Friday, February 08, 2013

Broadway Baby

Renee Harvey - Click on the picture for TV coverage.

         She came to Portland to be a musical theater star, so you know she was from a small town; but it was not such a crazy idea in 1986 when Renee Harvey arrived in Portland from Kalispell, MT. Portland was in the midst of a theatrical golden age that had begun in 1970. In that year two important developments occurred that helped to create a vibrant theatrical scene in Portland. Ric Young, Henk and Yasha Pander founded the Storefront Theater Company and Jack Featheringill began his Summer Stock Theater Program at Portland State University. The Storefront Theater set the pattern for avant garde theater in Portland for the next two decades and Featheringill’s Summer Stock program trained a generation of talented young performers. In addition the Summer Stock program attracted young people from the smaller communities of the Pacific Northwest. People like Renee Harvey from Kallispell, MT.
            She met Mark Papworth while appearing in Summer Stock Theater in Fort Peck, MT during the summer of 1986. Papworth, who described himself as a lifelong Portlander, convinced her to come to the big city. She moved into Papworth´s apartment on SE 27th Ave between Belmont and Stark, near the Lone Fir Cemetery. After a while Papworth moved out and Harvey kept the apartment. She joined the First Unitarian church and began singing in their choir. She took a job in the office of the Multnomah County Special Olympics as an office assistant, but she continued to sing and audition for roles whenever she could. Renee Harvey was 24 years old and living on her own for the first time in her life. She enjoyed her independence and she asserted her new grown-up persona by giving away her stuffed animal collection, which she had brought with her from Montana, to friends who had children.
            Things weren’t so good at her apartment, though. The apartment complex she lived in had four units, two upstairs and two down with a parking lot right outside the downstairs unit number 1, where Renee lived. Her neighbors made a lot of noise and they constantly came by Renee’s apartment to borrow things. She was too timid to tell them no; and they took full advantage of her generosity and good nature. 
Yasha Pander and Ray Tillotson in The Storefront Burlesque (1980).

            Theater in Portland was interesting in 1987. The Storefront Theater Company had gone through a number of changes. They started out as a guerilla theater group that staged musical extravaganzas and asked their audience to wear “what they always wanted to wear” to their performances. Ric Young was an inspired choreographer and he had a unique style of staging that was enhanced by the weird sets that Henk Pander built. Yasha Pander, though was the driving force that by 1979 made the Storefront Theater Company one of the most interesting and exciting women’s theaters in the country. The early 1980s brought hard times for the theater and soon Yasha Pander was producing the Storefront Burlesque at the sleazy Paris Theater just off of Burnside. By 1987 the Storefront had found a new home and a new life in their long running hit Angry Housewives.
            Jack Featheringill, the PSU teacher who had worked on Broadway in New York, was also having an influence. Interest in musical theater was at an all time high in Portland. Musicals of all kinds were performed regularly in the four theaters of the Performing Arts Center. In addition a group of students in a Portland Parks Department theater class formed the Musical Company in 1983 and put on a production of My Fair Lady. Although their shows didn’t always get great reviews the singing was always good and the Musical Company began performing regular seasons of musical theater. Their home was in the auditorium of the defunct Washington High School, only a few blocks from Renee Harvey’s apartment.

          Even the First Unitarian Church was producing musicals. In February, 1987 the Unitarian Universalist Cabaret produced Jacques Brel is Alive and Living in Paris under the direction of Jan Powell. Powell a young woman who had done some work with the Storefront Theater Company was just about to reach a crucial moment in her career. In 1989 she would open the Tygers Heart Shakespeare Company. She would close the company’s first season with a stunning version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that was compared with the work of Federico Fellini. She would direct the Tygers Heart Company for a decade before moving on to other projects. Currently Powell is one of the more interesting stage directors in Portland. In 1987 she cast Renee Harvey for a singing part in Jacques Brel.
            Renee Harvey impressed Jan Powell as a very talented singer. Harvey impressed a lot of people that way. She also impressed people as a very nice woman; she made a lot of friends in the short time she lived in Portland. She made friends at church, and at work, and in the theater; but she couldn’t make friends with her neighbors. Mark Papworth described her as naïve and some of her friends thought that the role she played in Jacques Brel… was apt; she played Timid Frieda. Her neighbors habitually took advantage of her timidity and she was feeling less and less comfortable at home.
            In fall 1987 Harvey was cast in a Musical Company production of Rogers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! She was singing on stage just a few blocks from her home and Jack Featheringill himself directed. She didn’t have much of a part and it’s probably for the best, because the show didn’t get good reviews. As usual, though, the singing was praised; and Renee was noticed. Before the show closed she had landed a part in An Evening with Stephen Sondheim which would be presented in February 1988 at the Portland Center for Performing Arts. She was to sing Sondheim’s number “Broadway Baby” from Follies. It was her big break.

            1987 was the worst year in Portland history for murder. Seventy-one people were murdered in Portland that year. Murder rates were high all across the country in the 1980s and 1990s, and Portland was no exception. For comparison it is interesting to know that in 2012 there were 29 murders in Portland. One person who contributed heavily to Portland’s murder rate in 1987 was Dayton Leroy Rogers, known as the Molalla Forest Killer. Rogers was a small engine mechanic who had a shop in Canby, but he lived a double life as “Steve the gambler.” As his alter ego he picked up, tortured and murdered eight women who worked as prostitutes. He was caught in July 1987 attacking a woman in his truck behind a southeast Portland Denny’s restaurant. That summer the bodies of his victims were discovered in the Molalla Forest south east of Portland.
            Renee Harvey lived with a lot of fear that fall and winter. In January, 1988 someone broke into her apartment. The burglary frightened her and she stayed with a friend from work for four days because she was afraid to go back to her place. She suspected that it was one of her neighbors, or someone they knew, who had robbed her place. It was the last straw and she decided to move. On January 15, 1988 she paid a deposit on a new apartment in the neighborhood. Her friends at work were supportive and they all agreed to meet at her old place the next day to help her move. She was scheduled to rehearse for the Sondheim show that night at 7:30, but after work she went back to her apartment to pack some things.
            When she hadn’t arrived for rehearsal by 9:45 her friend Jo Elston, who had been frantically calling Renee since 7:45, decided to check on her. A couple of weeks later Elston told Oregonian reporter Margie Boule about finding her friend. “The door was ajar. I walked in and saw her on the floor. The only light was coming from the bathroom, but I could see she was dead. I’ve never been so afraid,” she said. Renee had been beaten and strangled to death. She was Portland’s first murder in 1988.
            The police focused their investigation on the burglary. They arrested the burglar, who was an acquaintance, but they couldn’t connect him with the murder. That left them with no suspects. Renee had been a nice young woman from a small town. She didn’t have a lot of money and she had no enemies. The police decided that it must have been a random crime and the investigation stalled. Renee’s friends organized a vigil for their lost friend and Mayor Bud Clark and City Commissioner Bob Koch both attended. They even conducted a vigil a year later in January 1989, but the murder remained unsolved.
            It is in the hands of the Cold Case squad now and they have forensic evidence that they are testing, hoping for a breakthrough. The Cold Case squad has a good record at solving cases that seem unsolvable, but the best bet for solving this crime is if someone comes forward to tell what they know. Someone knows who killed Renee Harvey. Someone has been keeping a secret for twenty-five years, if they’re still alive.


Blogger Tom Rutter said...

My wife and I were renting a house around the corner on 28th and Stark at the time this happened. I remember it really shook up people in the neighborhood who were already dealing with frequent burglaries of our homes and apartments. I remember a neighbor coming by the day after it happened and asked us not to discuss the crime with his wife because she was so scared over it. We moved out of the neighborhood that year but I always wondered if the killer had ever been found.

4:58 PM  
Blogger Brownale9000 said...

Interesting story. I live down the street and have been interested in this case for a while. Recently, the killer was caught and sentenced to 11 years in prison. He was Renee's upstairs neighbor and had previously broken into her house.

11:01 AM  

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