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Backwards & Forwards: a series on Las Vegas theatre history, Part 1

Updated: Jan 16, 2022

You don’t know where you’re going, until you know where you’ve been. - Old English Proverb

“Know from whence you came. If you know whence you came, there are absolutely no limitations to where you can go.” - James Baldwin

About four years ago, in a conversation with the critic everybody loved to hate, Anthony Del Valle, and Bill Schafer, Night Beat Magazine publisher, the titular subject came up this way: I recalled that, in separate theatre parking lot conversations—where many interesting topics get covered—I mentioned two people. The reply was “Who is that?” The people I mentioned had made significant contributions to the theatre community, and I thought, “One has a venue named for him! How could you not know who he is?!?” Then Tony said that someone stated during a curtain speech it was the first time Shakespeare was being presented in Las Vegas. I laughed heartily! The companies that have produced his works over the decades would’ve been surprised to learn that.

Because I’ve been hanging around the local theater scene “thisclose” to 40 years, perhaps I can provide some history. Perhaps shine a light on how far we’ve actually come. This represents the very base, and layer in others as we progress through the years.

As usual, “the good old days” are never so golden, but time makes them so. The struggle becomes something remembered fondly by those who lived through it. The early days of theater in Las Vegas are no different. Every company struggled to stay afloat. Many companies opened, ran a few productions, and closed.

When I blew into town in 1980, the Boulder First Nighters had been in operation for over 40 years and were on their last legs. Closer in, the University of Nevada-Las Vegas Department of Theatre Arts (UNLV-DTA) had been producing plays since the early 1960s. And, before they dropped “Community” from College of Southern Nevada a program had successfully launched in the mid-’70s in the one and only campus on Cheyenne Avenue.

There were six companies operating, either full-time or part-time: Theater Exposed (TX), a small group of wildly talented UNLV-DTA graduates, dedicated to doing all things considered “too risky” for the rest, think Mamet, Sheppard, Albee, and toss in a good sprinkling of Shakespeare along the way; Musical Theater Arts Guild of North Las Vegas, the name explains it all; Theater Arts Society, Inc (TASI), another company offering the standard fare; The Rainbow Company, the City of Las Vegas sponsored children’s theatre company; Las Vegas Little Theatre (LVLT) offering basic community theater fare; and The Meadows Playhouse, a semi-professional company, producing mostly dinner theater type scripts (sans the dinner).

I would be beaten severely if I failed to mention Super Summer Theater, which would bring the total number of theater companies to seven. The organization at Spring Mountain Ranch State Park self-produced only once that I’m aware of. So then, as now, the existing companies around town presented Woodsy Owl Day, and the slate of each summer’s three plays. Technically, that makes them half venue-half producing organization, so they count, right?

Between them, including UNLV and CSN, they produced approximately 30 to 40 plays each year. That was a lot of theater for such a small town. And it was still a small town. According to Wolfram\Alpha, the population in 1980 for the metropolitan area was approximately 265,000. That was when Flamingo did not cross I-15, Rainbow represented the western reaches of town, and we had our own bridge to nowhere at the current Rio Hotel property.

If you think finding performance space is difficult now… The three performance venues of Reed Whipple and Charleston Heights Arts Center on Brush St. housed The Rainbow Company and other City sponsored events, such as music and dance presentations, which took booking precedence. The Flamingo Library had a small black box space. The Meadows Playhouse and LVLT used small storefronts. Those represented the sum total of venues available, which may explain the number of productions each year. Oh, wait! Spring Mountain Ranch had a “stage;” a 20-foot by 40-foot wooden platform held up by concrete blocks; the dressing rooms were sheets and blankets stretched around trees and bushes. Of course, UNLV had the Judy Bayley, and CSN their little black box.

How many performance spaces do we have available today? The three City spaces are still there, of course, as is Spring Mountain Ranch albeit new and improved. The City added Cashman Theater - for those who are able to afford such elegance, or think they can attract that large an audience. The Library system added four stages to their inventory, and an amphitheater (of sorts), bringing their stage total to six (Westside Library, Summerlin Library, Winchester Library, Flamingo Library (2), Sahara Library amphiteatre). The City of Henderson has built two outdoor spaces. The Clark County Government Center has an outdoor facility. Clark County Parks and Recreation added a stage at Winchester Community Center. The Springs Preserve added an outdoor venue. Smith Center added three more stages to the inventory.

Of course, UNLV added the Black Box and the Paul Harris to their inventory; CSN added the Horn. ArtSquare opened. The Onyx has come and gone, but Majestic rose from the ashes on Main Street. Theatre in the Valley opened a tiny storefront space. The Usual Place and Inspire both brought downtown into the scene. There’s Baobab in Town Square. LVLT, lo these many years later, has three performance venues. My lord! That’s, what, XXX stages in all. Compare that list to three decades ago.

In the last year of his life, Tony Del Valle said he reviewed more than 140 plays, presented by too many theatre companies to list here, and still hadn’t seen everything. That is quite a leap in progress.

There is so much ground to cover. This could easily turn into a 1,000 page book. Subsequent pieces in this series will introduce some of the people who put (literal) blood, sweat, and tears into making the impossible, possible. People like John McHugh, Paul Harris, Joan Snyder, Marguerite Hall, Jack Bell, Ellis Pryce-Jones.... They are the ones who helped lay the foundation for what we all enjoy today and, to a certain degree, take for granted. We have those groundbreakers, and so many others, to thank for leveling out the dirt and spreading the gravel along the path.

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