Driftwood Players

"An Evening with Sam Benn" Sept. - Oct. 2004

By John Hughes, Directed by Tobi Ingram

Ernie Ingram's portrayal of Sam Benn


The Set for 'An Evening with Sam Benn'

From The Daily World Wednesday, September 22, 2004

'An Evening with Sam Benn' is an evening with Harbor history

By Paula Horton
Daily World Writer

    'An Evening with Sam Benn' is a great way to learn about Aberdeen's rambunctious history, veteran little theater actor Ernie Ingram says.

    "I think it's absolutely fascinating," Ingram says. "I've probably learned more about the history of Aberdeen, by doing this, than from any other source in a lifetime on the Harbor."

    Ingram, 78, reprises his award-winning role as 'the father of Aberdeen' in The Driftwood Players' production, which opened Sept. 18 at the Driftwood Playhouse, off Broadway in Aberdeen.

    The show continues with seven more performances at 8:15 p.m. on Sept. 24-25, Oct. 1-2 and Oct. 8-9. A 2:15 p.m. matinee is scheduled on Oct. 10.

    Tickets are $10 and available at City Drug, Top Foods, Captain's Cove, Harbor Drug and Valu-Drug, as well as at Our Place in Ocean Shores.



    Originally presented in 1988 as part of Aberdeen's 100th anniversary celebration, the script by John Hughes focuses on Sam Benn's 100th birthday on July 2, 1932.

    As the enterprising Irishman who transformed Aberdeen from a cow pasture and salmonberry swamps to a legendary timber town and world-class port, Ingram holds forth in Sam's parlor for two hours. Sam recollects stories about the infamous serial killer Billy Gohl; Aberdeen's 'Black Friday' fire of 1903; how Think-of-Me Hill got its name and takes the audience back to Big Fred Hewett's famous Humboldt Saloon, which was located at Heron and F, about where Les Schwab tires is today.

    Tobi Ingram, another Driftwood veteran, is the director and the stage set by Ernie Ingram, with assistance from Ed Jahn on the Victorian arch, is impressive.

    Hughes, who grew up in Aberdeen, started working at The Aberdeen Daily World as a paperboy in 1953. He became a copy boy and, after college and military service, a reporter. He helped the late Ed Van Syckle research two definitive books on Harbor history, co-edited the book 'On the Harbor: From Black Friday to Nirvana' and is now the newspaper's editor and publisher.

    'Sam Benn' was inspired by Hal Holbrook's 'An Evening with Mark Twain.' Hughes has dedicated the script to Van Syckle and five other Northwest historians: radio pioneer Ben K. Weatherwax (KBKW is derived from his initials); Stewart Holbrook, 'the logger's Boswell'; Murray Morgan, author of 'Skid Road' and countless other Northwest histories; Anne Cotton, a tireless reference librarian, and Bill Jones, an award-winning photo historian.

    Cotton, a Stanford graduate who worked at the Aberdeen Library in the 1960s, uncovered local history material "no one knew about or had completely forgotten," Hughes says. She was one of my all-time favorite people.

    The newspaper was right across the street, and in 1967 when Anne was working on a historical timeline for the Regional Planning Commission, she would call me several times a week with snippets of fascinating stuff, like hilarious poems by Charley Gant, a turn-of-the-century newsman, and notes from Ben Weatherwax's 'Hometown Scrapbook' radio show. I'd run over there and bring stuff back and show it to Van Syckle, who was just amazed at what she'd found and he'd been digging into Harbor history for half a century. He'd seen Billy Gohl, interviewed survivors of 'Black Friday' and been to Hawaii and back with Capt. Peasley on the five-masted lumber schooner Vigilant.

    Anne's material added immeasurably to Ed's books, and really got me interested in Sam Benn. She gave me a trove of Sam stuff, including an interview in the 1920s that featured his signature line, "What's doin' downtown?" I almost named the play that.

    Hughes adds, When I was hanging around the newsroom as a teenager I used to love to listen to Van Syckle's stories about his days covering the waterfront and his friendship with Stew Holbrook, whose stories about the rip-snortin' timber town days were printed nationally. In college, I was fortunate enough to take a Washington state history class from Murray Morgan, who had been a reporter at The Washingtonian in Hoquiam before World War II. We became good friends. Murray wrote a great novel about the unsolved 1940 Laura Law murder case that has fascinated me since childhood. Meantime, the Jones History Collection is invaluable. It's the only way to really get right 'inside' the Humboldt Saloon.

    "In writing a script about 'Sam Benn' I owe a huge debt to these people who first told the stories," Hughes says. "But it's Ernie who brings Sam back to life to tell the stories and make it all seem like only yesterday. He could have had a highly successful career as a professional actor. All that memorization he's done just blows my mind."

    Sold-out shows

    Ingram says he remembers that every performance was sold out when the one-man show was first performed in 1988.

    "I was amazed at the phenomenal response from the people in our community to learn about the history of Aberdeen," he says. "I think everyone wanted to know more."

    The veteran attorney said even he was fascinated to learn about the history of the town he was born and raised in.

    "I like the part about the (Black Friday) fire. It was the first time I really understood how it happened and how devastating it was," he says.

    Learning about Billy Gohl was also enlightening because everyone only referred to him as that terrible Bill Gohl.

    "If you have any interest in Aberdeen's history, I think this is a marvelous opportunity," he says. "John is such a clever writer."

    Sixteen years later, Ingram says he's excited to bring Sam back to life again.

    "It's an intriguing experience doing a one-person show, but it's also terrifying," he says. "It's taken me a little longer this time to memorize it. It took seven or eight weeks last time. This time I've been working on it since early May.

    "It's a one-man show and you'd think young kids would get bored to death, but they don't. They're fascinated," Ingram says. "It's a great way to find out about the history of our town."

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