Melissa Hale played a lot of different parts during her high school theater days, but when she stepped back into acting last weekend it was for a more grown-up role.
Hale, who recently moved to Pendleton from San Diego, helped Pendleton’s Underground Tours come to life by playing a working girl in the Cozy Rooms bordello.
“I had a blast doing it,” she said.
The Underground Tours take visitors on a journey through the tunnels that during Pendleton’s “wild West” days held card rooms, saloons, brothels, a butcher shop, a Chinese laundry and more. Once a year the tours take on a new dimension by adding 75 live actors.
Some of the actors have been returning participants for over a decade, but for Hale it was her first time getting dolled up like a 1930s prostitute.
“I researched the hair and make-up, to make sure I fit the part,” she said. “The hair was more frizzy than today. The make-up was very bold — the red lipsticks and heavy eyeliner — so it was fun to mess around with.”
The young women clad in corsets, pantaloons and fishnet stockings drew some “playful” joking from some of the older men that they might just skip the rest of the tour to stay there, Hale said, while others didn’t seem to know where to look.
“I definitely saw some men trying not to stare,” she said.
Prostitution may carry a certain stigma, but Hale said many of the women who resorted to working in Pendleton’s brothels during the late 1800s and early 1900s had no family to live with, and there were few avenues available to single women back then to support themselves.
“It was just a way to earn a living,” she said.
Women who worked for Cozy Rooms madam Stella Darby were paid more than most working girls at the time, and Darby was famous for helping teach her girls to budget and save to enable them to escape the life as soon as possible.
Dana Grieb, who played Darby this year, said the madam was highly respected in Pendleton despite her line of work.
“She was a real businesswoman,” Grieb said. “She was very trusted because she was very frank. She was really trying to help the girls and not exploit them.”
Darby even helped out the cowboys visiting her brothel by offering to hold onto a portion of their money for the duration of their visit to Pendleton so that they didn’t drink and gamble it all away.
Grieb has been participating in the Underground Tours Comes To Life day for the past 10 years, as a can-can dancer in the saloon or a working girl. Tourists may flirt with those actresses, she said, but they took on a more serious and respectful attitude with her this year.
“I feel like I got a promotion,” she said.
Grieb said hanging out with the other actors and interacting with tourists is always fun, but each room is a different experience. In earlier rooms the tourists are usually still talking amongst themselves or feeling unsure, but by the time they get to the later stops they are “100 percent in the time period.”
Tricia Mooney played a saloon girl in the Shamrock Card Room this year, passing out samples of sarsaparilla and Pendleton Whisky to tourists and mingling with the gambling cowboys. She said her daughters, ages 12 and 14, came along to play servers in the old-time ice cream parlor featured in part of the tour.
Mooney lives in Hermiston now, but when she started with the Underground Tours four years ago she was living in Pendleton and was invited by a friend to give volunteering for the event a try.
“It takes tons of volunteers,” she said. “It’s fun. There are people you see every year when it comes back together.”
She said she never did high school theater or anything like that, but she’s found it is fun once a year to step into a new role as someone she is not. Dressing up in period costumes, making friends with the other actors and helping the tourists have a good time are also things that keep her coming back each year, she said.
The level of preparation for the event depends on the character a volunteer is playing. Mooney said she was given information to study ahead of time, but there is a lot more ad-libbing than memorizing lines.
“You never know what to expect,” she said.
Contact Jade McDowell at email@example.com or 541-564-4536.