Theatre Tulsa Looks to the Future at 90

Editor at Large

GREAT PLAYS: The cast of South Pacific was a hit in 1966. Theatre attendees have enjoyed numerous performances by mainly local casts and players at what is now Theatre Tulsa.

When Sally Barnes turned off the lights she thought it was for the last time.
Barnes was stage manager for Theatre Tulsa’s production of “Arsenic and Old Lace,” which closed after the 2011-2012 season.

Part of the job of stage manager is to turn out the lights when everyone has left. This production, Sally sadly thought, was to be the last in the 90-year history of what was widely celebrated as the oldest continuous community theater west of the Mississippi River. With only $47 in the bank and roughly $17,000 in bills, the venerable theater seemed doomed.

Now, says new president, Sara Phoenix, the theater is off of life support with plans for the future. “This past May we brought in eight new board members with experience in fundraising, grant writing, finance, nonprofit entities, event planning, community outreach and theater education,” she says. “We have put together the finances for a new season and are working to retire our debt. Our future is bright.”

Theater Tulsa began its journey in 1922 when Bonnie Reed and Hope Holway gathered some of their friends to put on an evening’s entertainment of two one-act shows. At that time, Warren G. Harding was in the White House, and Rudolph Valentino ruled the movie box office.

The new enterprise was called the Tulsa Little Theater. It caught on. Volunteers came to act, make costumes, build sets and do all the things required to make a theater thrive.

In the early 1930s, a theater was envisioned for 15th Street and Delaware Avenue; the Delaware Playhouse was built with a seating capacity of slightly more than 400 seats, hardly enough to service the 7,000 or so season ticket holders that the theater had at its height in the 1950s.

As it grew, it began attracting staff with professional front office management, an artistic director, costume designer, set designer, and other smaller posts. In time, however, the theater became old, the equipment outdated, the upkeep impossible.

The base of operations was shifted to the Tulsa Performing Arts Center in the late 1970s. A lot of the old patrons who had loved having coffee in the Delaware Playhouse lobby during intermissions felt it wasn’t the same. For various reasons, the season ticket numbers dwindled down to, in the last year, merely 35. Theaters get very nervous when they have to depend on walk-up business. To the satisfaction of Tulsa Theatre supporters, the walk-up attendance became very good last year.

Last season, Theatre Tulsa (the name was changed in the 1970s) did a season of five shows in the Liddy Doenges Theater in the Tulsa Performing Arts Center with a seating capacity of under 200. This year, the shows will be done there again.

A full season is planned, beginning with Neil Simon’s venerable “The Odd Couple” starting Aug. 31. Possibly the most intriguing production will begin Oct. 26 when two casts will present Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” This is part of Phoenix’s plan to enhance the theater’s value to younger community members with adults being in one cast and students in the other. The casting will allow for adult and student actors to learn from each other and collaborate in a mentorship situation.

Both casts will be directed by the same director. The season will continue with “Tuesday’s With Morrie,” the classic musical “Oliver!,” and the French farce “Boeing-Boeing.”

This, Phoenix believes, is the theater’s turn-around season as it begins to return to fiscal health with the expertise of the new board. It is, she foresees, the beginning of a major boost to Tulsa’s artistic scene. “Community theater is thriving all over the country.

“The Tulsa community understands the value of the arts and that nothing will ever replace the experience of a live performance when artists and audiences have the opportunity to communicate,” she says.

The theater has gone back to its roots in one aspect: there are no paid staff members. “We will hire a director or a designer on a per-show basis but the staffer is gone,” says Phoenix. Even Sally Barnes, who is now the office manager, is strictly volunteer.

On Aug. 30, the theater is planning a 90th anniversary at Harwelden Mansion with the descendants of the founders as honored guests. Anyone who has ever worked with Theatre Tulsa (or Tulsa Little Theater) is invited to come.

Those interested in attending should go to or call the theater to be added to the guest list.

The object, says Phoenix, is to not only get re-acquainted but swap ideas. She has some of her own. “In five years,” she says, “I can see a lot of growth and expansion for Theatre Tulsa. We are observing new and innovative programming in community theatres around the country and we hope to bring some of those things to Tulsa.

“I would also,” she says, showing a head for business, “like to establish an endowment.” The future, with the team that has come together, seems bright.
The lights are still on at Theatre Tulsa.

Updated 08-31-2012

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