with a satellite theater company in Portland, which became an independent entity called Portland Center Stage several years ago. In 2001, the 10 millionth audience member attended a performance.

As for the boxing matches, well, after 1935 those became history. But for hard-core Shakespeare fans, they wouldn't seem too out of place. After all, when Shakespeare's plays were staged in the 1600s, they shared billing with such "blood sports" as bear baiting (a fight between a bear on a rope and a pack of dogs) and chicken fights.

In retrospect, compared to the real thing, Oregon's stillborn "boxing festival" wouldn't be too out of place.

(Sources: Gulick, Bill. Roadside History of Oregon. Missoula: Mountain Press, 1991; www.osfashland.org)

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