- About Us
Downtown revitalization encourages theater owner
“Guy goes into a bar,” is the opening line of many jokes.
But J.B. Douglas, co-owner and for 20 years operator of the Auburn Avenue Dinner Theater, never saw anything funny in “guy comes out of a bar.”
Not with his unique perspective on the boozy men who stumbled out of the watering holes of Tavern Row just to the west, liquored up to the point of madness and staggering his way. Or on the giant, booze-fueled brawls that broke out right in front of his shocked patrons.
One drunk went so far as to relieve himself on the front of the theater building in full view of theatergoers. When Douglas advised the man that police were on their way, the man smacked him in the face.
Other business owners in the blocks near the taverns, including Bruce Alverson at the Sun Break Cafe, recall with disgust picking up syringes, used condoms and other gross items left behind by the tavern crowd.
Douglas, who since 2007 has leased the theater to the City of Auburn and now lives in Lakewood, is delighted to see something positive, a new building rising on the site where the taverns once stood.
“It absolutely encourages me. I was afraid it would never happen. I am absolutely, 100 percent convinced that it needed to happen,” he said. “It was one of those rare circumstances where the city was going to have to step in and do something drastic. The city and its police department were always supportive and did everything they could within the law to improve the situation. But this was absolutely the only way for things to improve.”
Project in motion
What the City of Auburn did was buy two of the three taverns on the old block several years ago – developer Jeff Oliphant bought the other – and promptly close them. Today Oliphant is building a two-story office building on the site that will provide a City Hall Annex, a KeyBank Building Medical and office space.
Douglas said it’s easy to forget, but long before the construction of Emerald Downs, the Muckleshoot Casino and the White River Amphitheater, downtown Auburn had two things happening after dark: the dinner theater and the goings-on along Tavern Row.
Douglas said most of his patrons were not Auburn residents so they based their opinions of the city first on the theater and on what happened outside the bars at night.
“It was very difficult to get people to return to downtown Auburn if they were afraid,” Douglas said. “I didn’t blame them. If I was afraid, I wouldn’t want to take my wife and children to see a show. I certainly wouldn’t want to spend money.”
Douglas said he and his wife, Jillian, did everything they could to make the experience as pleasant as possible for theater patrons. But the PR was dreadful.
“Every time I would go outside the town – at least in those earlier days – someone would say ‘downtown Auburn’ and most of the time the response was either, ‘Oh, the dinner theater,’ or ‘Oh my goodness, that’s a dangerous place.’ It was a real challenge,” Douglas said.
“Unless you were a fan of liquor overservice, and violence and everything else who wanted to leave the town like it was, you knew it was going to take something extreme on the part of the city to improve that area,” Douglas said. “This is not an uncommon point of view of downtown merchants.
“We probably had one of the only businesses that was open late at night, so others may not have had a full, 100-percent view of the situation. But when you are trying to do a show like “My Fair Lady” and people want to bring their teenagers and step outside get a breath of fresh air at intermission, and an all-out brawl breaks out outside the bar consisting of 15 to 16 people screaming cussing and punching each other, I would say it’s not likely those people would return to that area, whether they liked my show or not.
“It was an issue that was struggled with and struggled with and didn’t get dealt with until recently,” he said. “Now I see a foundation on which something great can start.”