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Beaverton History Center sets stage for tale of famed BHS director

James N. Erickson will be honored with a special event, exhibit on Saturday


by: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Michael Shafer-Montgomery, chairman of the James N. Erickson Legacy Project, displays the quilt featuring all of Erickson's shows from 1971 to 1995. The quilt was made by mothers and cast members. Michael Shafer-Montgomery wants to ensure that no one ever forgets the efforts of one of Beaverton High School’s most prolific and beloved directors — James N. Erickson.

With that in mind, Shafer-Montgomery, chairman of the James N. Erickson Legacy Project and a 1988 alumnus of Beaverton High School, has put together a tribute to his late mentor at the Beaverton Historical Society and History Center.

A kickoff event that features photos, news clips, scrapbooks, posters, programs, iconic costumes, guest speakers and testimonials is set for Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. A static display at the center will remain in place until Aug. 28.by: SUBMITTED PHOTO - The famed director (circa 1986) is remembered as both a father figure and someone who could take an actor and know exactly the part that was best suited to him or her, according to Michael Shafer-Montgomery.

Although Erickson died in 2004, the renowned director put together a body of work that spanned 54 years, putting on more than 310 productions during his expansive tenure as an Oregon director.

“He was like a father figure to everyone,” Shafer-Montgomery said of Erickson, who was involved with the design, direction and choreography of BHS performances from 1971 to 1995. All across the country, “people would come to see a Jim Erickson show at Beaverton High School.”

The display pays tribute to Erickson while also touching on the legacy of Carol Coburn, the highly regarded drama teacher who led Aloha High School’s drama department for 23 years.

The timing of the event coincides too with the 35th anniversary of the disastrous March 19, 1979, fire that destroyed the Beaverton High School auditorium. In commemoration of that event, one of the speakers at Saturday’s opening will be Terry Bowman, the firefighter who was seriously injured during the blaze. Bowman is expected to bring along the melted and warped helmet he wore that day.

The fire destroyed the set of “Oklahoma,” the annual spring musical the students were working on at the time. As a result, Coburn offered the Aloha High School stage for a co-production of the performance even though her students had just finished a production of “South Pacific,” said Shafer-Montgomery.

Coburn and Erickson would go on to collaborate on numerous theatrical projects over the course of more than 20 years, including a co-production of “Pippin” in 1982, a performance they later took on the road to Muncie, Indiana, for the annual International Thespian Society Conference.

It’s a wrap

The exhibit also features Erickson’s legacy quilt, an elaborate piece of craftsmanship, which was created in the 1990s by mothers of cast members. It showcases quilted representations of all of the director’s productions from 1971 to 1995 and was a present that astounded Erickson.

“He was just in shock,” recalled Shafer-Montgomery. “He said, ‘I would stay another 25 years if I can get another quilt.’”

Shafer-Montgomery, who today works as a journalist, would go on to appear as part of the backstage crew for “Cabaret” in 1986 and was acting onstage in BHS’s 1988 production of “42nd Street,” said Erickson was more than simply a director.

“Erickson saved many (from) dropping out of school because of the requirements needed to stay in the production,” said Shafer-Montgomery. “The musical gave students 18 weeks of elective credit and made sure students who needed that credit graduated.”by: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - This sketch of BHS director James Erickson was made by Christian Bergmans, a student in Erickson's class. If you look at it closely, the faces of students are reflected in the beard.

And throughout his career, Erickson never failed to surprise those around him.

An example of that was the extravaganza musical “Grease,” where Erickson had much of the stage filled with a giant turntable, which was set inside a jukebox with an orchestra on top.

“So (when) the orchestra was playing, they would be turning,” said Shafer-Montgomery. “They actually brought a real car on stage too.”

Erickson had a knack for casting actors in roles where they would shine, Shafer-Montgomery said.

“He saw what people were capable of doing,” he said. “(For ‘Cabaret’) he took an entire rehearsal to show the lead actors how to use a feathered boa.”

Erickson’s talents were such, said Shafer-Montgomery, that students were told more than once that their performances were better than many Broadway shows.

What the theater department would use to fund the elaborate musicals was money that came from “Breakfast with Santa,” the annual Meier and Frank show Erickson helped create and was involved with for more than 40 years. Erickson enlisted Beaverton High School students to portray numerous characters — everyone from Jack Frost to Alice in Wonderland — in the breakfast event that began in 1971.

Shafer-Montgomery said BHS performed “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical that opened on Broadway in the early 1980s, making enough money to cover the debt from 1982.

In 1997-98, a German exchange student at Beaverton High asked Erickson and Aloha High’s Coburn to stage “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” in his native country. Both agreed, but Coburn died in November 1998. Even so, Beaverton and Aloha high school theater students raised funds to make that production a reality. Shafer-Montgomery said Erickson made the trip out, along with Bob Nelson, his longtime technical director. The German kids were immensely appreciative, and Erickson enjoyed the production as well, said Shafer-Montgomery.

“(Erickson) thought it was one of the biggest and best things he had ever done,” said Shafer-Montgomery.

‘Second to none’

Since Erickson’s death, three documentaries about his life have been made.

“It’s incredible to see him in action,” Shafer-Montgomery pointed out.

Shafer-Montgomery said Erickson had several philosophies, not the least being that Beaverton High “didn’t do high school productions — we did productions with high school students.”

“He would never do Shakespeare,” said Shafer-Montgomery. “He said Shakespeare really isn’t commercial enough. He said people wouldn’t want to pay that much money to see Shakespeare. People wanted to be entertained.”

Not that he was arrogant about it, said Shafer-Montgomery, pointing out that drama students did perform “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and other Shakespeare classics in class.

Erickson retired from Beaverton High School in the fall of 1995 but continued directing productions with Lake Oswego’s Lakewood Theater.

Erickson’s tutelage produced several Beaverton High School theater greats, said Shafer-Montgomery, including Shoshana Bean, who went on to star in the Broadway production of “Wicked;” Brooks Ashmankas, a Tony Award nominee most recently featured in Woody Allen’s “Bullets Over Broadway;” and Angus MacLane, a Pixar animator and director.

Erickson’s son, Tim, said he’s honored that someone is commemorating his father’s legacy, saying a James Erickson production was nothing short of phenomenal.

“All his shows were second to none,” said Tim Erickson, a Beaverton resident.

By the time stomach cancer claimed James Erickson at the age of 67, he had staged performances on three continents.

Ten days before his death, Erickson attended a Living Memorial tribute in his honor at the Lakewood Theater. He died on Dec. 14, 2004.

“My dad died 26 years to the day (my mother died),” said Tim Erickson. “So there’s a little flair for the dramatic.”

Shafer-Montgomery said the parting tribute Erickson wanted attested to his personality.

“He did not want a regular memorial. He wanted to be alive to have his last hurrah,” said Shafer-Montgomery. “People still talk about him today.”



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