by Michael Bowen

Sara Edlin-Marlowe sits in the KPBX broadcast booth, devising descriptions of her husband, Bill Marlowe. "He's like a big kid," she says, "though he's grown up a lot in the last 21 years" since the two of them first met in graduate school at the University of Arizona. "He has improved my sense of humor."

Across town, the director of drama at Spokane Falls Community College, a man who has done theater in one form or another for 42 of his 50 years, is sitting in his office, demonstrating his own sense of humor.

"Watch this," he says, and swivels toward his computer monitor. The screensaver is a standard shot of the Manhattan skyline at night. Marlowe presses a button, and little animated fireworks shoot up into the sky and explode. The faint popping sounds increase in volume as the firecrackers triple and quadruple in the sky, until nearly the entire screen is awash in explosions and thunder. Marlowe practically dares an onlooker not to smile. "Isn't that wonderful?" he asks.

Bill Marlowe, like any big kid, likes his theatrical displays. Earlier, at a rehearsal for the Wild West version of Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor that he's directing for SFCC (running Nov. 14-23), Marlowe positively gleams as a publicity shot is taken of him while surrounded by a half-dozen young lovelies, all gussied up in saloon-girl costumes. "My soiled doves, as we call them," Marlowe winks.

It's been a long road to this moment from the mid-'70s, when Marlowe's thoughts were far from greasepaint and gobo lights. Instead, he was working toward a degree in mortuary science. Why the mortician business? "Well," ruminates Marlowe, "there was a time in my life when I was motivated by greed. I must've changed my major five, six, seven times. I was 22, I didn't know what I wanted to do."

He let fate direct him. "I was in Tucson, and a friend of mine mentioned mortuary work," Marlowe recalls. "He knew I liked theater, and he said, 'Well, in this you get to do makeup and drive a Cadillac. It's very theatrical.' "

Marlowe actually spent about 18 months in the mortuary business, eventually earning his funeral director and embalmer certificate. Allowing his mischievous inner boy to run free, he deadpans about his funeral-home clients, "I always told them that I would be the last one to let them down."

But the theater kept calling. Marlowe remembers a turning point: "A friend called and asked if I knew how to run a spotlight, and I said yes. So they paid me $25 a night at a cabaret there in Tucson. I found myself making suggestions about the show, and I'd put together musical numbers, and pretty soon I found myself directing."

Soon after starting grad school, he auditioned at the Looking Glass Playhouse in Tucson for a production of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown. He wanted Linus but got the title role instead. Lucy was played by another grad student named Sara Edlin. Two years later, they were married.

When Sara, now Edlin-Marlowe, got a one-year adjunct professor position at the University of Montevallo, near Birmingham, Ala., Bill went to work as actor and director at the Birmingham Children's Theater. They performed together in such shows as The Prince and the Pauper, Tom Sawyer and The Wind in the Willows.

They also did summer stock at the Smoky Mountain Passion Play -- "a Jesus drama done outdoors," as Sara puts it. Bill chips in: "I was the assistant stage manager and Sara was Mary Magdalene -- the head whore, as we called her." And then comes the glint in the eye, the urge to do comedy tonight, right here, right now. "Oh, I have to tell you this," Marlowe smiles. The curtain is about to go up on a little performance.

"We're staying in Townsend, Tenn., for the summer, in Mrs. Beane's trailer on Frog Town Road, where she had an organic garden, and the first morning we're there -- this is 5:30 in the morning or something -- we're lying in bed and this is what we hear."

Then the burly little man puts his head between his knees and does a coughing, hacking, guttural, red-faced, out-of-control death rattle -- thunderous at first, then diminishing, then raucous again, an imitation of lifelong smoker Mrs. Beane that drags on for at least 25 seconds.

And he relishes the irony: "So here she is, tending to her organic garden, growing all this healthy food, and there she is out on the stoop at 5:30 in the morning, hacking up a lung."

Perhaps it was Mrs. Beane's smoker's cough -- and Sara's being offered a position as director of a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Theater program -- that drove the paired Marlowes to Grand Forks, N.D., for the next five years. Until, that is, as Sara recounts, "One day Bill came to me and said in a little voice, 'Please get me out of North Dakota.' "

Edlin-Marlowe worked with a nun who mentioned Gonzaga, and in 1992 the acting Marlowes made their debut in Spokane.

Bill Marlowe started in Spokane's professional theater. "I was the principal costumer for Interplayers for six years," he says. "I designed three sets, I did all the props and furnishings for four years, I vacuumed, I cleaned toilets, I generally did whatever Bob and Joan [Welch] needed having done." After all, he continues, "it's not theater unless your heart and soul are in it."

Interplayers' co-founders remember that, as Joan says, "Bill was always determined to make a living in the theater." Making a living had its less glamorous moments, but glory lay in store for Marlowe. Local theatergoers may recall the Interplayers shows in which he appeared as an actor: Twelfth Night, Angel Street -- and, especially, Greater Tuna. In his first year in Spokane, Marlowe teamed up with Michael Weaver in the Texas farce that requires each actor to play 10 different roles.

Joan Welch's recollection of Tuna is intense: "Oh, God, he was fantastic! I remember in Greater Tuna, in the soda fountain scene, Bill came out wearing all that big busty stuff, and he was flaunting it all around. I tell you, people were rolling in the aisles. You can't laugh fast enough to keep up with them."

When Sara is asked which of her husband's performances she'd most like to see again, she's ready with an answer: "Tuna. He was perfect. It was one of those times in the theater when you think to yourself, I can't imagine anyone doing it better -- ever."

Joan Welch regrets Interplayers' loss: "Writing a letter of recommendation for him was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do. I just didn't want Bill to leave." She looks over at Bob, her husband, and says mournfully, "It was like cutting our own throats."

But the master actor was reluctant to apply for an academic position at SFCC. Sara says, "I actually had to goad him into it by applying for the job myself, knowing that I didn't have nearly the tech theater talents that Bill has."

In three years, however, with innovative productions like Insect Comedy last season and The Merry Wives now, Marlowe has started to indulge his passion for teaching theater. Even he seems a little surprised by all the success at the Falls. "The mandate I received when I started here, from the committee that hired me, was, they said, 'Bill, we want you to turn this program around. We want it to be a happenin' thing again.' And I think we are certainly on our way. When I started here, they were getting 25 or 30 people at a show on a Saturday night, and we've gone to being sold-out now."

Several of the student-actors and the costumer from Merry Wives have just filed out of his office. "It's a fun cast," he remarks. "I've added several turn-of-the-century songs, and I've been surprised at how well it works, setting it in 1899, with the Garter Inn becoming the Garter Saloon and Dance Hall."

Marlowe says he's committed now to doing a Shakespeare play every year, so his study of the canon has deepened. "I've realized, it's because this is not one of those plays about royalty," he notes. "It's just about regular people, everyday people. And the remarkable thing I've discovered is that they all -- every one of the people in this play -- they all have a penchant for playing practical jokes on each other." In this production, the merry wives will make sure that Sheriff John Falstaff gets his comeuppance.

Sara has a theory about why her man is such a good teacher: "He's an Aries, so he's got great focus. When he's talking to you, he's really talking to you. He's there for the kids."

She and Bill have been there for local theaters, too, acting together in Coeur d'Alene Summer Theater -- "In Music Man, he was the mayor and I was one of the Pickalittle Ladies. We hope" -- she crosses her fingers -- "to audition for Fiddler next summer." At Spokane Civic Theater, Bill has played parts ranging from Herod to Henry VIII, and he has directed three shows there.

Whether it's lecturing in a Viking helmet or struggling to stage Insect Comedy after long logistical troubles, Bill Marlowe has left his heart and soul on the SFCC stage, and on stages stretching all the way back to Birmingham and Tucson.

As far as his student-actors are concerned, he'd be the last one to let them down.

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Sat., Sept. 26, 2-3 p.m.
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About The Author

Michael Bowen

Michael Bowen is a former senior writer for The Inlander and a respected local theater critic. He also covers literature, jazz and classical music, and art, among other things.