Spotlight shines on
A box of bingo cards sends a Spotlight Theater volunteer on a hunt to find and preserve priceless memorabilia.
Tulsa Spotlight Theater’s Bruce Goff-designed studio at 1381 Riverside Drive. The organization is working with preservation architect Herb Fritz on a plan to restore the structure.
Over 61 years, with clasped hands and upraised eyes and bouncing blond curls, 175 different Little Marys have implored, “Father, dear Father, come home with me now,” during Spotlight Theater performances of “The Drunkard.”
Were you one? Did your cousin or great aunt ever take the stage in (yes, it really is) America’s longest-running play or its companion variety show, “The Olio”?
The answers can be found at www.spotlighttheater.org, where a new searchable archive is now online. It features cast “mug shots” and performance program data, as well as images of the programs themselves. The collection allows users to explore the broad and deep connections between the Spotlight and Tulsa. More than 2,500 citizens have participated; a quarter million have attended.
As a board member, however, I discovered the Spotlight is more than cast lists.
The idea to digitize the theater’s archives was born over bingo on the Fourth of July. Spotlighters and their families gather at the Riverside Drive property for a potluck social each Independence Day.
At one Fourth of July party, two cardboard containers of bingo cards caught my eye. They were the actual shipping boxes from 1952. They bore the address of the Tulsa Spotlight Club Inc.’s original home at 518 1⁄2 S. Main St. The postage was still intact on each: two 30-cent Teddy Roosevelt stamps and a 12-cent Zachary Taylor stamp.
How have these survived six decades of use? These aren’t just boxes; they are historic artifacts. They should be preserved somewhere, I thought.
Instead, they went right back into a top-floor closet where, a few months later, they were drenched when the roof leaked. I hauled them home and applied a hair dryer with a righteous indignation worthy of our melodrama’s ever-moralizing Romaine character. Happily, all was saved.
But I wondered: what other unique documents from Tulsa’s past are crammed into corners, flung under furniture or stuffed under stairwells at the Spotlight?
Previously while poking around, actors had discovered gigantic charcoal portraits of some original Spotlighters. They were drawn in 1955 by Clarence Allen, a Spotlight enthusiast and illustrator at the Tulsa World.
But the theater’s archives contain literally heaps of material — photo albums, ledgers, cast lists, board minutes, carbon copies, mimeographs, Polaroids, hand-written notes on yellow legal pads, honorary certificates, reservation lists, audition sign-ups, news clippings, correspondence and the two bingo boxes. To avoid other potential damage, all were placed into 30 bankers’ boxes and relocated to my downtown office. There, I began sorting through them.
One set of documents came first: annual volumes of each Saturday’s performance programs, listing cast, crew and “Olio” performers.
Those could tell us which family members, friends, neighbors and co-workers had played a part in the history of this Tulsa institution. Until the move, I had no idea copies had been preserved.
That they do owes mostly to Jere Uncapher, Spotlight office/stage manager — the theater’s institutional memory, whose grandparents, Dann and Lola Frost, were club founders. His parents, John and Liz, joined early and brought him and his sister, Mary Beth.
Along with programs, there proved to be albums and index card boxes of more than a thousand photos of former and current cast and “Olio” members. Combined with the performance data, they could be a virtual alumni yearbook for the Spotlight, accessible by all of Tulsa. But first, someone would have to digitize all that material.
I posted a request through RSVP Tulsa’s online form. Two volunteers, Annie Shurtleff and Dom Odierno, came forward. She tackled entering the performers and crews from 3,000 Saturdays into a database. He scanned the photos and programs. They worked for four months.
They were followed by four other RSVP volunteers, who carefully double-checked the data entry. Soon the original materials will be housed at the Tulsa Historical Society.
The material processed so far fills only three of the 30 boxes. The remainder is now being reviewed and catalogued by people with the proper credentials, including Dr. Kerry Joels, a nonprofit consultant, and two University of Tulsa graduate students.
Meanwhile, more archival material is turning up in private hands. We hope either the originals or digital copies will find their way to the Spotlight. What might be out there? Here are three examples:
Bryce Hill operates his law practice out of the Tulsa Little Theater. One day a girl showed up, saying that her grandmother had been an actress there. Would Hill like to have a box of her theater-related keepsakes? Hill accepted them, and the girl disappeared. The actress turned out to be Johanna Meyer, who was not involved at TLT but at the Spotlight from 1962-1976. In the box was Meyer’s Outstanding Spotlighter of the Year trophy for 1963-64.
Annabelle Zumwalt, a member of the Sweet Adelines, sang in “The Olio” from 1957-1968. I tracked her down and found she has an extensive portfolio of Spotlight photos and memorabilia that are not in our own collection.
Max Roberts, who died this past October, sang in “The Olio” from 1955-1967. During a video interview a few years ago, Roberts said he had a recording of an “Olio” song performance at the Spotlight. He burned CDs of the song, which also became part of the archives.
Getting their start at the Spotlight
Now that the archives are online, the fun begins of finding out who has performed and where they are now. Here are a few:
Ken Busby, executive director of the Arts and Humanities Council of Tulsa. He was a tap dancer in “The Olio” and calls it “a great opportunity to build self-confidence by appearing before a live audience.”
Janet Rutland, well-known Tulsa vocalist. “I wore false eyelashes,” she says, recalling her first “Olio” performance. “I had just turned 21, and soon after I auditioned for a traveling group and got the gig. You might call the Spotlight stage my launching pad.”
Jocelyn Rowland, violinist for We The Ghost. The band won Rock Album of the Year at the Los Angeles Music Awards this past November. “I have many happy memories associated with the Spotlight,” she says. Her father, award-winning ragtime composer Bill Rowland, has played piano at the Spotlight since 1995.
Orlin, Sondra, Julie, Bruce, Cindy and Chris Horgen. It’s not unusual to have two or three generations of a family involved at the Spotlight at the same time. But the Horgens might hold the record for most family members on stage at the same time. The Horgen Family Singers usually closed every “Olio” performance of theirs with “Jambalaya” and a trademark “yee-haw” from Chris, now a TV news anchor in Wichita Falls, Texas. During their “Olio” years, most of the Horgen kids were extras in Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Outsiders.” Bruce, an intern architect at The McIntosh Group, is visible behind Matt Dillon at the drive-in scene.
Roberta Wells-Famula, actress. She attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City and moved to Tulsa because of her husband’s job. The Spotlight was the first place she auditioned in Tulsa. “It’s family,” she says. “You just feel like you belong there.” Today she is director of education at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre, which has three stages and a $22 million annual budget.
Nancy Jo Daulton Beier, singer. At their 1956 Christmas party, the Spotlighters awarded their first scholarship for aspiring performing artists to the “Olio” singer. The Spotlight “was a huge part of my life at that time,” she says. In drastic poverty at the time, Beier’s family lived for a year in a bus on blocks behind an icehouse. Recognizing her potential, her public school teachers arranged lessons with Lorna Moore, one of Tulsa’s top vocal instructors. Beier’s brother, Jack Eddleman, also sang in “The Olio” and studied with Moore. “Every time I came home from college, we’d go out to the Spotlight and do our little gig,” she recalls. Beier became an opera star in Europe. She lives in Yakima, Wash., where she teaches voice, but returned to Tulsa in April for the 75th anniversary of Will Rogers High School.
Her brother went on to direct at the New York City Opera, working with stars like Beverly Sills. He died three years ago in Florida.
Kristi Conrad Stewart, broadcaster and voice talent. “I always wanted to be on the stage from the time I was a little girl,” she says. Her parents, Charles and June, were Spotlight volunteers. Young Kristi helped by washing dishes and operating the spotlight. At 14, she got her wish and landed the part of Little Mary. Later she sang in “The Olio.” Stewart went on to work at Tulsa’s Channel 2. Today she and her Canadian husband live in Toronto, where she has voiced hundreds of commercials and narrated audiobooks. She even starred in a local production of “Oklahoma!” and was billed as the only real Okie in the play. “I have so many fond memories of the Spotlight Theater,” Stewart says. “Both of my parents are gone now, but I can still see them smiling from behind the bar. They’d be proud to know that when I visit, I try to stop by and see the theater and visit with Jere,” Stewart says. “Here’s hoping it’s around for another 60 years.”