Contemporary Melodrama and the Motown Sound Come to Cripple Creek

The Spoilers

by Catherine Mahrholz:


Many longtime residents of Teller County, those of us who predate the advent of limited stakes gaming, will remember the Melodramas and Olios that were produced by the local and legendary Mackin family. Popular in the 1800s, the Mackins revived this form of entertainment and presented nationally acclaimed productions, using original scripts from the period, in the Gold Bar Room theater of the Imperial Hotel.

A Melodrama is simply a play. The fun factor is the audience participation.

An Olio is an archaic name for a medley of songs, presented live and accompanied by a man, usually a man anyway, playing the piano.

The Gold Bar Room theater still exists and looks much as it did when I first began attending these plays back in the late 1900s.

Today, the Thin Air Theatre Company continues the Cripple Creek tradition of presenting melodramas, followed by an Olio.

During the summer months, professional actors and actresses from around the country come to our little mountain town to entertain locals and visitors alike. The melodramas are now presented at The Butte Theater on Bennett Avenue, just steps away from the casinos.

This summer, through the end of August, the Thin Air Theatre Company proudly presents “The Spoilers.” Adapted and directed by Mickey Burdick, a veteran of Cripple Creek melodrama, “The Spoilers” takes place during the Alaskan Gold Rush of 1900.

As with most melodramas, the plot is predictable, but what makes this so much fun is that audience participation is encouraged. At the matinee performance we attended on a Saturday afternoon, people young and old and children of all ages had the opportunity to watch live theater. Interaction with the performers provides a unique experience, not possible at a movie or in front of a television set.

The story takes place during the early days of the great Alaska Gold Rush in the early 1900s. Miner Roy Glenister and his partner Joe Dextry set out for justice and revenge against the men who stole their claim.

With Burdick’s direction, the entire cast did a superb job of portraying the characters with subtle contemporary touches; all with good taste and finesse.

While all of the actors and actresses showed enormous talent and an enthusiastic stage presence, two of them stand out in my memory.

While shopping in Cripple Creek, the day before we attended “The Spoilers,” I had a chance encounter at Cripple Creek Candy with Lindsey Bristol. She is a charming young woman who is originally from Biloxi, Mississippi.

Bristol attended the University of Montevallo in Alabama where she earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Musical Theater. She now lives in New York City. Already she has an impressive resume. Acting is her first love, but flashing a brilliant smile, she said she’s been told she “moves well!”

And indeed she does! Bristol portrayed two characters in “The Spoilers.” In the first half of the play she portrayed a very proper Victorian lady, Mrs. Champain.

Her portrayal of Duchess, a brazen dance hall girl in the second half of “The Spoilers” included a hint of contemporary dance moves with just a dash of her southern charm.

“The Spoilers,” like the melodramas of yesteryear, is a four part presentation with an intermission in the middle. This allows the audience to venture to the front of the theater for refreshments before returning to their seats for the rest of the show. As in the days of the Mackin productions, the actors and actresses, in costume, tend bar and sell refreshments.

My husband and I were pleased to discover that the selection of beverages at the bar included one of our favorite microbrews out of Montana, an excellent ale with the moniker “Moose Drool.” An appropriate name for an adult beverage served in a mining town famous for its herd of donkeys!

Next stop was the snack bar where we were elbow to elbow with people of all ages, including quite a few children. Popcorn seemed the perfect salty snack to go along with our “Moose Drool,” which we took back with us to our table to continue watching “The Spoilers.”

During the second half of the play, another actor began to catch my attention. A young black man, a very handsome man, Joel Oramas (pronounced Jo-L) portrayed Joe Dextry. He was the only African-American in the cast.

In years past, when attending a melodrama at the Gold Bar Room, the Olio that followed the play was amusing, but did not really thrill me too much.

Not so at the Butte Theater that Saturday afternoon. This Olio presentation promised a Motown theme! The actors returned to the stage and gave impressive, enthusiastic and very talented renditions of some classic Motown songs, accompanied by an updated piano man on a keyboard with synthesizer.

Motown, a nickname for Detroit, Michigan, was home to many talented African-American musicians. Music studios there produced what became known as the “Motown Sound” in the early to mid 1960s.

Having heard these songs while in junior high and high school in Palo Alto, California, I knew the words to all the songs presented that afternoon.

The entire cast really gave it their all with renditions of many classic Motown hits by such famous singers as Diana Ross; an amazing performance by Lindsey Bristol.

My favorite, without a doubt, in this contemporary rendition of an Olio, was Oramas. He engaged his fellow actors, all of whom were Caucasian, in a rollicking look back at the music created and produced in Detroit Michigan during the early 1960s.

What a treat to see “Smokey Robinson and the Miracles!” Smokey Robinson was portrayed by Oramas, the handsome and charming young African-American actor, backed up by what can only be described as the “white” Miracles!

Since we had been fortunate enough to get seats at one of the handful of tables within a few feet of the stage, I couldn’t help but get into the spirit of the moment and rock out with the cast of “The Spoilers” as they brought to life a musical medley from the middle of the previous century.

Ok, so maybe the single bottle of “Moose Drool” gave me some liquid courage. I occasionally glanced around the theater as I danced the afternoon away. I noticed with a touch of regret and a little embarrassment, that I was the only adult up and moving.

Perhaps there would be more audience participation if the Butte Theatre would remove about three rows of seats near the stage.

To quote Irma Thomas, the ‘Soul Queen of New Orleans,’ “You can’t put your backfield in motion when you’re sittin’ on it!”

After the performance members of the cast were clearing the stage.
Amazingly, one of them was Oramas. I chatted for a few minutes with him and two of the audience members who had traveled up from the Canon City area to see this inspiring presentation; for the second time.

It was indeed inspiring. The cast of “The Spoilers” managed to convey in this afternoon performance, the message that we, as Americans, need to remember how to laugh at ourselves; to have a sense of humor about who we are and where we came from.

For a few moments, it gave this ol’ hippie chick from San Francsico, California a brief glimpse into her own past, where many of us believed that people of the world from different cultures, backgrounds, and religious beliefs could actually get along.

Peace and Love, everybody…Come on out to Cripple Creek for a roaring good time! If you put away that Smartphone and take the time to notice, you’ll see some very entertaining live theater that just for a moment, can transport you to a simpler time.

The Thin Air Theatre, along with the Heritage Center, the District Museum, the Cripple Creek and Victor Train, the Visitor Center and the Jailhouse Museum all help to provide a more well rounded destination for tourists and locals alike. There’s more to see and do in Cripple Creek than you might imagine!