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The keeper of Bremerton's theater

Bob Montgomery, 89, demonstrates the counterweight system backstage at the Bremerton Community Theater. Montgomery acquired the equipment from Seattle’s former Orpheum Theatre in 1967. - Lynsi Burton/staff photo
Bob Montgomery, 89, demonstrates the counterweight system backstage at the Bremerton Community Theater. Montgomery acquired the equipment from Seattle’s former Orpheum Theatre in 1967.
— image credit: Lynsi Burton/staff photo

Bob Montgomery joined the Bremerton Community Theatre “almost by accident.”

He was working in his typewriter shop on Sixth Street when a Buick dealer working across the street came in and asked him, “How would you like to be an actor?”

It was 10 days before opening night of Bremerton Community Theatre’s latest play and the group needed a replacement for an actor who quit the show. Montgomery, who had never acted before, agreed to play Senator Hedges in “Born Yesterday.”

And then he auditioned for the next show at the theater.

“In a moment of foolishness I volunteered for the next play,” he said. He was cast in “Two Blind Mice,” which opened in 1951.

So began a 50-year volunteer career of acting, directing and set designing for the Bremerton Community Theatre. He took the organization from the tiny 30-foot-by-40-foot theater on Broadway Avenue to its current location on 599 Levo Blvd., stocking the theater with its seats, rigging system and movie house organ he bought in Seattle decades ago. Now he ushers in a new era for the organization, which is building a new theater addition that Montgomery helped design and is set to open in May.

Montgomery, now 89, said his inexperience in theater never daunted him as he acted in his first shows.

“I just went out and did whatever I could do,” he said. “It didn’t seem that hard.”

Since his start in 1950, he has appeared in about 40 plays, in bit parts and leads, in shows such as “Comedy of Errors,” “Timid Mr. Jones” and “State of the Union.” He has also directed 31 shows, including “Death of a Salesman” and “Romeo and Juliet.” He is also the emeritus director and historian, keeping the scrapbooks filled with photos, playbills and news clippings.

“He is the community theater,” said Jerry Smith, who started acting in the Bremerton Community Theater in 1961 and has appeared in shows Montgomery directed.

Montgomery isn’t just known as a thespian, however. As the owner of Bremerton Office and Machine at 245 Fourth Street, his life is defined as much by typewriter repair as it is by community theater.

Originally from Tacoma, Montgomery went to high school at Broadway High School in Seattle. He worked as a typewriter and adding machine repairman as a teenager before getting drafted by the Army soon after the United States joined World War II. He fixed typewriters for eight months at Camp Beale, Calif. before seing sent to Utah for training. After that, he spent a few years fixing typewriters at the Allied Headquarters in London - a job Montgomery calls the “chairborne infantry - swivel chairs, that is.”

When he left the Army after the war, he and his father opened up a typewriter shop in downtown Bremerton, and though the business has since moved, Montgomery has kept a shop in the neighborhood ever since.

Theater has always co-mingled with Montgomery’s typewriter and copy machine business. Before he joined the theater, many of his customers were from the Bremerton Community Theater. In 1958, Montgomery co-wrote a play performed by the community theater, “The Machine,” about a typewriter that writes its own messages. Montgomery had rigged a 1926 Remington electric typewriter to type when he pushed a button off stage.

Today, his Fourth Street business is as much his community theater office as his retail and repair shop. Amid vintage typewriters, some more than 100 years old, models of stage sets he designed line shelves, including the design for the Robert B. Stewart Hall currently under construction. The $300,000 addition will be a “theater in the round”-style room, with the stage set in the middle of the audience. In another room are floor-to-ceiling bookshelves packed with play scripts and a complete record of Bremerton Community Theatre’s shows.

The group’s history is much of Montgomery’s making, those long involved in the theater say. They credit him for helping the group move from a tiny theater on Broadway Avenue - “It looked like a sharecropper’s cabin in Southern Mississippi,” he said - to the larger building on Lebo, a long-awaited move that finally happened in 1976 when the group was about 30 years old. Montgomery himself bought the seats and the fly system for the new theater, which came from Seattle’s old Music Box Theatre and Orpheum Theatre.

“Without Bob Montgomery’s expertise and work and endeavors and study, the building that’s down there now probably would not exist,” Smith said.

He also acquired the theater’s 1921 silent movie house organ, bought in Seattle and originally from Pasco, which has pipes three stories high and is occasionally used to accompany shows. Montgomery himself has never performed the organ for a performance, but is a self-taught organist.

“I’m a midnight player when no one else is around,” he said, tinkling the keys of the organ in the orchestra pit at the theater Monday.

Now, the Lebo Boulevard’s auditorium is the Robert Montgomery Auditorium, named for him about three years ago.

Montgomery is revered by those in the theater as a long-standing figure in a town that doesn’t see a lot of longterm residents, with the Navy often pulling away community actors seemingly as soon as they come to town.

But Montgomery has seen some of the best actors come from the Navy. During the 1952 run of “Arsenic and Old Lace,” the sailor playing Dr. Einstein was redeployed to California. Around the same time, a Navy commander called up the theater, saying he just got to town and wanted to join the theater. The director thought he would play maybe a bit part in the show, but found out he had 25 years of experience in community theater and cast him as Dr. Einstein. He was so good, he elicited applause every time he exited the stage, Montgomery said, just in his first days in Bremerton.

Montgomery also recalled two USS Missouri sailors decades ago who just missed acting together in the community theater, but met a few years ago as college drama instructors at a conference in New York City.

Montgomery has seen others grow up in the theater, sometimes acting there from 5 years old to 19. One of his favorite shows he directed, “Romeo and Juliet” in 2000, starred Caitlin Clouthier as Juliet, a former Olympic High School student who later earned a Master of Fine Arts degree from the Yale School of Drama.

Smith had just graduated high school in the early 1960s when he met Montgomery at the theater and said their stubbornness caused them to clash.

“We’ll stand there and argue and argue and argue and usually I lose,” said Smith, now 69. “I do it my way, he does it his way, and quite often his way will work out more effective than my way - not always.”

Jenny Sellar, president of the theater’s Board of Directors, said Montgomery was one of the first people she met when she joined the theater 25 years ago.

“I don’t know what we would do without him, I really don’t,” she said, noting his active role in every aspect of the theater, from his scrapbook keeping to his supervision of the new theater’s construction. “He’s always there, he’s willing to do whatever needs to be done.”

Montgomery’s involvement is mostly off stage these days - his most recent performance was about four years ago when he had two lines as a police detective in “Light Up the Sky.” During his brief appearance during one of the performances, he fell flat on the floor while trying to escort a character through a doorway, in front of a full house.

“I’m too old for these characters,” he said.

Smith, who is still involved in the theater a set designer and occasional actor, said Montgomery’s experience is something to learn from.

“It kinda pays to listen to him,” he said.

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