Mosley Street Melodrama is sort of Wichita's stealth entertainment. Tucked into a corner of Old Town, the theatrical troupe routinely fills its 200 seats every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night. Crowds gather for barbecue, an original melodrama written by a local playwright and an accompanying musical/comedy olio.
For 14 years this month, it keeps chugging along while other — perhaps flashier — local theater groups implode from artistic differences, cut back when economic times get tough or even shut down when backing runs out.
"It's all word of mouth," Patty Reeder, co-founder and now sole owner of Mosley Street Melodrama, says of the secret to her success and longevity.
"People know they can rely on us to give them a good time. They know what they're getting. We are dependable, mindless humor. There is a formula with heroes, heroines, villains and vamps. You can boo and hiss and throw popcorn at the villain," Reeder says.
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"But we ad-lib a lot with the audience, so every show is different," she says.
"As long as people keep coming back, we must be doing something right."
How it got its start
Reeder and Scott Noah, Wichita State University music theater graduates, decided to launch Mosley Street Melodrama after growing impatient for someone to revive the melodramas at Empire House in Cowtown.
"We had both performed at Empire House and had a blast. When it closed down, we waited two years thinking someone would do something because it was too delightful of a genre to let go by the wayside," Reeder says.
"When nothing happened, we decided to do it ourselves," says Reeder, who came back to Wichita in 1988 after giving New York a try. She had several off-Broadway showcases and did some modeling.
The founders spent 1996 figuring out a location where they could find actors they could afford (college theater majors, community theater veterans, acting buddies who owed them favors) and where to get scripts when they didn't like what was available (approach local writers).
In June 1997, Mosley Street Melodrama opened its doors at 234 N. Mosley — the theater's namesake.
"We've been evolving — some might say 'mutating' — ever since. We do everything that we were taught not to do at WSU, like ... talk directly to the audience. I sometimes think we should be perpetually apologizing to (WSU theater legends) Dick Welsbacher and Joyce Cavarozzi," Reeder says with a laugh.
When co-founder Noah decided to join his family's business in 2008, Reeder became sole owner of MSM. Noah still performs on occasion.
"Scott has developed several characters that our audiences couldn't do without, like buck-toothed Okie gal, Velvetina and his outrageous Richard Simmons," says Reeder, who occasionally performs an homage to Phyllis Diller.
She spends most of her time writing, directing and producing the original musical/comedy olio that follows each 45- to 55-minute melodrama.
Her proudest accomplishment in 14 years?
"That we can put up a show in only two weeks," she jokes. "Actually, I'm proud we can help provide a living for Wichita actors so they don't have to move away. And I love how we connect with people, how we bring them all together to laugh. I sit in the back and watch, and it makes me feel really good."
Mosley's creativity catches on
Wichita's best-kept theatrical secret is getting out in ways Reeder and her troupe never imagined.
The cable Showtime series "The United States of Tara," with Emmy Award-winning actress Toni Collette, mentioned that one character could get a job having popcorn thrown at him as a villain at Mosley Street Melodrama.
"It really tickled me," Reeder says. "I don't know how they found out about us or came up with it."
Then a documentary filmmaker obsessed with Steven Spielberg's classic "Jaws" Googled the title and found "Jaws: The Melodrama" at Mosley Street. He called and came to Wichita to tape scenes for his project.
"That's yet to come out, so I don't know what that will be like," Reeder says.
Best of all, a former Kansan who is director of licensing for New York publisher Samuel French Inc. discovered the breezy, satirical scripts during a family visit. He brought them to the attention of his company.
The result: four published volumes — so far — of original melodramas by local writers Tom Frye, Mike Roark, J.R. Hurst and Carol Hughes, plus former Wichitan Bill Johnson and his wife, Rosemary, now both of Las Vegas.
"I thought the scripts were very funny and very different," says Brad Lohrenz, who has been with Samuel French for 16 years. Originally from La Crosse, Kan., he studied theater at WSU and appeared with Music Theatre of Wichita for two summers in the early 1980s.
"I particularly liked the updated contemporary feel the Mosley scripts give to traditional melodrama," says Lohrenz.
His job is to seek out new plays and assess their commercial appeal.
"There is a market for them (Mosley scripts) among amateur theatrical groups," he said. "We've had responses from high schools to senior citizens, from Mississippi to California."
Mosley Street premieres six new scripts a year, and Lohrenz is hoping to continue adding a volume a year to the catalog.
Meet the writers
With 21 scripts under his belt, Frye is the most prolific of Mosley's playwrights. He is a longtime local theater teacher (on the high school level and at Wichita State), an occasional actor (including on Broadway and in national tours) and a freelance director.
"When Patty and Scott called and asked me if I could write a melodrama, I had to stop and think. I didn't know because I'd never tried," Frye says. The key, he says, is to be flexible if better lines come along.
"I generally direct my own script, which is a plus. I let the actors ad-lib lines, and if they get a laugh, we keep it in," Frye says.
Hughes, a radio personality at KFDI, considers her 15 scripts for Mosley a "really time-consuming hobby" — but one that she loves.
"I used to be a server at Empire House when they were doing the melodramas, and it looked like a lot of fun. When I finally got the chance to write one, I discovered that it takes only about three weeks — after, that is, I spend three months working it all out in my head first," she says. "Sure, it's basically just a good-versus-evil formula. You have conflict but you keep your eye on the happy ending."
Her "Desperate Housewives of Sedgwick County" is the current show.
"I like to do a lot of movie and TV parodies and include local references because people connect with them easily," Hughes says. "I'm best at comedy because that's the way my mind works. I don't think I have a drama in me."
If You Go: Mosley Street Melodrama
What: Original melodrama, followed by original musical-comedy olio
Where: 234 N. Mosley in Old Town
When: Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays: doors open at 6 p.m., dinner from 6:15 to 7:30 p.m., curtain at 7:50.
Nightly shows from Thanksgiving to New Year's (no performances Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve or Christmas Day).
Tickets: Dinner and show: $26 adult, $22 senior (60-plus), $20 children (under 12). Show only: $16 all ages. Call 316-263-0222. Group rates and season tickets available; check www.mosleystreet.com for details.
On stage at Mosley this season
* "Desperate Housewives of Sedgwick County" — through July 16
* "Casino Roy-Al ... or How I Bet Your Mother" — July 21 through Sept. 3
* "The Devil Wore Wranglers" — Sept. 8 through Oct. 29
* "Goodnight Gracie! Did You Lose Your Garland?" —Nov. 10 through Dec. 30