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From ‘Iceman’ to ‘Blue Man’

The Charles Playhouse in 1973.

globe file photo

The Charles Playhouse in 1973.

The building that houses the Charles Playhouse has changed identities many times in its 175 years, from Unitarian church to synagogue, Prohibition-era speakeasy to top-tier jazz club. But its years as a theater have lasted the longest and seem to have suited it best. The Charles Playhouse was born in 1958, after a repertory company founded by Olympia Dukakis and some fellow Boston University theater grads moved from a loft above a Charles Street fish market to an abandoned nightclub on Warrenton Street. Over the years, the Charles has provided a stage for future Oscar winners, dues-paying comedians, banjo players, and three bald blue men, among many others. Here are some highlights from its quirky history:

  The theater’s inaugural production was Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh,” which opened on Nov. 5, 1958.

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  The Charles’s early years as a regional theater featured stars-to-be Al Pacino, Jill Clayburgh, and Boston native Jane Alexander. Others who have appeared on the Charles stage: Geraldine Fitzgerald, Linda Lavin, Paul Benedict, Richard Mulligan, Viveca Lindfors, Vincent Gardenia, Richard Chamberlain, John Cazale, Swoosie Kurtz, Arlene Francis, Robert Guilliame, James Broderick, Frank Langella, and Carol Kane. The list of performers also includes one knight: Sir Ian McKellen.

  In 1962, Boston and banjos formed an unlikely bond. That’s the year the musical show “Your Father’s Mustache” began a 10-year run in the building’s basement cabaret theater.

  Long before actor James Cromwell intoned “That’ll do, pig,” he ran the Charles Playhouse Musical Theater for Children from 1966-67.

  Future comedy headliners Denis Leary, Roseanne Barr, Steven Wright, and Sam Kinison cut their teeth at the Comedy Connection, which occupied a first-floor lounge at the Charles beginning in the late 1970s.

  Not that you could ever tell them apart, but approximately 40 actors have played the three parts in Boston’s “Blue Man Group,” which is closing in on 8,800 performances after 18-plus years at the Charles.

But the men in blue still have some catching up to do. Originally booked for an eight-week run in 1980, “Shear Madness” has had more than 14,200 performances (and counting) in the Charles’s Stage II cabaret theater. Night after night after night, audiences help solve the hair-salon whodunit. And in all that time, no one has gotten away with murder.

Hans Schulz can be reached at hans.schulz@globe.com.
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