Marshall Tucker Band. Citizen Cope. Lee Ann Womack. These are just a handful of the über famous musicians who have diverted their tours and maneuvered their gargantuan buses all the way down U.S. 1 to play for our tiny island. For that, we have the ever-growing Key West Theater to thank — a multipurpose, not-for-profit, cultural outfit whose yearly offerings run the gamut from Grammy Award-winning artists to locally written and produced plays and musicals.
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. Located at 512 Eaton St., on the unassuming corner at Bahama Street, the theater has had quite the fascinating and bizarre past.
Originally constructed in 1848, the building was opened on Jan. 2, 1849 ,as the site of the First Baptist Church. During the Civil War, the church was in the possession of the Negro Baptists until the fall of 1879, at which time the Rev. William F. Wood, a chaplain in the Union Army, came to Key West and revived the 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 Street 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 Key West coconut telegraph, news spread that the long-empty theater was under new ownership and three innovative local artists 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.
Juliet Gray, the current artistic director of the Key West Theater, was one of the original threesome. She and Executive Director Mike Marrero had worked together in years past producing the 72 Hour Film Challenge held at the Tropic Cinema and directing the Short Attention Span Theater at the Red Barn Theatre, among other short film project collaborations. The two talked often of finding a place for local writers to be able to put up their original work. After hearing that Tap had bought the theater, Juliet, Mike 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).
Juliet tells the origin story of the Theater’s renaissance fondly: “We were lucky enough to be able to do an original play written by Mike and Landon at the theater in the spring of 2014 — ‘By Popular Demand’ — which starred all local actors. We did everything ourselves, from building the sets to setting up the theater, and it went better than any of us could have expected. So, after our success and the warm reception we got from the community, we got together and asked Tap if we could produce another show that celebrated local talent — that was how ‘Bones and Pie’ was born — and Tap was kind enough to let us produce another one.”
“Bones and Pie,” like “By Popular Demand” before it and the number of locally written short plays that have come since, was just another sign to Juliet and Mike that their original mission of giving locals a venue to explore their creative voices was the right one.
“Creating a place where the writers and all the creative people of Key West can see their work put on the stage is what we wanted to do from the beginning and we’re really really fortunate to be able to do that here,” Juliet says. “Tap has been so very generous to let us continue to utilize the space to really explore what the artists of Key West are capable of.”
“Bones and Pie” was also the source of Mike Marrero’s short two-man play “Locura,” a colorful account of Key West in the lawless days of the mid-twentieth century when cockfighting was considered a national sport and Monkey Island was still (allegedly) infested with genetically altered chimpanzees who could tear you limb from limb if you accidentally happened upon their territory. Mike’s short play spawned a longer feature produced by and premiered at the theater in 2015, and this past year “Locura” was the subject of the first-ever theatrical exchange between the United States and Cuba.
Ultimately, the primary goal of the Key West Theater is to “continue to reach out to the community and give a voice to local writers in the Keys,” Juliet explains. “The community wants to see new, local work getting produced and I think the fact that we deliberately seek those works out is what sets us apart from the other theaters in Key West. Our main focus in every production that we do is to give a theatrical forum to people who otherwise might not have access to one. We’re so passionate about getting new works up on their feet and refining them to hopefully send them to other places.”
Four years into full-time production and the Key West Theater is charging forward with its mission to cultivate a new theater movement in Key West. This season alone, the theater is featuring two productions of original work and two plays by world-renowned playwrights, as well as a series of “Happy Hour Readings” in the newly refurbished and very intimate Back Room performance space.
First on the theatrical docket in December and January is the insanely popular musical “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” which achieved cult status when it was first released in 1998 and has experienced a rebirth since its revival on Broadway in 2014 with none other than Neil Patrick Harris in the lead role. Considered the “best rock musical ever” by Rolling Stone magazine, “Hedwig and The Angry Inch,” the genre-bending, fourth-wall-smashing musical sensation, tells the story of a fictional rock band fronted by an East German singer, Hedwig, one of the most unique characters to ever hit the stage.
“This musical blends a rock concert with amazing storytelling, making it the perfect mix for our main stage at the Key West Theater,” says Juliet. And with familiar talents like Phillip Cole White and Alexandra Zeto starring as Hedwig and Yitzhak, the theater’s production is sure to be a colorful hit.
On Jan. 24, the theater will host the first-ever “One Page Play Festival,” a selection of one-page plays all written by local playwrights and featuring all local actors and actresses. The locally written, produced, and cast short-play series is becoming a traditional yearly feature at the Key West Theater. This year the theater is giving the usual formula a fresh twist by stoking a little friendly competition between the playwrights. As Juliet describes it, “We are dedicated to helping new writers get their work on its feet and this is another fun way for them to do just that.”
“We tend to offer an alternative style — a little younger and more outside the box than your traditional theater experience in Key West,” Mike adds. “The other theaters in town offer a lot of great content and their clientele are great supporters of the arts, but we’re reaching a little bit of a different audience with our approach. Given who we are, we’re able to take more chances with our offerings and the community has been incredibly supportive of our creativity.”
Perhaps the most experimental production of the season, “Broadway Backwards” will hit the mainstage for one night only on Jan. 31. As always, the Key West Theater is committed to drawing as much talent from the local community as possible, so this silly night of gender-bending musical theater will feature tons of local performers proving gender doesn’t matter as they explore and embrace the great songs of musical theater with a twist: the men will sing songs intended for women and vice versa without changing pronouns. Juliet is particularly excited about this project.
“Performers of all ages will take the stage to sing everything from current Broadway hits to favorite songs from years past. You will see some familiar faces and some new talent as well in this invigorating evening celebrating all things Broadway. With a twist!”
From Feb. 13 through March 3, the theater will feature the world premiere of Mike Marrero’s coming-of-age tale, “Alligator Alley.” In this alternatingly bitingly funny and charmingly heartwarming play (a balance that Mike repeatedly strikes remarkably well), two childhood friends navigate the dystopian sprawl of Florida City and the wilds of the Everglades. The play centers on the headstrong Mayer, who relies on both her sense of humor and her close friend, Becca, as she attempts to escape her current surroundings and start a new life outside of Florida City.
“Alligator Alley” represents everything the Key West Theater stands for as far as celebrating new, local works.
“Bringing original theatrical work to the stage has long been a passion of mine,” Juliet explains. “Combine that with Mike’s innovative way of telling stories of our home state of Florida and you have an evening of theater that I cannot wait to help produce.”
And last, but certainly not least, from April 3-21, the theater is staging the “Night of the Living” by playwright Dave Lankford. In this comic-horror love story, Mia and Marshall’s marriage, teetering on the edge of collapse, fights to survive as a zombie pandemic quietly infects the couple’s insular world. Cross-cutting between two distant but parallel nights, Mia and Marshall must confront the most intimate and difficult choices of their lives with both humorous and heartbreaking moments.
Another huge draw for the theater has been the focus on bringing national live music acts to the Keys. The theater has partnered with the Rams Head Group, a national concert venue manager, to bring touring artists down to the Keys. The concerts have been hugely successful and 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 50 national artists and bands, including Citizen Cope, Rickie Lee Jones, Arlo Guthrie and Jefferson Starship.
In addition to the national musical acts, the theater hosts numerous nights of local music, including this year’s “New Year’s Eve Ramble.” The Ramble specifically highlights local musicians and brings together artists who otherwise don’t get to perform with one another. New this year, the Dec. 31 concert will be a celebratory night of live music featuring the best talent this island has to offer.
“This evening of local musicians coming together to perform as the Ramble is always a such great time. They put their heart and soul into the music and performance, making it a fabulous night at the theater. Live music, great cocktails, and your friends are going to make a fantastic New Year’s Eve,” Juliet says.
The theater has also had great success bringing back the old-school musical talents of Key West’s past with events hosted by local musical historian Ralph DePalma. On Feb. 3, Ralph will be producing “Full Moon Saloon,” the second concert in an installment of events paying tribute to the great venues of old Key West and featuring local talents like Bill Blue, the Nervous Guys, and the Survivors. On March 18, “A Night of Key West Soul” with Coffee Butler will be returning to the mainstage for another magical evening of throwback tunes with one of Key West’s most original voices. For the Key West Theater, preserving the memories of Key West’s musical and theatrical pasts is paramount to their mission and, according to Juliet, “Ralph DePalma has been a force promoting local musicians here in Key West. We are proud to be able to partner with him and showcase the music of Key West’s past.”
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 features state of the art recording equipment that local musicians can rent to record professional quality albums. The studio will also be used for staged readings this season, including the “Happy Hour Readings” on March 7 and April 16.
But the Key West Theater doesn’t want to just stop at getting already existing new works onto the stage – it also wants to grow the talent from the ground up and ensure the creation of new works by making sure that Florida Keys kids are getting their feet wet in the language of the theater. To that end, the Key West Theater opened the Key West Theater School for the Performing Arts in November of last year and has been working with the local high school to produce as many shows and theater classes as possible. There aren’t many theater programs or outlets for kids in the Keys, so a program like this has the potential to be life-changing and to fill an educational gap on the island.
“Our goal is really to teach technique and to instruct students in how to become their own artists and create their own work. We want to give them the vocabulary they need in order for them to be able to pursue further studies in the theatrical world,” Juliet explains.
From Nov. 30–Dec. 2, the Back Room performance space will host the Key West High School play, an as-yet-untitled evening of short plays, songs, and monologues directed by Juliet Gray and Alexandra Zeto. “These high school students are some of the most creative people I have worked with and I can’t wait to see them perform in our new Back Room performance space at the Key West Theater.” Juliet says. And after the success of last year’s “High School Musical,” the first musical performed by Key West High School students in more than four years, from April 26-28 the Key West High School Drama Club and the Key West Theater will team up again to co-produce an as-yet-to-be-named musical performed by high school students.
Perhaps most important to highlight is that the Key West Theater is in fact a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization, so support from the community and the tourist economy is crucial to ensure its continued contributions to Key West’s cultural community. The annual Key West Theater gala fundraiser will be on Feb. 23, so mark your calendars for a high-class evening of fancy dress, cocktails and dancing.
“Fundraisers like this enable us to continue to produce new original theatrical works, feature live music by local and national musicians, and provide educational programming for the next generation of performers in Key West,” Juliet says.
In addition to concerts, plays, and comedy shows, the Key West Theater is also available for rentals for everything from burlesque shows, Polish folk dancing concerts, and pole dancing competitions to private parties and corporate events. At the end of the day, for the theater’s founders and employees, the Key West Theater is all about celebrating the magic that exists in the artistic community here in the Keys. Juliet, Mike and the rest of the team unanimously feel that “it’s fun to see people being creative and have so much fun in our space.”
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. ¦