When the new Roxy’s Downtown at 412 1/2 E. Douglas has its grand opening on Nov. 28, it will also be a homecoming – not to mention a birthday – for Christine Tasheff.
“This building’s always had a lot of sentiment for me,” said Tasheff, the theater’s artistic director.
Years ago, her sister and brother-in-law, Marni and Rich Vliet, had their Looking Glass restaurant on the first floor and their offices on second floor, where Tasheff’s office is now.
In 1993, Tasheff opened Cabaret Oldtown on the second floor, which had been home to a music venue called Roxy’s Downtown and then a recording studio before she opened.
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In 2005, Tasheff sold Cabaret Oldtown, which continued as a theater until this year.
Now there’s a group of new owners, including John Hammer, a former set builder and art teacher who will serve as the theater’s CEO and operating manager.
“We are doing top-to-bottom beautification of this theater,” Tasheff said. “Our first year our line-up is going to be repeating three or four of the shows … that had proved to be the most popular during my tenure.”
That includes “Always…Patsy Cline” with the original cast and “Pageant.”
First, though, there will be a couple of holiday shows: “Plaid Tidings” and “The Santaland Diaries.”
What did you grow up thinking you might like to do?
Folk singer. I was a hippie. I played guitar. Peter Paul and Mary were my idols. … I went to see them in concert. … I went backstage afterwards, and I asked Mary Travers if she could come out to my house the next day for a hootenanny. Oddly enough, she declined.
But you did go on to be a folk singer yourself. How was it?
I loved it. … I loved the freedom. I got to see a lot of places. It was really easy. … It was just me and my guitar and my Karmann Ghia and my dog. I lived close to the beach. … It was a pretty good life. It was maybe too good of a life. … I got in trouble with cocaine, with drugs, and that’s what got me to come home. I’m going to be celebrating my 32nd year of sobriety … next April.
What got you into the theater business?
I missed entertaining. I missed singing. Bucky Walters, darling Bucky Walters, told me … they were looking for a female singer to be in Comedia, which was the old Wichita Community Theatre’s old SNL. It was kind of like Gridiron meets SNL. … It just seemed like a safe avenue for me.
How did you parlay that into owning Cabaret Oldtown?
Basically, I would do that every summer. … And then in 1993, we were trying to find a venue to use for Comedia, and to make a long story short, this space was available up here. … All I’d set out to do was find a place to do a summer and ended up owning a theater and producing.
Did you have any formal theater training?
I didn’t. Comedia was as formal training as I got. I certainly had experience with entertaining, and I guess I felt that gave me a sense of what people want to see or hear.
And then you got a crash course in business?
Oh, my god, yes. It was just learn as you go. … I opened this place originally for $10,000, and we had basically a black box set. We didn’t have money for props. We barely had money to buy liquor and glasses.
First you opened with Comedia. Then what?
“Then I did a second little murder mystery thing that failed pretty miserably. I had two dimes to rub together and took a risk with a show, “Six Women With Brain Death Or Expiring Minds Want to Know.” … It’s edgy. It’s political, and it hit like gangbusters. … It certainly opened my eyes to the fact that there was an audience in this town for edgier theater. People wanted to laugh.
Which turned into a saying for you, right?
If you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up too much space. … I actually saw it on a T-shirt. It’s not original with me, but I like it. … I wanted to design what we did here around that quote. … I loved “Sound of Music,” but you weren’t going to see that here.
Why did you sell the theater?
Twelve years of trying to wear so many hats. I was pretty worn out. It was just me. I was producer and owner, and that’s a lot of responsibility to put on the shoulders of one person.
What have you been doing since then?
I got into decorative painting, and for the last nine years, I’ve been making a living as an artist, and I do a lot of portrait work and focusing on dog portraits, pet portraits, and I’ve traveled a lot.
Why are you getting back into theater?
Because I love it, and I missed it, and it’s a true, true passion for me. It’s the happiest I’ve ever been in my life, and that’s covering 62 years of ground. … Even with all the stress, it was the happiest time.
And you think it will be again?
I get to do everything I loved to do before but without the pressure. … It’s like eating all the cake without the calories.
It’s certainly what this theater’s going to be about. The huge difference in the shows since I produced them here before is that the royalties for a booked show have quadrupled. It’s become so much more costly to do a licensed show. I just couldn’t believe it.
Is there a big market for what you want to do?
I certainly think there is a big market. If we get the people that we had in the past coming here, we were very successful and had full houses. One reason I signed on with John is I’m so enamored with his vision with this theater. He’s really wanting to push it more as an art center along with a theater. We want to bring in films, art, concerts, musical events. … I think the way for this business to succeed and make money is we are able to utilize this space six nights a week.
Is this re-energizing for you?
Oh, absolutely, although going up and down the steps all day is harder than it was years ago, so I’m going to spin classes five days a week to keep up with this theater.
What’s something few people know about you?
I love to mow. … We have three and a half acres … two of which are mowing instant gratification. You put an hour into this job, and it’s just gorgeous. And no one can call me. It’s escapism for me. It’s such a quick fix for making something beautiful.