Late in 1952 a small group of veteran actors from Tulsa Little Theatre began meeting on Saturday nights in downtown Tulsa. Most had been friends and performed together on stage for at least ten or more years. But they had no place to meet and there was no space available at the Theatre. So, they began looking for a place to gather, socialize and meet new friends who shared their love of theatre and the arts. They all had stories to tell.
As reported in the Tulsa Tribune, first they met at Mike Badeen's Restaurant which was located at 518 1/2 South Boston Ave. Meetings usually included cocktails, food and much socializing. Discussion on current books, Broadway, movies, art and upcoming theater productions would follow. Each meeting also included some form of entertainment-a comedy sketch, a reading, a song or dance number or sometimes, even bingo.
People had fun at the meetings and they were wildly popular. Word spread quickly and in a very short time these casual social events led to the formation of The Spotlight Club. The first four charter members were Karl Janssen, Virginia Banfield Thompson, Richard Cook and Richard Mansfield Dickinson.
By February 1953, the club's regulars had outgrown Mike's meeting facilities and had moved to the residence of member, Richard Mansfield Dickinson. Mr. Dickinson, who had acted in and directed numerous productions for Tulsa Little Theater and Tulsa Opera, now taught English at a local business college and gave private speech and drama lessons in his home.
His home, known locally as the Riverside Music Studio, was built in 1928 as a residence and recital hall for classically trained piano teacher, Patti Adams Shriner. At the heart of the three-tiered residence (with the big round window facing the river) was an auditorium with a stage and seating for a hundred guests-the perfect meeting location for The Spotlight Club.
(Although it was not particularly important at the time, the building's architect was a very gifted young man named Bruce Goff. It would be nearly fifty years before Goff's Riverside Studio would be recognized as being designed in the International Style of architecture. The building, the current home of the Spotlight Theater, was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in June 2001).
The formal Grand Opening of the newly formed Spotlight Club occurred on November 7, 1952. (See program and menu.) By this time the club was discussing means of raising money for Tulsa's "starving artists"-bake sales, cake walks, car washes, etc. were all considered as fundraisers. Then, on a trip to California Mr. Dickinson attended a performance of an old melodrama. On returning he suggested the Club consider producing and performing a similar play to raise money.
William W. Pratt's "Ten Nights in a Barroom" was the second most popular melodrama from the last century, but with five acts, all agreed that it was much too long for modern audiences. But Dickinson thought he could edit the script to three acts. He suggested that if club members approved his truncated version, the club could perform the show on the stage in his home (now their regular meeting place) for perhaps the three or four performances planned. The members could hardly refuse such a generous offer - with no royalties or rental fees for performance space, all monies raised could go to student scholarships.
The Spotlight Club was reorganized and became a not-for-profit entity in 1962 as Tulsa Spotlighters, Inc. The reorganization was necessary in part to satisfy Mr. Dickinson's conditions for selling his property. For years he had resisted offers to buy his iconic deco home overlooking the Arkansas River.
In the early nineteen sixties real estate was booming in Tulsa and demand for prime riverfront property was soaring. Mr. Dickinson reportedly declined an offer for nearly $70,000 for his building and its 0.86 acre tract. But now his health was failing. The Drunkard & Olio was already a Tulsa institution and was approaching an unprecedented tenth anniversary of its first performance. Spotlighters and audiences now converged on his theater/home every week; proceeds from performances were now sufficient to sustain the business operation and its charitable giving mission. The obsolete music studio that Dickinson loved, had been transformed into a successful non-profit theater. There were, of course, no guarantees, but Dickinson (with characteristic wisdom) believed that as long as the building was home to the play, it would be safe from the hands of predatory land developers.
He very much wanted Spotlighters to have the building. Thus, he made them an offer: He would sell them the property for $40,000, with no interest. All they needed to do was make two hundred payments of $200 per month until paid.
Spotlighters celebrated ownership of their debt-free property with a Mortgage Burning Party in 1978. As of 2019, the show has continued 66 years and has become America's longest continually running theatrical production. The Drunkard & Olio has played virtually every Saturday night since 1953.
Two songs have been written and performed in honor of "The Drunkard & Olio."
Spotlight Song - written by John Hansen and Larry Stockard, and performed by Larry Stockard.
Spotlight Rag - written and performed by William Rowland.
Jack Frank, a film historian for Tulsa history, has through his company tulsafilms.com produced two video segments concerning the Spotlight Theater.