Jefferson Starship. Marshall Tucker Band. Three Dog Night. Donavon Frankenreiter. These are just a handful of the über famous acts that have diverted their tours and maneuvered their gargantuan buses all the way down U.S. 1 to play to eager crowds at the end of the road.
And for that, we have the ever-growing Key West Theater to thank.
A multi-purpose not-for-profit cultural outfit, its yearly offerings run the gamut from Grammy Award-winning artists to charity events and intimate singer/songwriter shows.
Looking at the pink building with bright turquoise Miami-reminiscent details that now houses the Key West Theater, you would never imagine the history the building’s walls hold. At 512 Eaton St., on the unassuming corner of Eaton and Bahama streets, the theater has quite the fascinating and bizarre past.
Originally constructed in 1848, the building was opened on Jan. 2, 1849 as the First Baptist Church. In 1886, the church building was destroyed by fire and subsequently rebuilt. The “Great Fire of 1886” started at the San Carlos Institute, which was located then in its current location on Duval between Fleming and Southard streets. On March 23, 1905, the Eaton Street Baptist Church opened for worship. The church sat undisturbed by fire for years until 1956, when it was burned down again by the serial arsonist Billy Watkins Moody. The building was then rebuilt for the third time and sat empty for a couple of decades until the late 1980s when a local businessman purchased it and turned it into the Club Chameleon, a hotspot for cultural events like the “Key West Follies” variety show until it closed for a long stretch in the early 2000s.
In 2013, the enigmatic, eclectic and incredibly generous Tap Johnson bought the theater. Through the infamous Key West coconut telegraph, news spread that the long-empty theater was under new ownership. Three innovative local artists cum writers cum producers jumped at the chance to take advantage of the reopened space.
The venue had already been converted into a functioning theater for Club Chameleon, so it was the perfect venue for artists hungry for a place to produce their own work and the works of other artists. After hearing that Tap had bought the theater, local theatrical trio Juliet Gray, Mike Marrero and Landon Bradbary approached him about producing their own work in the space. That play was “By Popular Demand,” a riotous show-within-a show about a woefully underprepared theater (a theme perhaps not unfamiliar to the writers, directors and producers at the time).
From there, the diversity of the Key West Theater’s programming has skyrocketed. The venue has partnered with the Rams Head Group, a national concert venue manager, to bring in touring artists for concerts that have been lauded by locals and tourists alike as filling a niche not quite satisfied by the numerous smaller live acts that perform daily in Key West.
This year the theater is on pace to host about 60 national artists and bands, including John Waters, Shawn Colvin, Travis Tritt and Jefferson Starship.
In many ways, the Key West Theater is like a chameleon that changes its offerings to accommodate the needs and desires of the community — and this year’s mutations are some of the most exciting to date.
“The excitement lately is that we are rolling out a whole new website, revealing our backstage listening room and opening the new location of The Grateful Guitar, where musicians can come for all of their guitar needs, from strings to lessons,” says Kelly Norman, the theater’s newly appointed executive director.
“Our new additions are very music driven, which fits the mold for what we embody here as a music venue. That said, we are still a performing arts center as well,” Norman adds. “We have the state-of the-art dance studio on the second floor and we’ve brought on dance instructor Kyla Piscopink to head the studio. The studio will hold weekly classes and workshops and will provide rehearsal space for local productions like ‘The Nutcracker.’”
As a community-oriented arts center, the theater also hosts numerous nights featuring local musical talent, including the Sunday Ramble concert series. Ramble events specifically highlight local musicians and bring together artists who otherwise don’t get to perform with one another.
“As far as the mainstage goes, we’ve added a lot of great local events to the lineup,” Norman says. “This December, Destiny Montgomery and Joe Tripp are producing a rock ’n’ roll Christmas show that will be so much fun. We are also participating in the Eaton Street Christmas Stroll that involves all of the nonprofits on Eaton Street. Every venue hosts a performance. We’re always excited to collaborate with our artistic nonprofit brethren.”
The theater has also had great success bringing back the old-school musical talents of Key West’s past with events hosted by local music historian Ralph DePalma.
On Nov. 25, DePalma presents a one-of a-kind show celebrating local legends Coffee Butler and Cliff Sawyer. The show will be a magical evening of throwback tunes with two of Key West’s most original voices.
For the Key West Theater, preserving the memories of Key West’s musical and theatrical pasts and giving voice to the island’s musical future is paramount to its mission.
And to further encourage local musicians to celebrate their talents, the theater is also home to the Back Room, a recording studio, alternative theater space and rental venue.
The Back Room has state-of-the-art recording equipment that local musicians can rent to record professional quality albums. The intimate space is also home to the brand-new Songwriters Speakeasy concert series showcasing local songwriters and their original works. (Think VHI’s “Behind the Music” meets “MTV Unplugged,” but much cozier.)
Norman hopes the addition of The Grateful Guitar retail space at the front of the theater allows the venue to reach an even more diverse musical community.
“Aside from having the retail aspect of The Grateful Guitar, we are so looking forward to working with them on community events like the free ukulele night they hold on Wednesdays,” she says.
“Daryl Brooke, owner of The Grateful Guitar, is very involved in the community as far as working with May Sands Montessori and the music programs in Key West’s schools. We love that. We’ve already donated our dance space to ‘The Nutcracker’ for the next few months and we’re excited to be even more involved with the youth arts community in the future.
“We have a music-driven mission, but we are still very much a holistic performing arts center.”
Perhaps most important to highlight is that the theater’s nonprofit status, which means support from locals and tourists alike is crucial to ensure its continued contributions to Key West’s cultural landscape.
In addition to concerts, plays and comedy shows, the theater is also available for rentals for everything from burlesque shows, Polish folk dancing concerts and pole dancing competitions to private parties, seminars and corporate events.
At the end of the day, the Key West Theater is all about celebrating the magic that exists in the artistic community here in the Keys. In the coming month, a new membership program will offer early access to concert tickets and discounts on classes, workshops, rental rates and even ticket prices.
More information about the Key West Theater, the list of upcoming shows and contact information can be found at www.thekeywesttheater.com. New shows are announced every Monday, so join the mailing list to stay up to date on the goings-on and make sure to check out the schedule while you’re in town. ¦