Award-winning actress Olympia Dukakis might not recognize the newly renovated Charles Playhouse, the theater where her career took root. “I have some very fond memories,” says Dukakis, “but oh, the place was a mess!”
To celebrate the 175th anniversary of the building, current owner Broadway in Boston has just completed a $2 million makeover of the theater, now home to “Shear Madness” (since 1980) and “Blue Man Group” (since 1995). On a recent visit, while workers put the finishing touches on some eye-popping “Blue Man Group” lobby displays, Broadway in Boston executive vice president Rich Jaffe proudly displayed the improvements.
“The goal with these upgrades has been to improve the experience for our patrons,” Jaffe said, “and to deal with some longstanding accessibility issues.”
Back in 1958, Dukakis and several of her fellow Boston University graduate school classmates helped transform the building on Warrenton Street from an abandoned nightclub into a theater, and the place needed plenty of work.
“I remember hammering in the stage floor,” Dukakis says on the phone from New York. “But even with the work we did, you still couldn’t get to your dressing room from the stage. There were no bathrooms in the dressing rooms, either, so you had to piss in the sink.”
Originally built in 1839 as the Fifth Universalist Church, the building later became home to Boston’s first synagogue and a Presbyterian church before reversing identities in the 1900s. During Prohibition it was a speakeasy, and in the late 1930s a jazz club called Southland whose performances by such greats as Cab Calloway and Louis Armstrong were nationally broadcast on the NBC Radio Network. After several quiet years, the Charles became home to a repertory theater that launched the careers of such actors as Dukakis, Jill Clayburgh, John Cazale, and Jane Alexander before becoming the home to its two mainstays, “Shear Madness” and “Blue Man Group.”
In addition to raising the ceiling, adding bathrooms, and relocating doors, Broadway in Boston has added two lifts, as well as removable seats in the upstairs theater so that patrons who use wheelchairs have better access. “The goal has been to surprise people with how comfortable the improvements make it for everyone who comes through our doors,” Jaffe says.
‘It was kind of down and dirty. . . . We enjoy building things, and a more upscale theater would not have been comfortable with that.’
The Charles Playhouse has been surprising people for decades, starting with the legendary performances by Dukakis and her cohorts in The Actor’s Company. “We had the opportunity to exercise what we’d learned in school,” says Dukakis. “We’d studied with the same people, so we spoke the same language and we trusted each other so we were able to take some great dramatic risks.”
When The Actor’s Company developed a reputation for high-quality productions, working out of a tiny, 50-seat theater on Charles Street on Beacon Hill, it was approached by local businessman Frank Sugrue, who teamed up with director Michael Murray with an offer to expand their fledgling theater company to a 500-seat theater space. Sugrue believed a homegrown theater company could build an audience and be a popular alternative to the Broadway tryouts and tours that came through town. He purchased the former nightclub on Warrenton Street, and The Actor’s Company renamed it the Charles Playhouse, after their Beacon Hill spot.
In addition to the performers, people attached to The Actor’s Company also established themselves in Boston as pre-eminent publicists (the late Nance Movsesian) and artistic producers (Ron Ritchell, who founded both the Lyric Stage and Stage West). But after about three years, Dukakis says, most of the original company members moved on.
Although Dukakis returned to the Charles Playhouse for an ambitious 10th anniversary season, The Actor’s Company could not sustain itself artistically or financially. Sugrue rented the theater out to other companies, including David Wheeler’s Theatre Company of Boston, which used the theater to present new plays starring such up-and-comers as Al Pacino (“The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel”), Stockard Channing, and the late Paul Benedict (who had also worked as the Charles’s house manager from 1958-60).
While the upstairs theater hosted a variety of plays and musicals, the 199-seat basement cabaret was home to a banjo show called “Your Father’s Mustache” from 1962-72, followed by a comedy revue called “Slap Happy,” which lasted until producer/performers Bruce Jordan and Marilyn Abrams booked their wacky whodunit, “Shear Madness,” in 1980. Originally booked for an eight-week run, “Shear Madness” celebrated its 34th anniversary on Jan. 28.
“When we first walked into the theater, there was a cloud of cigarette smoke, and the place looked kind of worn,” says Jordan, by phone from New York. “When we told someone where we’d be playing, they said, ‘Oh, you’re in the toilet!’ ”
But, he says, a little paint, some new chairs, and the addition of a dressing room improved the look of the space without losing the relaxed atmosphere that made it easy for the show to attract a wide array of audiences. That atmosphere is important since “Shear Madness” relies on audience participation to solve the crime that takes place each night in a fictional Boston hair salon.
“Nobody’s more amazed than Marilyn and I that we’ve had this long history with the Charles,” says Jordan.
Upstairs, Sugrue booked the theater with a series of off-Broadway touring productions, as well as longer runs of one-person shows, including “Acting Shakespeare,” starring Ian McKellen, and “Shirley Valentine,” starring Shakespeare & Company founder Tina Packer. But audiences were fickle, and in 1995 Sugrue sold the Charles to theater producer Jon B. Platt. At the time, Platt was operating the Colonial and Wilbur theaters, but acquiring the Charles Playhouse allowed him to own a theater outright, giving him more control over bookings.
Although Sugrue’s struggles may have suggested that the Charles was too small to turn a profit, Platt says he’d spent 15 years watching other producers book theaters in Boston and knew it was a matter of finding the right show for the space.
“I’d seen the ‘Blue Man’ show in New York,” he says by phone from California, “and I saw how audiences responded. Even though they only had a short-term contract [in Boston], I was willing to invest in rehabbing the building to accommodate their needs because I knew audiences would love it.”
The move to Boston was the first foray of “Blue Man Group” outside of New York. Group cofounder Phil Stanton says when he and his performing partners Chris Wink and Matt Goldman saw the theater in 1995, they knew it was perfect. “It was kind of down and dirty,” Stanton says from New York, “but that works better for us. We enjoy building things, and a more upscale theater would not have been comfortable with that.”
Stanton says he had no expectations for what would happen with the show. “We were ready to grow, but we didn’t have a roll-out strategy,” he says. “Unlike in New York, where it took months to build an audience, in Boston we were filling the house right away.”
Platt sold the Charles Playhouse to Broadway in Boston’s parent company in 1998, but “Blue Man Group” clearly has no intention of leaving Boston any time soon. Besides the structural improvements, many of the newly completed upgrades at the Charles involve interactive video screens and lobby effects designed for the enjoyment of “Blue Man” audiences.
Broadway in Boston’s Jaffe says he’s proud that the city’s new mayor, Martin J. Walsh, invited Blue Man Group to perform at his inauguration. “It’s a wonderful recognition that this show, and the Charles Playhouse, are Boston institutions,” Jaffe says.Terry Byrne can be reached at email@example.com.