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Jacquie’s final bow | Kitsap Week
It’s a Sunday afternoon before curtain call, and “Nunsensations” director Gwen Adams is back stage at the Jewel Box Theatre preparing for the matinee performance. Someone finds her and says, “I have a rebellion going on out there.”
There’s a nun on stage telling jokes and the audience wants the pre-show music turned off.
A performance? An hour before curtain?
And there on stage alone, in nun’s habit, is Jacquie Svidran, doing what she enjoys most: Making people laugh.
“She has a sparkle,” Adams said. “She has a talent to make people laugh. She can do serious drama, but she really loves to see people smile.”
Svidran’s career has always been like this — spontaneous, gregarious. And what a career it’s been. She’s entertained at events and parties as Happy the Clown, entertained children as Mother Moose on Anchorage TV’s “Mother Moose Hour,” granted wishes as Phoebe the Fairy for the Harrison Hospital Foundation, appeared in several films, acted in theaters in Kitsap and Seattle, and traveled with one local play to England. Svidran, who is 85 going on 45, is retiring for the second time from the local stage; she said she can’t memorize scripts anymore and that’s not fair to other cast members. That may come as a surprise to any visitor, for whom she can in an instant resurrect her character, Billie Dawn, in West Seattle Theatre’s “Born Yesterday,” then switch to Yenta in C-Stock’s “Fiddler on the Roof,” which she said was her favorite role.
“She’s known for her humor, but she’s a character actress,” said Adams, a Jewel Box Theatre director who acted with Svidran in “Fiddler on the Roof” in the 1990s. “She can pull off any character,” she said, comparing Svidran to the late “Golden Girl” Rue McClanahan.
But while Svidran may be retiring from acting, she’s not finished raising money for the Jewel Box Theatre — or making people laugh.
Example: She’s not on the “Nunsensations” cast but she’s a part of the show. Adams asked Svidran to warm the audience up before the curtain call.
“She’s been getting started earlier and earlier,” Adams said.
She was born Jacqueline Chase on April 27, 1927 in Seattle, the granddaughter of Finnish immigrants who settled on Finn Hill in Poulsbo; Karkkainen Lane is named after her family. She spent her first five years in Poulsbo. Among her earliest memories: Accompanying her farmer grandfather to Seattle to sell butter and eggs. They would take a horse and wagon to the ferry landing and catch a bus on the other side.
Svidran started acting when she was 6, when she won the lead in a production of “Little Red Riding Hood” at Maple Leaf School in Seattle. That was in 1933. In Hollywood, Charles Laughton was starring in “The Private Life of Henry VIII,” and Katherine Hepburn was starring in “Morning Glory,” for which they would win Oscars.
At Lincoln High School in Seattle, Svidran starred as Mildred Pringle in the comedy “Kiss and Tell,” the play made into a movie starring Shirley Temple in 1945. (Incidentally, Norma Zimmer, the “Champagne Lady” on “The Lawrence Welk Show,” was a classmate at Lincoln High.)
She married after high school, started a family, and continued to act at the Seattle Children’s Theater and with the Driftwood Players in Edmonds. In the mid-1950s, she was plying Almond Roca samples at the Bon Marche when the manager recruited her to be the store’s Easter bunny. Later, she met Joannie Wills, known as Miss Channel 5 for her commercials. They teamed up and Happy the Clown was born.
Wills and Svidran entertained at business and shopping center openings, posed with a lion to promote a dry cleaner, and were fixtures at Frederick & Nelson’s, the Seattle Auto Show and Seafair. A promotional photo of them with Bing Crosby, taken for Seafair, made the front page of The Seattle Times. (Svidran’s daughter, Kathi, was junior Miss Seafair and Miss Poulsbo 1966; son Jay was junior Seafair king).
In the 1960s, Svidran joined the fledgling Poulsbo Players, performing with the Players in various venues over the next 40 years — North Kitsap High School Auditorium, Kiana Lodge, Poulsbo Armory, Judith’s Tearoom (now MorMor), the Liberty Shores rehab room, and finally the Jewel Box Theatre. She also acted with the Lakewood Players in Tacoma and at the Bremerton Community Theatre, C-Stock in Silverdale, the Performing Arts Guild in Port Orchard, and the West Seattle Theatre.
Representing the Seattle Chamber of Commerce, she went to New Orleans and as Happy the Clown rode in the Krewe of Bacchus Mardi Gras Parade with Bob Hope. At an after-parade event, looking stunning in a gown, she attracted the attention of a film director but she passed on his offer of a screen test to stick with a commitment to be a nanny in Anchorage. That led to the stint as Mother Moose from 1972-74. Guests included singers Jose Feliciano and Crystal Gayle.
She and her current husband, Arthur Svidran, a teacher and track coach, married in 1975 and moved to Virginia Point, south of Poulsbo. She clowned at orphanages in Mexico, landing on the front page of El Sol de Pacifico newspaper on March 8, 1985, and continued acting on the Kitsap stage and raising money for the Jewel Box Theatre.
In 1991, she played Penny in Bremerton Community Theatre’s “You Can’t Take it With You”; the company took the show to the Tower Theatre in London. A Gwen Mansfield play, “The Demise of Victoria Westerly,” was written for her; it was performed here and in Wenatchee.
A decade of small roles in film followed, among them “The Beans of Egypt, Maine” with Martha Plimpton in 1994; “Pandora’s Clock” with Richard Dean Anderson in 1996; and “Prefontaine” with Jared Leto in 1997. An Olympia newspaper ran a photo of her getting her hair done on the set of “Prefontaine.”
In 1998, she retired to move to Lake Havasu, Ariz. (she now divides her time between Lake Havasu, Camas and her children’s home at Virginia Point), but her tie to the Jewel Box couldn’t be undone.
She advocated for Sunday matinees to make it easier for older people to see a show. She advocated for children’s programs, to give children more opportunities to experience acting in a play (she’s overjoyed “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” opens at the Jewel Box on June 22). David Speck directed her one-woman show that raised thousands of dollars for the Poulsbo theater.
“She was a great supporter of the Jewel Box in its early days when we were struggling to keep it going,” Speck said. “She was our No. 1 fundraiser. She would never take no for an answer.”
He said directing her was easy; he told to pick out her best stories “and then I just sat back and watched her go.”
Among her stage props: An orchid, her Phoebe the Good Fairy wand, and an oosik — the bone from a walrus penis, given to her by her Toastmasters Club in Alaska as a farewell gift.
“Those one-woman shows were delightful,” Speck said. “She changed hats and costumes, told stories of her life and her time in the movies. She’s a very, very funny woman. She has hundreds of stories to tell, and she can capture an audience and hold them in the palm of her hand.”
The show raised a good chunk of money for the Jewel Box: about $22,000. Both nights were sold out at $25 each, or $5,000 a night. A patron donated $2,500, and the Svidrans felt moved to donate $10,000. She’s also a big promoter of engraved donor bricks. All told, she’s raised more than $50,000 for the theater (a story in last week’s Herald incorrectly stated that her one-woman show raised $50,000).
In August 2011, the Jewel Box’s green room — the actors’ lounge and waiting room — was named for her. Advance to 2012. It’s Viking Fest weekend, and that’s not a nun passing out leaflets and pitching “Nunsensations” to every passerby on Iverson Street. It’s Svidran, in costume.
“It’s a Catholic show and the Lutheran Church has bought out a show,” Svidran tells the Herald. “It was a very nice compliment. Now, if we can get the Presbyterians there.”
To a passerby: “You know how we make holy water, don’t you,” she says, borrowing a line from “Nunsense.” “We boil the hell out of it.” Maybe not so funny coming from you or I. But from an 85-year-old nun?
Holding a stick with an offering bag at the end (it’s really a Crown Royal bag), she says, “If I had four nuns, would I need a fifth?”
And then there’s the one about the prostitute who goes into the confessional booth. We’ll leave that one out of a family newspaper.
“She can tell a joke that if you or I told it, it would fall flat on its face,” Adams said. “It’s the way she pulls you into it.”
Svidran believes in the Jewel Box, and in the quality-of-life value of community theater.
“We worked so hard to get it started, and it fell down. We got it started again and we’re the most successful theater in Kitsap County,” she said. “It provides a place for children to realize what a live performance takes — the hours of rehearsing, the sets. And it’s a pleasure to the community. Seeing the seniors come in on Sunday and afterward, they’re so delighted and so pleased.
“I’ve given my all, but I’ll still support them. Did I tell you that I sold three more bricks?”