In the 1970's (when I first arrived in New Orleans), a play usually got reviewed by four major newspapers -- not counting alternative publications, like the gay press. There were two dailies, The Times-Picayune and The States-Item. There were also two weeklies, The Vieux Carré Courier and Figaro. When we're talking about critical opinion, diversity has tremendous advantages. Even if critic A hates your show, critics B, C and D may be more on your wavelength. And then again, getting the word out is always a struggle. After all, local theaters rarely have much of an advertising budget -- so, the more publications, the better, both for reviews and promotion.
Well, The Courier kicked the bucket in 1978. The States-Item was swallowed by The Times-Picayune in 1980. Figaro went belly up in 1981. Three publications were gone; three critical voices, silenced; three ways of letting the public know about your show, kaput. From that point of view, the birth of Gambit Weekly in 1981 was a godsend to the local theater scene.
Mind you, it took a while for the fledgling weekly to get its act together about theater -- six years passed, in fact, before Al Shea began writing an entertainment column. In the beginning, there were only listings and occasional features. To get a quick sense of the scene back then, I glanced at the first issue. Lamoura and the Curse of the Voodoo Queen by David Cuthbert -- yes, that David Cuthbert -- was playing in the Bayou Plaza Hotel. The show was touted as New Orleans' longest-running hit. Among other listings were a show at the Bayou Dinner Theater and the grand opening of a new dinner theater at Oak Alley Plantation.
Dinner theaters were all the rage. New Orleans had a fair crop of them; such as, The Rose, The Camelot and Minacapelli's (which is the sole survivor). The flagship of dinner theaters was The Beverly. This lovely old building in Jefferson Parish had been a gambling hall. But in 1972, the place became a stop on the touring-dinner circuit. Stars, often of a somewhat faded glamour, headlined amidst a cast of locals. I once saw Dorothy Lamour (who, by that time, looked like my grandmother) play a vamp that threw men into a frenzy of erotic yearning. Anyway, the Beverly burned to the ground in 1982. But its legacy lives on in the Storer Boone Theatre Awards. Boone was the highly esteemed director of the Beverly.
Speaking of honors and recognition, try to imagine New Orleans without the Big Easy Entertainment Awards. The Big Easies were the brainchild of Margo DuBos. DuBos, who became publisher of Gambit in 1988, says she heard about a paper in Jacksonville, Fla., that gave music awards.
"I thought, 'we've got better music here, we should have awards, too.'"
That very year, DuBos launched her concept with a gathering of 400 people in the Blue Room of the Fairmont Hotel. The event was a great success. Local musicians were thrilled with it. At the second Big Easy ceremony, Dubos added theater awards into the mix. And, as they say, the rest is history.
And so, for nearly 25 years, the Big Easy Awards have recognized achievement in the theater community. But what was that community back then? And how did it evolve? To do justice to such a large span of time would take a book. But, here's a sketch of some of the salient features.
Le Petit, "the oldest continuously running community theater in the country" is, of course, the grand matriarch. The old girl's had her ups and downs. Don Marshall reports that, when he took the helm in 1986, the place was on the verge of bankruptcy. Marshall stirred things up. For instance, he brought in the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival and presented Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. When Marshall left, five years later, the theater fell on hard times again. But in 1998, when Sonny Borey took over as director, Le Petit came back to life. Now, it's undergoing a renovation "to the tune of a million point two dollars," according to Borey.
You can't mention Don Marshall without thinking of the Contemporary Arts Center. He was the first director of that ambitious enterprise. In 1976, the CAC was nothing but a dirty, old, abandoned warehouse. There was little money. The artists themselves ran the place and actually built the theaters. In the late 1980s, the CAC underwent a radical yearlong renovation. Strangely enough, despite this costly metamorphosis, the theater program seemed to lose its way. In an attempt to restart things, current director Jay Weigel recently began inviting theater troupes for year-long residencies. But there is no subscription season and little sense of forward movement.
Among the volunteers who built the theaters at the CAC, there was a contingent from Dashiki Theater. In fact, the CAC served for a while as home base for that talented African-American troupe. Inspired by the nationwide black theater movement, director Ted Gilliam had started Dashiki in 1968. Although they produced a legion of vibrant shows, the company did not long survive its founder's death in 1991. Some other highlights of the local black theater scene are John O'Neal's Junebug Productions (which rose from the ashes of Free Southern Theater) and Ethiopian Theater. In 2000, Anthony Bean -- one of the founders of the Ethiopian -- went on to launch his own community theater. Over the past few years, the AshŽ Cultural Center and the Neighborhood Gallery Theater have blossomed as part of the scene on resurgent Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard.
Entrepreneur-of-outrage RenŽ Broussard also chose Oretha Castle Haley as home for his itinerant Zeitgeist Multi-Disciplinary Arts Center. And speaking of "itinerant," Dennis Assaf reports that his Jefferson Performing Arts Society wandered from pillar to post for 11 years before setting up shop in the East Jefferson High School auditorium in Metairie. Assaf says the wandering ended one night in 1988, when he found himself outside a church hall, asking the people whether they were there for the funeral or the concert. That was the proverbial last straw. JPAS eventually renovated the East Jefferson auditorium. They also put on a full season in the new Westwego Performing Arts Center and improvised a playhouse (called Teatro Wego!) in a community center next door. Now, it looks like Assaf's decades-old dream of a brand new state-of-the-art performing arts center in Jefferson Parish has a chance of coming true. The state legislature recently allocated $6.5 million for work to begin.
Here's a quick glance at some other important developments. The venerable old Saenger Theater reopened as a renovated 2,800-seat auditorium for touring shows in 1980. Playwright Rosary O'Neill started Southern Repertory Theater and, after some trial locations, brought it to The Shops at Canal Place. In 2002, Ryan Rilette took the helm and put the emphasis on new, original and regional plays. Tulane University kept a hand in the show business with Summer Lyric Theatre (launched in 1967) and the Shakespeare Festival, which kicked off in 1973. Rivertown Repertory Theatre opened in 1988 and premiered its spanking new building seven years later.
What would be a trip down memory lane without Vernel Bagneris' One Mo' Time? This Jazz Age musical revue premiered at the Toulouse Theater (now One Eyed Jacks), then wowed them in the Big Apple.
Let's give a tip of the hat to two feisty venues in the Central Business District. For more than 20 years, True Brew Theater has given us a wealth of great little shows. Current honcho Roch Eshleman recently reopened with Anne Galjour's Okra. While at Le Chat Noir (opened in 1999), owner Barbara Motley continues her bold and original programing.
Finally, of course, there are the valiant production companies, like Richard Read's Running With Scissors, Buzz Podewell's Red Noses, Carl Walker's All Kinds of Theater, John Grimsley's Dog and Pony, Perry Martin's Evangeline Oaks Entertainment and many others. Plus, we have that singular acting/directing/play-writing phenomenon called Ricky Graham, with his string of hit comedies. And, we thank our lucky stars, for playwrights, like R.J. Tsarov, Barret O'Brien, Jim Fitzmorris, Phyllis Clemmons and their colleagues.
Whew, what a chronicle! But we've reached the end. So -- with apologies to all the talented folks whose contributions didn't get cited -- those are your "theater highlights" from the first 25 years of Gambit.