The Lakewood Theater opened in 1938 as a cinema house with it’s first picture being “Love Finds Andy Hardy” starring Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, a film you could see for 15 cents. By the 1970s it had become a successful discount theater, closed briefly in the 80’s to later reopen as a live event venue. Viva Dallas Burlesque began in 2011 as a monthly event at the the theater, and expanded in 2013 to include two monthly shows, adding Cirque du Burlesque. With burlesque audience numbers just shy of 10,000 tickets annually, the Lakewood Theater has become the hub of the Dallas burlesque scene. Last month, the news broke of the impending close of The Lakewood Theater, and it’s future is unknown, though there is much speculation. Viva Dallas Burlesque fan and Dallas burlesque community member, Louie Sez reflects.
Most of Long Island was sod farms, duck farms, and potato fields during the 20s and 30s. Ground Zero of the postwar real estate development is located where I grew up – Levittown. There were smallish cities and oversized towns sprinkled across the Island, some towns dating from the 1600s. Many of these miniburgs built huge, air-conditioned Cathedrals to Celluloid where, for a mere five cents, one could forget about the Depression and Dustbowl and lose oneself in the phantasy of film.
During the 50s and 60s, when television began to transform mass entertainment into a vast wasteland of vapid comedies, stereotypical Westerns, and tiresome variety shows, the huge castles began to see less and less use. The economic horrors of the 1970s crushed one small business after another. Within a few years, increasing property taxes, the passing on of the buildings’ original owners, and determined pressure from developers made the choice of razing versus renovation an easy one. Wrecking balls brought down the once-mighty oracles of Hollywood. Parking lots and strip malls sprung up like daisies on their graves.
One theater, the Lido in Long Beach (perhaps it was that other art deco theater in Garden City?) defied destruction. The new group of owners renovated it to its prewar glory. My future wife and I went to see “A Bridge Too Far” shortly after the theater’s reopening. I don’t remember much of the movie, as I could not stop staring at the beauty of the intricate details in the theater’s interior. Statues of the twelve Muses stood on sconces just below the improbably high ceiling. They smiled beatifically topless down at the audience. The theater had a pipe organ that rivaled those found in regional cathedrals. The organ had at least five keyboards and would have intimidated Keith Emerson with its complexity. The organist played a mélange of classical pieces, movie themes, and dreaded pop music before the film started – none of that 20-minutes-of-commercials nonsense we suffer through today.
Like the Allied forces in the film, the theater also was trying to preserve a bridge too deep in enemy territory – this one, a bridge to the past. It closed after a few years, suffered a series of convenient fires, and was eventually torn down. My fascination with classic theaters remains until this day.
Jump forward thirty-five years in time. We’ve relocated to Dallas and found ourselves looking for dinner in the Lakewood area one night. We had been assured that Angelo’s Restaurant served absolutely authentic Italian food, despite its awkward floor plan and less-than-snappy service. We gorged ourselves and waddled out into the mild evening air to walk off the extra calories. Staring at us, as a bolt from Apollo, was the multi-neon spire of the Lakewood Theater. We wandered up to the front door, pressing our noses against the glass. Dena came to the door and asked us what we were doing. I said that we were fascinated with old theaters and we were curious about this one. She let us in and gave us the grand tour, recalling the theater’s provenance and its current usage. She ended her spiel by mentioning that there was a burlesque show on the first Friday of every month.
Burlesque? I dimly remembered images of Jack Ruby, women with artificially rhyming stage names, and tiny ads with grainy, unflattering photos of women, scattered on the periphery of the New York Daily News sports pages. The burlesque I’d imperfectly remembered had survived into the 21st century?
During the drive home that night, we decided to go. The next show was the “All That Glitters” performance on June second, 2011. We expected something amateurishly clumsy and torrid. We were so delightfully wrong. The professionalism displayed onstage by the performers and required behind the scenes to pull off for such a marvelously executed event was screamingly obvious. We were hooked, right then and there. We’ve been to more shows than not ever since. A year or two back, a second monthly show was added – Cirque de Burlesque, which runs mid-month, featuring more theatrical acts, ones involving hanging from silks or other aerial apparatuses, contortions, comedy, acrobatics, hula hooping, most while stylishly removing clothing.
While all this teasing goes on, the climate is changing. Parking for the Lakewood was never abundant, as it was built when walking, streetcars, and buses were the dominant modes of urban transportation. Our economy is revisiting the 1970s. Taxes are up, renovation funds are down.
The Universe has been around fourteen billion years, give or take. Less, if you’re a strict Creationist. Either way, there are no constants. Sometimes things happen too quickly to properly perceive, sometimes change is slower than the hour hand on a clock dial. Sometimes too much change happens successively in too short of a time span. Sometimes change happens without warning.
As we entered out fourth year of Burlesque fandom, post appeared in FaceBook about the sale of the Lakewood Theater. I’d seen this sort of thing before and got it all in one gulp. It was a shock. The theater’s survival prospects did not look good.
The November Viva Dallas Burlesque show was that night. We spoke with the show’s producers about the ramification of the sale. They’d prepared. They had already been planning a move to a different, as-yet undisclosed venue, but they were not as far along in the process to be comfortable with this sudden announcement. There was no time for them to prep their production team, to brief the local and nationwide performers, or to announce to their fans and overall public that the venerable Viva Dallas Burlesque show was moving to a new location. How would their fans react? The producers were worried.
Well, just what had made the Viva Dallas shows so successful? Was it the production? Was it the performers? Was it the venue? Was it luck? (Do your homework – Viva Dallas is the largest burlesque show in Texas, and probably in the entire country, filling the 800-odd seat Lakewood regularly. But don’t take my word on it. Look it up.)
It’s all of the above, to varying degrees. Slipshod and imprecise production can produce a tasty nugget of a show once it a while, but it can’t do that often, much less with any repeatability. Viva’s production team, from initially planning a show’s concepts, to booking stage talent, to marketing each show, to wrangling the myriad of operating details during the night of, has been smooth and consistent from the fan’s POV.
The local and imported performers vie for the prestige of performing in a Viva show. Only the best survive the producers’ sharply critical eyes and judgment. The talent has been top notch.
What about the venue? How many fans come to ogle that beautiful old theater more than the semi-clad beautiful women frolicking on the stage? Very few. How many regulars at any given restaurant eat there for the exquisite china? Patrons are there for the food, not the device that holds it.
Was it luck? Seneca said it best: “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”
Viva Dallas has little to fear. Fans have been flocking to the show, not the building. There are always a few cranks who may stomp their feet and head off, but were they true fans to begin with? As long as the quality and excitement of Viva shows hold, success will follow them where they land.
I’d wish them good luck, but they already have that covered.