The lusty son of Robin Hood played by Cornel Wilde in “The Bandit of Sherwood Forest” swooped in to vanquish forces of evil on April 25, 1946, the day the Old Liberty Theater opened in Ridgefield. Now more than 70 years later, the Old Liberty Theater is going strong and considered a community gem.
“What a jewel this theater is to Ridgefield,” says Ridgefield resident Karin Chase. “I have been attending Old Liberty Theater for over five years and truly love this theater. Old Liberty Theater supports the local arts movement in Ridgefield and brings musical and other acts from Oregon and all over Washington State.”
Old Liberty Theater wasn’t always the intimate listening room and concert venue it is today. According to records from the Clark County Historical Museum, the theater was built and operated by James R. “Red” and Sue Hicks in 1946. The dynamic duo had decided to build it as a tribute and home coming present to their son, a returning war veteran. The Hickses also purchased The Ridgefield Reflector (now Battle Ground) in May 1924. Red published the paper for 22 years taking only one 11-day vacation. The newspaper was located across the street from the theater where the Hickses lived and rented out an apartment in the downstairs.
“The Hickses wanted their son, Frank, to live in and operate the theater,” says Don Griswold, who bought the Old Liberty Theater in 1995 with his wife, Earleen. “But he was killed in a post-World War II plane crash.”
The Old Liberty Theater building was instead dedicated to the memory of Frank Hicks with a plaque. Frank Hicks had seen the theater construction nearly completed about three months prior to his plane crash. According to a 1946 Ridgefield Reflector story published in a “Special Theatre Supplement” on opening day, the estimated cost to build the theater was $35,000 with a seat capacity of nearly 400. The article explains the Old Liberty Theater finished off “present development as a sort of climax” with the other new stores added in the business district, which were thought to add “shopping completeness” to the community.
The Old Liberty Theater was built to bring entertainment to Ridgefield, according to a 2009 issue of The Reflector Centennial Souvenir. The hope was to draw people from the great agricultural area of Clark and Cowlitz Counties nightly. The article’s tribute to Red and Sue Hicks explains that their granddaughter, Marilynn White of Vancouver, said the theater was rendered a poor investment because television arrived about the same time as the theater.
As a result, Old Liberty Theater’s early movie-screening era lasted only until 1951 or 1952. At that time, the Hickses sold the property, and the building was repurposed. Records from the museum explain the seats in the theater were removed from the 3,000-square-foot building. A silkscreen business occupied the space for a short time and a yarn shop was there for many years. In 1972, the theater was briefly used once again as a theater, says Griswold, before becoming a bike shop, a storage place by previous owners, and then a vacant shell “left for dead.”
The theater was in great disarray with signs of neglect when Don and Earleen Griswold discovered it in 1993. Initially, Don and a buddy of his rented the abandoned theater with the intention to run a Muay Thai boxing training center. A skilled Martial Artist, Muay Thai boxing seemed a great fit for Don until 1995 when things changed.
“I looked at the space differently than my friend (and Muay Thai partner),” says Griswold, also a musician. “It had a living space in it. It’s like a ship.” Griswold saw the potential of restoring the theater into a concert venue for local and regional bands. “I wanted to offer a concert setting rather than a club setting,” he explains. “I could see the value of creating a place to live and work and have a sustainable life.”
Bringing the Old Liberty Theater Back to Life
It was no easy task for the Griswold’s to update the building after purchasing the theater in 1995. As new owners, both Don and Earleen worked tirelessly to restore the Old Liberty Theater toan intimate performing arts venue dedicated to providing top-quality live performances and enable live arts. Musicians from around the globe with worldwide recognition have graced the stage. The theater has also provided a space for new and rising artists to emerge. Patrons can enjoy Meaningful Movies, host public or private events from plays and live performances to record releases, dance, parties, and much more. Old Liberty Theater also has a coffee shop open during the day.
“My personal favorite is Tony Starlight and Irish Clogging, but the Old Liberty Theater covers all genres of music and tries to attract all music lovers,” says Chase, who lives walking distance from the theater. “I hope it has sparked a movement to keep these small theaters in towns to preserve the heritage of these theaters and what they provide to their community.”
Old Liberty Theater
115 North Main Avenue, Ridgefield