Big venues are all about spectacle. People seated in the balcony rent opera glasses. Nobody rents opera glasses at the Thistle Dew Dessert Theater. Just ask Tom Kelly, who runs the place.
“This is Sacramento’s most intimate theater. I mean, you’re literally almost on the stage.”
Kelly isn’t kidding. Until recently, the Thistle Dew had 28 seats. Over at the Wells Fargo Pavilion, a few blocks away, they have up to 48 ushers for each Music Circus performance. But the Thistle Dew is growing. Earlier this year, Tom Kelly added nine more seats, boosting his capacity to 37. However, it’s still the smallest theater in town, the kind of place where you can almost touch the performers. That’s partly because the Thistle Dew, which is at the corner of 19th and P, was once a Victorian home.
“It was built in 1894, actually one bedroom, with nursery…. It’s a huge house for a one bedroom house. It has a dining room, a foyer.”
Like many Sacramento homes of that era, the living quarters were built eleven steps above ground level, because the river often flooded in those days. The theater is in what used to be the basement, a few steps below ground level. The stage measures 12 feet by 16 feet -- about enough space to park an SUV. Kelly designs his shows to fit those dimensions.
“I try to keep the cast between two and six, six at the maximum. And I like to keep the plays on more on a personal intimate level, and the audience sees every little move, hears every little noise.”
Most little theaters are highly specialized – focusing on black plays, or Asian-American plays, for instance. But Kelly insists on variety, and the reason lies in his past.
“I spent sixteen years in marketing in New York City. In marketing, in order to be successful, it has to be repeated, repeated, repeated. But at some point in time you have to say ‘I need a change.’ “
So at the Thistle Dew, you’ll sometimes find a literary piece by Dylan Thomas, or Athol Fugard. But the next show might be an an original play with a single performer impersonating a historic American, like Clarence Darrow, or John Wilkes Booth. Or a comedy, anything from a Shakespeare spoof to a sex farce.
The Thistle Dew operates almost like a private club. Kelly, as the host, likes to wear a dress shirt, and a tie. There is no advertising. And during intermission, you’re served a slice of cake, or fruit pie, and a steaming cup of coffee. Kelly likes to make sure that people get to know eachother.
“When you walk in, it’s not like walking into any other theater. You’re walking into what Ellie and I like to call ‘our party’ every Friday and Saturday night. Everybody is greeted and introduced to everybody else. At least we try. So that the conversations are struck, and people find eachother in this small intimate space.”
A space that specializes in small, intimate plays… plus a piece of cake.