The Spotlight Theatre is tucked along the Arkansas River, hidden on a corner that’s mostly surrounded by houses. It’s a strange little building, built in Tulsa’s typical art deco style with tall, angular walls and a giant, circular window facing the street.
A large banner hanging from the side of the building read: “TONIGHT: THE DRUNKARD and THE OLIO.”
The Spotlight Theatre’s production of The Drunkard is the longest continuously running play in the United States. I was vaguely skeptical of this claim, but believe it or not, the show has been performed weekly at the Spotlight Theatre since 1953.
A group of local actors created the “Tulsa Spotlighter’s Club” in 1953, later re-grouping to create “The Tulsa Spotlighters, Inc,” the non-profit organization which owns the theatre today.
The theater itself was very old and very small, featuring an entryway with two steep and narrow staircases and an art deco-esque chandelier. The walls were a quirky shade of faded blue-green and it looked like not much had changed in the past several years. We were seated at a tiny table right along the edge of the stage, complete with red checkered tablecloth.
The Saturday night show at Tulsa’s Spotlight Theatre has two parts: The Olio and The Drunkard. An Olio is like a talent show of sorts, a chance for amateur performers to showcase their skills to the crowd. I’m a fan of variety shows and talent shows, so I enjoyed it.
This particular Saturday night featured two performers. The first was Scott Radford, listed in the program as “Talented Singer.” He was, in fact, a talented singer, and played a couple of pleasant acoustic guitar covers for the crowd.
The second performer was Sam Adkins, the “Singing Sheriff of Cedarville,” who was also the emcee. The Singing Sheriff was a red-bearded man in a cowboy hat and glittery vest who played some old-country guitar covers. He was very out of tune and off tempo at times, but seemed to be having the time of his life, and the crowd was caught up in his enthusiasm.
The Olio was followed by a short intermission before The Drunkard began. Every intermission featured a very impassioned piano sing-along of old-timey favorites such as “This Land is Your Land.”
Before the show began, the hero of the production came onstage to tell us that The Drunkard was reliant on audience participation. Therefore, we should cheer for the hero, boo the villain as loudly as possible and when the time came, we were supposed to throw plush tomatoes at him too.
The Drunkard was written during the Prohibition era, so the entire show is a warning against the eeeevils of alcohol. It follows the stories of several citizens in a town which has recently gained a brewery: A young hero who ultimately falls to drink and the violence of a cunning villain, a miller-turned-pub owner whose life is ruined by alcohol, and a reformed drunkard and his family.
I was surprised to find that most of the volunteer actors were very talented. The most notable performances came from Tim Parker as goofy town bumpkin Sample Switchel, and Mary Rose Rich as Mary Morgan, the melodramatic and bubbly daughter of the drunkard.
They greatly exaggerated their motions, as per tradition—the emcee explained that this was a typical acting style at the time when the show was written. There was also quite a bit of bold makeup. Very red cheeks and pounds and pounds of eyeliner.
The show was hilarious, partly because of the comical gestures and jokes made by the actors, and partly because the dangers of alcohol were hugely exaggerated in the play.
We were interrupted by several intermissions, one of which was an opportunity for us to rent tomatoes to throw at the villain for $1 a pop. I was irritated by this and rented no tomatoes in protest. However, I have to admit it was funny to see the villain be pelted by them, especially with his very goofy and outraged facial expressions. The villain also swept about the stage with lots of very dramatic and haughty cape-swooshing, much to the delight of the audience.
My overall impression of The Drunkard and the Spotlight Theatre constantly wobbled along the line between a hilarious, genuine tradition and a kitschy tourist trap.
The tickets were pretty expensive, and food cost extra after that. Details like souvenir mugs for bottomless coffee and a paper ticket that said “Souvenir ticket” in the corner made me chuckle at the apparent attempts to make the show into some sort of artificially profound experience. Even the tomatoes had to be rented.
With that said, the clear attempts to make the show into a tradition through souvenirs and keepsakes baffled me because the show already seemed to be something genuine of its own accord. You can’t deny that The Drunkard is something special simply because of its permanence in the Tulsa community, but other than that, everyone seemed to be genuinely having a great time and enjoying their involvement with the show. Many of the audience members were clearly regulars who knew parts of the script and songs.
Both staff members and performers mentioned that the Spotlight was their home or that they had a personal connection to the traditions at the theatre. Donations were also encouraged because the theatre was built in the 20s and is in need of renovations; as a non-profit organization, Tulsa Spotlighters, Inc, cannot fund all of the repairs on its own. This may account for some of the seemingly unnecessary expenses.
When it comes down to it, I really enjoyed my experience with The Drunkard. It was wacky, exciting and fun, but it was also slightly tainted by the obvious money grabs and, to be honest, it’s not likely that I would go again because the tickets were $18 and I am but a poor college student.
However, I am interested in looking into some of the Spotlight Theatre’s other productions. I would recommend The Drunkard it if you’re willing to splurge for a night out or a date—it’s a delightful Tulsa tradition, albeit a slightly expensive one.
And hey, I got a souvenir mug out of the deal embellished with an illustration of the villain dramatically swooshing his cape. It doesn’t get much better than that.