Co-founder of The Merc known for music, theater contributions
By Ann McCreary
As a child growing up in Germany in the 1940s and 1950s, Egon Steinebach was fascinated with America, and especially the history and lore of cowboys and the American West.
He loved going to see western films at movie theaters in Germany, and read voraciously about America and its history. So it’s fitting that he ultimately settled in the Pacific Northwest.
Steinebach, who died last week, is remembered for his contributions to theater and music in the Methow Valley, and for the kindness, intellect and wit he shared with friends.
He began visiting the Methow Valley with his partner, Carolanne, in the mid-1990s. They were living at that time in Vancouver, B.C., where they both worked in theater — Egon doing lighting design for stage productions and Carolanne as an actress and director.
During a trip to the Methow Valley, a favorite getaway for Carolanne, the two found themselves shopping in the old Twisp Mercantile hardware store on Glover Street in Twisp. Carolanne recalled talking with Egon, who was on the other side of the store, and they both realized that the sound of their voices carried surprisingly well across the store.
“We thought, ‘Oh my goodness, what a wonderful acoustic space this is!’” Carolanne said. From that realization grew the idea of buying the old store and renovating it into a theater.
“Egon was so forward thinking. He said, ‘Hold on to that thought, it will happen someday.’” Sure enough, the store came up for sale, and in 1998 Egon and Carolanne moved to the Methow Valley, bought the store and renovated it to create The Merc Playhouse.
Egon did much of the hard work of the renovation, taking store shelves off the walls, using them to construct risers for seats, locating used seats and lighting equipment and installing them. “We did everything on a shoestring budget,” Carolanne said.
Launching The Merc
The Merc Theater opened in 1999, offering professional theater productions, with Egon operating the lights. During the 10 years that the Steinebachs owned The Merc Playhouse, the theater also presented many music events, and Egon, a gifted harmonica and guitar player, began hosting open mic sessions, called “Open Merc,” that became popular with local musicians.
“For a few years there was a cadre who would show up and Egon was the enabler for that,” said Ken Bevis, who played guitar with Egon. “He was a very talented harmonica player. He had a box that he would carry around to performances. In it were about 20 different harmonicas in all different keys.”
Participating in the Open Merc and playing music with Egon “was really important for my own musical development,” said Bevis. “That’s been a product of living here with the marvelous environment of artistic support of all kinds, and Egon was a major part of that.”
Egon could play everything on harmonica from German folk songs to western ballads to blues. “He did a wonderful rendition of “Bésame Mucho” (a popular Mexican song),” Bevis said.
Bevis produced an album last year, and although Egon had begun to be affected by dementia, he played harmonica on it, Bevis said.
The musical connection also brought Egon together with pianist and composer Lynette Westendorf, who performed many times at The Merc Playhouse and helped the Steinebachs raise money to purchase a piano for the theater. Westendorf asked Egon to play harmonica on her last recording project in 2015, called “Lonesome as the Land.”
As a performer, Westendorf appreciated Egon’s expertise in lighting. “He was an absolute professional and had high standards,” she said.
Westendorf and her husband, Richard Hart, became friends with the Steinebachs. “Egon had a really funny sense of humor” and although English was his second language, he was great at puns, Westendorf said. “And he was a great storyteller,” she said.
Sometimes he shared stories of growing up in Germany during World War II. His father was drafted into the German war effort and worked in an airplane factory. Egon, who was born in 1940, told of taking shelter during repeated bombing raids during the war. “It scarred him terribly,” Carolanne said.
From Germany to Canada
After the war, when Germany was divided into four zones occupied by different countries, Egon’s family escaped the Soviet zone by walking through the night, eventually returning to a village near Koblenz in the west where his parents came from originally.
“He was a child of World War II, basically a refugee of sorts. His childhood had war and chaos built into it,” Bevis said.
“He lived through his tragedy with incredible grace,” Westendorf said. “People like him, who have really had hardship, seem to be the ones who complain the least. He was a really classy guy. He was always a gentleman. I never saw him disrespect anybody.”
In 1957, when he was 17, Egon emigrated with his family to Vancouver in British Columbia. They chose not to go to the United States because there was a military draft, Carolanne said. “When they came to Canada, as soon as they got settled they bought horses. He was living the cowboy life,” she said.
Egon enrolled in the University of British Columbia but when his father died, he left college to go to work, and became a photographer before moving into theater lighting. He had been married twice and had five sons before he met Carolanne.
Egon and Carolanne got married in the Methow Valley in 2000, two years after moving here. Egon enjoyed taking history classes from Bill Hottell, traveling abroad, taking riding lessons at Moccasin Lake Ranch, watching soccer games on television, and above all, reading. He especially liked history, and American history in particular, Carolanne said.
“He was extremely knowledgeable in western history and world history. He was a real history buff,” Westendorf said.
“I always appreciated his gentle spirit,” Bevis said. “He had a soft voice but when he made a joke he was very funny. He was a mellow fellow.”