Brien and Norma Wygle lost four daughters to Sun Valley.
First went Kathy, still in college at the time. Then Jan, and Gail, and, eventually, Patsy, the actress, all landing 650 miles from the Wygles’ Bellevue, Wash., home
To this day, all four still live in the Wood River Valley. And Brien, at 95, still lives a state away.
In the half century since Kathy first donned the blue dress of a Sun Valley Resort parlor maid, the Wygle sisters have imprinted their love for theater—and with it, their family name—on their adopted hometown. As actors, directors, producers and overall engines behind Laughing Stock Theater Company and the nexStage Theatre, Kathy and Patsy Wygle introduced generations to the dramatic arts. And, in the process, they brought a little culture to the Wild West.
Call all that the audition for their next role: grand marshals for Ketchum’s annual Wagon Days parade. For a couple of “wannabe cowgirls,” there’s no better part to play.
Those are Kathy’s words, by the way. When she quit Seattle for Sun Valley, people had just about caught up with sheep in the Idaho census. She was a small-time ski racer with winters in mind. But when the mountain closed, the rangeland opened. And come summer, it was like she’d stepped back in time.
“I realized Ketchum was a total cowboy town,” she said. “All the guys I had crushes on had horses.”
She looked like a hippie, but wanted to be a cowgirl in a town split clean along those lines. Ketchum was still a dusty row of seasonal bars and shops, a place you hit on your way from the resort to the ski lifts. It had one cop—a sheriff whom locals dubbed “Lester the Arrester.”
To hear it now, it sounds like a Western, cut from John Ford. In the late ’60s, newcomers, with their college ideas and city-slicker ways, moved in. Long-timers didn’t like it. Vietnam put a point on everything. There were barroom brawls, Wygle remembers, and something that sounds like an actual riot at a makeshift commune near Corral Creek.
Wygle was one of the few people who bridged the gap.
Brien Wygle worked for Boeing. He was a test pilot—and, on the side, he raced hydroplanes, jet-powered speedboats nicknamed “thunderboats” for their telltale roar. At home, he was as practical with his family as he was impractical in his hobbies. Norma played the other part. She stayed in with the four girls, all born in a seven-year span. “An angel,” Patsy calls her, with a singing voice to match, passed down to her kids. She was a reluctant performer, but looking back, both say it was in her.
“She loved us, and we could do no wrong,” Kathy remembers.
There are bits of both parents in their daughters, Patsy and Kathy think. Like their father, they’re comfortable working without a net—albeit on stage, and not strapped to a nautical missile. Like their mother, they seem to treat everyone like family.
Family: that’s how many in the area’s interwoven arts community tend to see them. Like Kevin Wade, who got his start in the Wygles’ drama camps—and, later, Laughing Stock—before co-founding his own company, The Spot, in Ketchum. Or Sara Gorby, a valley lifer who joined Laughing Stock after college before moving to her role running St. Thomas Playhouse. And especially local actress Claudia McCain, who has known Kathy Wygle since they were both teenagers.
“I adore them both so much,” she said of the sisters. “It means a lot to everyone in the arts, seeing them honored like this—Kathy, for how she’s evolved, and the things she’s built. Patsy, for how much she’s given. They’re the perfect blend of two people to elevate and say, ‘This is something we’ve done as a community.’ I think they speak for all of us.”
McCain remembers a time before Laughing Stock came about in 1977, and the early days, when it was the only show in town. It staged its first play in a pizza parlor, then moved into the occasional bar before launching, full-bore, with a production of the musical “Cowboy” at the Sun Valley Opera House. A core group kept it together. Patsy and her late husband, Keith Moore, pitched in when they came during the summer. Laughing Stock played the hits: “Oklahoma,” “Annie,” “Oliver,” big musicals that filled the seats. They played more obscure shows, too. It didn’t matter, the town would turn out either way: Everyone, it seemed, knew someone in the cast.
But theater wasn’t a full-time job back then, and Kathy Wygle had many others.
“It wasn’t a life,” she said. “It was a hobby. Nobody got paid. We all did outside work.”
She owned Creekside for a while, part of the venerable Warm Springs après-ski triumvirate alongside Apple’s and Barsotti’s. B.B. King played a set there, and two of her sisters got married inside, back when locals and visitors alike recited their “ABCs” by hitting each alphabetical haunt after a long day on the hill. She started Ketchum’s first pet shop, Wygle’s Tropical Fish and Birds, in Giacobbi Square. That didn’t last; she preferred to give the animals away to anyone who wanted one, Patsy remembers. From the sound if it, she’s worked at every restaurant in town, in nearly every role.
Meanwhile, Patsy had moved to New York City. She zeroed her bank account—all $2,000 of it—and went there straight after graduation from the University of Washington’s acting program. In school, her thesis was a plan assessing the viability of a theater in Ketchum. As a teenager, she’d dreamed of starting one—and the idea grew with each trip spent by her sister’s side. But she wanted to get in “the game,” as she calls it. In New York, she meet Moore, another actor, and together they found some success Off Broadway and on soap operas. (Patsy got the most airtime on “One Life To Live.”) Off-season, she and her husband would light out to Idaho to perform with Laughing Stock.
“She’s the actor, I’m the producer,” Kathy said of her sister. Keith Moore was a little bit of everything: creative director, set painter, janitor, whatever. “It energized everything, when they came.”
Until each fall, when Patsy and Keith went back East.
In the mid-’90s, Kathy was working in a T-shirt shop when a car dealership moved off Main Street, and Ketchum’s first dedicated theater moved in.
When she began managing the nexStage, her first call was to Patsy.
“I said, ‘I’ve got everything set up for you now,’ and they came out for good,” Kathy said.
Patsy became the theater’s education director, and took over Laughing Stock’s Camp Little Laugh for children. With Keith, she taught speech and drama at the Sun Valley Community School. And, whenever they could, they took the stage.
NexStage is now the Argyros Performing Arts Center, a 25,000-square-foot, multi-theater complex that dwarfs the old garage. In a way, it’s a tribute to what Kathy helped build—and, fittingly, an upstairs area has been named the Kathy Wygle Lobby.
They still put on plays, and still work well together. In conversation, their sisterly jabs, trained over a lifetime, land softly, perfectly and nonstop. Kathy says she’s smarter. Patsy says she’s younger. Their differences, complementary, come from 30 years spent in the city, versus 30 years in the mountains, according to Kathy. But her sister is making up for lost time.
“Now, she’s more like I was when I first came,” she said. “She wants to be a cowgirl, too.”
Patsy smiled, thought it over.
“Well,” she said, “I guess I do want a horse.”