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Sixty-Nine Years & The Spotlight Still Shines On

Tulsa’s Spotlight Theatre Hosts Longest Running Production In US

Tulsa is a city with many of these wonderful hidden secrets. Not secrets that are intentionally kept, but more like ones tacked up against the corridor walls we walk through over time as we meander through the years of our lives. The secrets are tacked up for anyone to see, but we rarely notice allowing them to become secrets we later wish we would have learned earlier. One of these secrets was uncovered this past summer in an interview about a Tulsa landmark that has made a very unusual mark on history. Inside what would become an article about this place was another article, hidden in the details, about an incredible man who devoted his life to this place. His name was Jere Uncapher. The following article is as much about this man as it is the Tulsa Spotlight Theatre and its incredible run of “The Drunkard”, Jere was the hidden secret, the pleasant surprise, discovered during that interview. One story could not be told without telling the other. In many ways this man and this theatre were one as though a marriage created of fate.

Unfortunately, Jere passed only weeks after the interview and would never know that his story would be told here. But it’s a story worthy of telling and a secret deserving to be shared. This article has been left in its original present tense format written while Jere was still alive. He spent 65 years walking through the corridors of that theatre while simultaneously walking the corridor of time. It would seem only fitting to leave his words alive here just as his legacy will remain so within the walls of Tulsa’s Spotlight Theatre.

There is an aroma of the past as one walks into the small lobby at 1381 Riverside Drive in Tulsa. It’s almost familiar and yet foreign at the same time as though in our psyches there is a distant connection that is relatable, but a bit out of reach in this modern world around us. Its movie theatre carpeting and multiple layers of paint that have been rolled and brushed over the old walls first constructed in 1928 are welcoming in the same way an old screen door welcomes back an aging soul who darted through it as a child.

It’s an attempt to bring the present from the past while also beckoning those who enter to step back in time for an entertainment experience of the past. But those old walls hold more than just the most recent coat of blue paint; they have stored echoes of laughter and remnants of talent from those who have graced the nearby stage since its inception in 1952. It would be only a short year later when “The Drunkard” at The Spotlight Theatre would debut and begin a long and winding journey into, not just local history, but all of history.


But before that history, there was another one which would set the stage, as it were, for what would become the location of the longest-running play in North America. The now iconic location was initially a piano studio/school built in 1928 by Patti Adams Shriner, who selected former student and young architect prodigy, Bruce Goff to design. He would go on to create many memorable structures throughout his career that would eventually make it on the US National Register of Historic Places.

His vision for the residence had a unique design equipped with a stage and an auditorium, as well as living quarters. Unfortunately, the piano studio would falter in 1932 when it fell victim to the Great Depression, like so many other businesses of the era. The bank took it over and rented it out to Holland Hall school from 1933 until 1938. A few years later in 1942, local well-known actor, Richard Mansfield Dickenson, bought the residence not only as his home, but also a speech and theatre school.

Ten years later, he would conceive an idea to help his fellow thespians who were struggling financially in a time and place that didn’t offer much in the way of making a living in the arts. He conceived and then wrote “The Drunkard”, which is an adaptation based on the stage production of “Ten Nights in a Barroom” by William W. Pratt. Dickenson had seen the performance on the west coast and decided to write his own version - taking it from five acts to three and then converting his home into what was supposed to be a short-lived theatre run of his work.

What was intended to run for eight performances continued far beyond with each weekend giving away another sellout crowd. He had achieved his goal of helping those starving artists at the time by giving them a venue to practice their art and make a few dollars as well.


It has been 69 years since those local actors and friends of Dickenson first took the stage. Since that time, there have been many voices that have lingered on the air through the small audiences that gathered to participate in the drama and creativity unfolding on the stage. And within the midst of that stage art, there has been one voice that has been constant almost since the beginning. Not on the stage, surprisingly, but mostly behind the stage during production and the operations. He is as much a part of this long-running story as are the many, many local actors, directors and musicians who have left their mark on the quaint and worn stage of almost 100 years.

His name is Jere Uncapher and he first entered the building which would become his career home back in 1957. At that time, “The Drunkard” and “The Olio” (think variety show) had been gracing the stage for almost four years beyond its initially planned eight performances.

His grandparents were working at the Spotlight Theater and had since its inception. His grandfather was the house manager and his grandmother worked in the office in those days. Jere and his mother would visit every summer for a couple of weeks, allowing his mother to fill in so his grandparents could go on vacation. This gave Jere the opportunity to spend time backstage with Dickenson, and his mother and sister another opportunity to tap dance during the warmup show known as “The Olio”, a series of Vaudeville acts to get the audience fired up and ready for the main attraction.

Spending time with Dickenson and the actors would be like a spectral transference that leapt into Jere’s soul keeping him happily roaming the rooms and tiny backstage corridors for 65 years. By his own admission, he didn’t care much for acting, but loved the atmosphere and learning every aspect, including operating the spotlight, the rigging of the ropes backstage, and stage management duties and responsibilities.

One fateful night after several years of working as a volunteer and assistant to the assistant stage manager, neither the stage manager nor his assistant showed up. He was immediately thrust into the role of stage manager.

After that door swung open, he became the full-time stage manager. Now over 40 years later at the age of 77, he is still in that role. He has filled in a few times for one character when the actor failed to show up for the performance, but only so the show could go on. After all, it wasn’t as though he didn’t already know all the dialogue from every character. But he always felt more at home behind the stage away from the attention of the audience.

Admittedly, he doesn’t even like his photo taken. (not even for articles).

In his time at the Spotlight Theatre, Jere has seen many people come and go and the ups and down of the theatre world. And he doesn’t regret a moment of the years he has spent in the Spotlight Theatre. He also enjoys the occasional chance meeting with those who played parts 30 and 40 years ago and their surprise and reaction of shock when they ask what he has been up to, “What?! Oh, you mean you’re still there.” It makes him chuckle every time, he said.


As mentioned, the initial plan was to have eight performances which would allow the actors to make a little money. The first performance on November 14, 1953, was a full house as was the second performance and that trend continued. Dickinson was on to something. He had tapped into something human and real that allowed audience participation and it was catching on. Jere explained that in those days, Tulsa had the Little Theater, Tulsa Ballet, and the Symphony Orchestra.

In other words, not much in the way of performing arts. This added venue fit nicely to help fill that void. People just couldn’t get enough of the “Boos,” “hisses,” and applause that allowed them to become one with the actors on the stage.

“We were something different and had audience participation,” Jere said. By the time he came on board in 1957 at the tender age of 12, it had become a regular show every weekend. Sixty-nine years later and it’s still going just as it was all those years ago in the beginning. There was a 16-month hiatus due to the pandemic. Boo, hiss! But we aren’t counting that little part of recent history since it resumed following the pandemic. Yay!

“I got the bug so to speak,” Jere said about his longevity at the Spotlight Theatre. And it seemed many other Oklahomans have too, as is evident from its long run. This theatre and production are a part of Tulsa’s, and to an extent, Oklahoma’s identity. And to think that one man’s vision to help a few friends turned into something that would cast a large shadow is a testament to how the smallest of good things can become the largest of great things.

Over the years, many people have been given an opportunity to express their creativity to others while bringing a bit of joy, laughter, and a lesson in the detriment over alcohol overindulgence wrapped in humor. Their contributions and this production are a timeless story in both content and execution that take us back to a simpler time and place. And as history has shown, that place is open every Saturday night for us to take a seat, gear up our “boos” and “hisses,” and lose ourselves in the greatest form of art, the art of humanity where everyone gets to play a part.

I have intentionally left out specific details of the show’s particulars and its plot as a courtesy to those who have not yet experienced it. For more details about “The Drunkard,” their other productions, ticket prices, merchandise, and their other shows, please visit

To view a video about Tulsa Spotlight Theater by John D. Beasley visit

Spending time with Dickenson and the actors would be like a spectral transference that leapt into Jere’s soul keeping him happily roaming the rooms and tiny backstage corridors for 65 years.

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