The Pacific Northwest Forum
Volume I, Number 1, Pages 21-23
A Patriotic Pattern
Friday Harbor, Washington, a busy little town that nestles snugly above the picturesque ferry dock on San Juan Island, may have the answer this year to a basic dream of every Bicentennial Committee in the country: a one-person historical pageant ready for presentation at a moment's notice.
In the romantic tradition of "the show must go on," and particularly pertinent to the current search for practical ways to preserve local American traditions, this do-it-yourself production might well astound Broadway with its inventiveness.
The show is billed simply as "San Juan Saga," by Emelia Louise Bave. It was written in 1959 for a live cast and was designed to commemorate the centennial of the "Pig War" incident involving an irate American potato grower who shot the British Hudson's Bay Company pig because it devoured his hard gotten crop. An international question came up as to whether the United States or Great Britain had a right to try the case. Eventually Kaiser Wilhelm I was called in to arbitrate the dispute, which had grown into a major boundary hassle and a near-shooting war.
So much of the natural and political history of this remote region were touched upon in the Centennial performance that Mrs. Bave was asked to stage it again. She tried in vain to round up local performers. Yet her persistent belief in the preservation of the past through drama kept her searching for a way.
One day she noticed a mainland department store was selling surplus window models. Here was her answer. She made a deal for some of their mannequins but was selective about their appearance and flexibility. Slowly she chose her cast. Finally after trucking her characters home aboard the ferry, she had to consider the problem of where to house them while preparing them for their footlight careers.
She and her husband, the equally talented Milton M. Bave, had previously purchased the old Odd Fellow Hall in Friday Harbor within walking distance from the boat docks and ferry. Here Emelia Bave's historical bit players were housed and have performed regularly now for over ten years.
This versatile author-producer-artist-actress greets her audiences at the door. In shirtwaist, flowing skirt and beplumed bonnet of the mid-19th century, she chats informally with visitors, preparing them for the sublime and ridiculous tale about the Island, a mini-spectacular that spans history from Genesis to the present.
San Juan Saga author-producer Emelia Bave (with placard) in Anti-Saloon Protest
But the surprise comes when she trots out her colorful cast - some 40 life-sized, prepossessing mannequins, who become bona fide characters, famous or infamous, of her homespun narrative.
When the floodlight first focuses on Scene One revealing Mrs. Bave's delicately painted murals of sea, sky and mountaintop islands, so like those which her audiences have just passed on the ferry, the spell is cast. An excellent running narrative on tape with good musical effects sets the mood.
The leading lady by now has forsaken her hostess role to fade into the darkened hall where she pushes Spanish Explorers, the Hudson's Bay Company characters, and American settlers (on well hidden wheel bases) into the spotlight, ably handled by her husband.
She steers her pretend-people through the building of homes and a government, and she presents the Kanaka sheep ranches, Indian tepees, at times taking on the vernacular of her characters in the narrative to contribute local color.
When stranded Fraser River gold seekers drink their disappointments away in the "Old Town Saloon," fraternizing with beautiful and brazen mannequin madam’s, who leads the protest march? You're right - the lively Emelia Bave, bearing a placard, marches down front and center to parade for the cause of the good mothers of the Island. She leads a band of indignant women (on a free wheeling platform) along the streets of San Juan town, one hundred years ahead of Women's Lib.
Local lawyers and politicos, fishermen and soldiers, all fit into the fast moving panorama with the breath of life given them by the agile little woman who literally totes the life-sized characters in and out of the limelight. She triumphs finally as she steers Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm I into his proper position of arbitrator (albeit he was some 6,000 miles away at the time). With due celebration American and British pioneers - now reasonably congenial - gratefully accept the peaceful end of their protracted Pig War and boundary jealousies.
United States-British Survey and
Cutting Crew Marking International
Boundary on 49th Parallel
"You can't forget these people and their spirit," the saga's author says as she adjusts a shawl, bonnet, or overall strap on some of her more recent additions to the saga collection. "The only way to make history meaningful today is to keep it before the community in the warm and living context that the theater provides."
Attention to detail in the makeup and costuming of her "lifeless" cast has been Mrs. Bave's forte in making use of this means of casting her extravaganza. Perfection of settings, excellence of taped commentary and her own vivacity in word and action give the production dignity and authenticity.
The San Juan Saga, now in its 11th summer season, is a "do-it-yourself' gem that could be well emulated by many towns and cities with proud heritages they would like to perpetuate, not only for the Bicentennial observation, but for years to come.Mary D. Sare