This article originally appeared in Westword.
BDT Stage — or, as it was known in the beginning, Boulder’s Dinner Theatre — has occupied a home on 55th Street and Arapahoe Avenue in Boulder for 46 years. Now we’ve learned that the site has been sold for $5.5 million by owners Gene and Judy Bolles, whose generosity and love of art kept BDT’s musicals going since 2003. The lot is planned for more apartments, but there’s hope that the current company, under the direction of Seamus McDonough, will be able to perform at this venue until May. Two of the coming shows have been announced: The Buddy Holly Story and The Sound of Music.
BDT Stage managed to survive the first year of pandemic restrictions under the artistic direction of Michael J. Duran, streaming some performances and mounting outdoor picnic concerts. Duran left the position last year, with McDonough taking his place. McDonough, whose father worked at Boulder’s Dinner Theater, has been employed there since he worked as a busser at fourteen. There’s no confirmed closing date, McDonough says, but “we’d like to do a final season…to celebrate what we’ve done over the past 46 years.”
The repertoire at BDT Stage has generally focused on familiar audience favorites, with occasional ventures by Duran into more boundary-pushing and contemporary work. But if the copulating puppets in Avenue Q did bring in some younger viewers, including university students out with dates, it’s those familiar favorites that attract necessary numbers. Last year was particularly difficult, according to McDonough. Many patrons doubtless stayed away for fear of infection; others seemed unaware that BDT had reopened, despite a strong marketing campaign.
For many of us in Boulder, there’s something very personal about the loss of BDT Stage. Over the years, I’ve spent many happy evenings there with family or friends. At Shrek, I remember my grandsons shrieking with laughter as Princess Fiona, played by the inimitable Norell Moore, engaged in a fart contest with Seth Caikowski’s Shrek, both loudly singing, “I Think I Got You Beat.” And who could forget Tyler Rae as the Donkey in the same show, kindly stopping at our table to chat with the boys during intermission and helping make the evening unforgettable? On a far more serious note, there was Ragtime, when regular BDT talents joined with Jeffrey Nickelson (who played Coalhouse Walker) and members of Nickelson’s sadly now-defunct Shadow Theatre Company to put on a soul-scorching production that explored class, race and American history to a ragtime rhythm provided by brilliant music director Neal Dunfee.
When I first saw Fiddler on the Roof on the BDT schedule, I did a lot of grumbling about why Duran would have selected a musical so frequently and badly performed at venues ranging from second-rate theaters to high school auditoriums. The performance, however, starring a stellar cast with Wayne Kennedy at the helm as Tevye, silenced all criticism. I found myself laughing aloud at Amanda Earls’s crazed singing as Fruma-Sarah, and weeping when Shelly Cox-Robie’s Golde curved her hands over the Friday night candles — as my mother had done every Friday night of my childhood — and sang, “May the Lord defend and protect you.”
Yes, there were shows I’d rather have missed, doubtless dragged from some dusty attic to please the conventional, but I suspect there have been few dinner theaters in the country producing work of BDT’s quality.
Dinner theater was born in the 1950s, a uniquely American phenomenon combining buffet meals with light entertainment. The genre entered full bloom in the early ’60s, when Howard D. Wolfe created the Barn Dinner Theatre franchise, with 27 venues in states around the South and one in New York. Over the years, Colorado has had its share of dinner theaters, from Longmont’s Jesters to the Heritage Square Opera in Golden, which showcased the wonderfully insane comic work of Annie Dwyer and Tom Mullin. But over time, as in most of the country, the popularity of the venues dwindled in Colorado, although Candlelight in Johnstown is still going strong. Given the odds, BDT’s decades-long life feels like something of a miracle.
I first encountered dinner theater as a young actress, when I got a job with the Barn. It wasn’t a prestigious assignment, but I hadn’t got into summer stock that year, and there was very little to audition for in New York City. The show was an ancient, creaking farce called Ladies’ Night in a Turkish Bath, and I played the ingenue, Dodie. We opened in Greensboro, North Carolina, acting to appreciative audiences, helping with the buffet, and carrying glasses of juice and soda to the tables; the ghost of Prohibition lingered, and customers had to bring their own alcohol.
I took away two strong memories: one was of the sixteen-year-old son of the Black family that worked behind the scenes preparing food and cleaning up. They invited the actors to their house for occasional meals and tried to teach us dance moves; our clumsy attempts to follow their steps reliably evoked peals of laughter. We learned the teenager could no longer come to work because he’d fallen and hit his head, and decided to deliver him a signed get-well card and what little money we’d been able to scrape up among us. When we entered, we saw he was lying on the sofa, ashen with fear, blood leaking from his nose, and having difficulty talking. Of course I knew the South was racist — you couldn’t possibly not know in the feverish, violent 1960s. But I had grown up in England with National Health Care, and in New York there were services for needy people. So it was a jolt when I asked the kid’s mother if he was going to a hospital, and she silently shook her head. Was this smart, funny, lively, playful young guy really in danger of dying or permanent impairment because the family didn’t have money? Or, more likely, because of his skin color?
Another etched and very different memory: I visited the next Barn on the circuit during one our off-nights and watched a rehearsal. The play was Tchin Tchin, a two-hander including an Englishwoman and an overweight, middle-aged Italian laborer clomping in dust-caked boots. The man’s talent, the depth and verisimilitude of his performance, took my breath away. I knew a lot of actors, but I had never seen work like this. When he came offstage afterward, wiping his face and having changed out of his costume, I saw that the Italian laborer wasn’t thick-waisted and middle-aged, but young and slight. I put out a hand to stop him as he walked by our table. “You were amazing,” I said. Something like that. And that was the start of a three-week affair with the not-yet-famous Robert De Niro.
Despite the brush with greatness, nothing about the Barn experience made me interested in the idea of dinner theater. But somehow, probably on assignment, I found myself seated at Boulder’s Dinner Theatre. The play was Carousel, and Kennedy and Cox-Robie, young and brimming with talent, were playing Billie Bigelow and Julie. It only took a couple of scenes for me to become a convert.
These two were the same actors who brought middle-aged couple Tevye and Golde to vivid life so many years later. Longevity has been a mainstay for BDT almost since the beginning. Very few local theaters boast permanent companies, but BDT comes close. For years it has been one of the few places where an actor could feel secure about finding work, and sometimes make a living — even if occasionally the living had to be augmented by an outside job. The audience gets to see performers maturing over the years, watch their talents ripen, and chat with favorites during intermission. The word that occurs most often when you talk to BDT actors or regular audience members is “family.”
Alicia K. Meyers has been with the company for 27 years, and working there has been her primary job for a long time. She also teaches at middle and high schools, where, she says, she’s grateful to be able to spread the craft.
“I’ve come and gone,” she says. “I’ve worked at other theaters. But this has always been home. BDT has seen me through marriage, divorce, the birth of my child — all the things that matter.” These artist friends, she adds, “kept me on my feet and thriving” through a cancer diagnosis and double mastectomy. For her part, she’s happy to be family to the others, as well.
“Since I was eight, I’ve known what I wanted to do,” she says. “I feel fortunate in that I love my job. I love being that storyteller in an industry that teaches lessons, morals, values, and does it all through telling stories. That’s incredible.”
The cast’s intimacy also affects the quality of the work, Meyers comments.
“We’ve had so many years together here. We know how each other works, how we fit together. It’s an honor to work with people that make you better. And bringing in new young people keeps it fresh.”
Two of these new young people star in BDT’s current production of The SpongeBob Musical, and both are terrific. Riley Fisher is SpongeBob, and Abigail Kochevar — who years ago worked as a busser at BDT — is an irrepressible Sandy.
Retaining the artists as much as possible “does make it extra special for patrons,” says Meyers. “They see familiar faces, their favorites up there. They can see the same actor in the ensemble at one point, at another in a leading role.”
Every BDT participant talks so fondly and repeatedly about the company’s camaraderie that Westword was finally compelled to ask if there was really never any kind of friction or dissent in the group. Meyers laughs. “Family is family,” she says. “Every family has their dysfunction. But we go on, move past, learn about each other and the way our feelings make a difference in each others’ lives.”
Meyers herself is a mesmerizing presence on a stage, whether she’s terrifying ocean inhabitants as wicked Ursula in The Little Mermaid or shuffling on all fours as Nana, the dog in Peter Pan. And when her Velma Kelly in Chicago vamped through a duet with Joanie Brosseau-Rubald, who played Roxie, the two women owned the entire evening.
Meyers believes company members will find ways of working together in the future no matter what happens. But still, the prospect of a shutdown is “absolutely sad. For all of us who work here, and the family we’ve created, and also for Boulder to lose this iconic place.”
As for herself?
“I’m here until the end,” she says. “I’m not going anywhere. Whether it’s on stage, backstage, fixing a light, serving dinner, I’m here to close the building.”
“I haven’t thought that far ahead,” adds McDonough. “Who’s to say someone might not buy the company and move it elsewhere because it’s an institution?”
Still, he adds, “I’m making sure we go out in a celebratory way, and not just fizzle out. There are so many memories for so many families. We plan to make another memory before we close it all down.”
The SpongeBob Musical, 6 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays through August 20, BDT Stage, 5501 Arapahoe Avenue, Boulder. Tickets are $70-$75.