One hundred people gathered at the Mallory Hotel on Tuesday, May 22, 1979, for the first Willie Awards, which were developed by Willamette Week to honor excellence in the Portland theater community. The first judging committee was made up of WW staffers Stephanie Oliver and Bob Sitton (the two responsible for creating the evening), along with Catherine Peters and Cheryl Rudert. The other two judges were theater patron Mildred Tuhy (who, sadly, died this year) and PSU theater professor Jack Featheringill.
The awards handed out that night went to artists who remain names to reckon with. The Best Actress Award went to Leigh Clark-Granville for her performance in the brilliant Ric Young production of Camille. The Best Supporting Actors were Wendy Westerwelle in Squirrels and Eric Overmyer in The Tooth of Crime. The year's best costumes were Margaret Chapman's for the Portland Civic Theater's production of Charley's Aunt, while the first Best Director Award went to Victoria Parker for When You Comin' Back, Red Ryder?
This coming Monday, and a mere stumble from the Mallory at the Crystal Ballroom, the Drammy Awards (as the Willies were rechristened in 1989) will be celebrating their 25th year of honoring the best of Portland's theatrical achievements. Chapman and Westerwelle are still producing work worth noting, while Overmyer has become a nationally acclaimed playwright. Featheringill will be handed a Lifetime Achievement Award from Parker, while two of the first evening's original nominees will walk away with awards (yours truly is privy to this information as the sole WW representative on the judging committee).
Much has happened in these intervening 25 years, and the Drammys have kept pace with the developments in stagecraft and theater art in Portland. But it hasn't always been easy. The award suffered a number of upheavals over the years, from an internecine squabble in the late '80s to a rough patch in the mid-'90s when the Drammy Awards were diminished by the same sophomoric and unprofessional behavior that infected most of the Portland theater community at that time.
The past few years have, however, seen a rise in the standard of work throughout the local theater world, and the Drammy committee has generally (well, we all have our nits to pick) honored the best of the lot. Since 1999, the committee has been awarding multiple awards for "outstanding achievement" rather than awarding singular "bests." This has not only leached out the clawing, Darwinian competitiveness that one finds elsewhere in these United States, it has also effectively put paid to the age-old quandary of how to choose between one actor's Lady Macbeth and another's Lady Bracknell. If both are outstanding, both deserve notice.
It will be interesting to see what the awards will look like in 2029. Until then, enjoy the show. Happy anniversary, Drammys.
The 25th Anniversary Drammy Awards Crystal Ballroom, 1332 W Burnside St., 225-0047. 6 pm social hour, 7 pm ceremony, Monday, June 14.