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Grin and Beer It

Making its debut in 1953, the family-friendly, community theater presentation of "The Drunkard" hasn’t missed a performance in 65 years.

Gina Conroy
Marc Rains
November 28, 2018

Melodrama. It‘s something we‘re used to on social media, not as something we pay for on a Saturday night — unless it‘s The Drunkard, the longest-running show in America. Making its debut in 1953, this family-friendly Tulsa show hasn’t missed a performance in 65 years.

Every Saturday night, the historic Spotlight Theatre transforms into a beer garden theater where audiences sit at private tables for a preshow sing-along where on select nights champion ragtime player, Bill Rowland, can be heard tickling the ivories. Young and old participate by cheering for the hero and booing the villain, and children are especially fond of the pin-cushion “tomatoes” that they throw at the villains. Thanks to the show‘s sensational acting and stereotyped characters, the laughs are plenty and the jokes are clean. And although the show was created to protest the evils of alcohol during Prohibition, you can still buy a glass of wine or a beer.

Not your typical Tulsa Performing Arts Center event or performance, the show even draws in the concert and opera goers who like to dress down and join in the festivities.

“It’s a family-fun, blue-collar show,” says creative director Joe Sears, a Tony-nominated writer-actor known for his performance in Greater Tuna. Sears first saw The Drunkard with his Northeastern State University drama class in 1968 and has never forgotten it. Sears, who‘d been a working actor in New York City since 1972, thought he’d be performing and drop dead onstage, but he says God had other plans. After retiring early from acting and moving to Tulsa, he answered an ad for creative director for The Drunkard.

Joe Sears first saw The Drunkard with his Northeastern State University drama class in 1968 and has never forgotten it. (Photo: Marc Rains)
Joe Sears first saw The Drunkard with his Northeastern State University drama class in 1968 and has never forgotten it. (Photo: Marc Rains)

“They were thrilled to have me,” says Sears, who is always amazed when people remember his performances. And Sears was just as thrilled to be back on the stage in a different role. “The show has been a Tulsa tradition for 65 years, and that‘s a tradition I could get behind.”

When Sears first joined the cast and crew, the show was in a slump. “People weren’t coming out like they used to,” says Sears. So he streamlined the show to cater to today‘s audience’s fast-paced lifestyle.

“People used to spend hours at the theater with the Olio talent show, dinner, and The Drunkard,” says Sears. To fit the fast-paced Tulsa lifestyle, they now start the Olio at 7 p.m. showcasing two acts. At 7:15 p.m. the sing-along begins promptly, followed by The Drunkard at 8p.m. During intermission, the audience is served made-to-order sandwiches and drinks. Sears says people can plan to leave by 9:45 p.m. and enjoy the rest of their evening.

While Sears admits his notoriety helped fill seats, it‘s word-of-mouth that keeps people coming back every Saturday night. He says the key to their long run is people keep inviting their friends to the show.

The audiences aren‘t the only ones who‘ve enjoyed this Tulsa tradition. According to Sears, there have been over 3,000 Tulsans who have assisted behind the scenes or graced the stage with their talent. “Community theater is good for everyone,” says Sears. “Our oldest performer is in his 80s and he knows three parts in the show. He has excellent mental health. The youngest are 15-year-olds, and we have three girls playing a boy named Frank.”

Actors perform on a rotating basis and everyone learns the blocking and the lines. The cast is always interchangeable and can sign up for any part or Saturday performance. Auditions are held every Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. and open to the public regardless of age, gender, race, or experience.

Sears admits melodrama is hard work because it takes a high amount of concentration, but encourages anyone with an interest in acting to audition.

“Melodrama and musical theater are very close,” says Sears. “If you do well in melodrama, you will really do well in musical theater.”

One of the perks of being in community theater is working with new talent. “We have one cast member who was an actor in Turkey who came over as an immigrant,” says Sears. “He had a thick accent and took a course at TCC where one cast member taught English. Now he plays the hero.”

In addition to acting in The Drunkard, locals can perform in the Olio talent show which showcases singers, dancers, magicians, comics, and the Tulsa ukulele club. “We talked a senior in high school into singing Hank Williams, and he does it so well,” says Sears.

Not only does Sears give people a chance to perform, but he trains them if necessary. “It‘s my job to make the whole experience wonderful for the performers and audiences,” says Sears.

Currently all ticket sales are going to the restoration to the iconic 90-year-old theater designed by Bruce Goff which was recently added to the Most Endangered Historic Places list. Not only is the building an international tourist attraction, but it’s been called Tulsa’s Taj Mahal.

“It‘s been a staple art deco building in Tulsa,” says Sears. When funds from private donors and corporations run low, Sears says it’s their responsibility to repair the building and keep the 65-year-old tradition going.    

The Drunkard
Tulsa Spotlight Theatre
1381 Riverside Dr. | Tulsa
Dec. 1-Jan. 1: 5:30-11:30 p.m.