If you face Chicago's Four Moon Tavern from North Wolcott Avenue, you're somehow reminded of London's original Globe Theatre, the one a slumlord by the name of Shakespeare co-owned. The pub's two turrets, railings and stanchions look like tiny knock-offs of The Globe's exterior before fire leveled the theater in 1613; bulky walls and boxy window frames suggest a single-mindedness within, maybe mimicking that of Bill's patrons, who expected crackerjack plays at every turn.
Now and again, Bill couldn't deliver the crackerjacks (witness his criminally overrated King Lear and his breathtakingly stupid Cymbeline, which nobody ever mounts anyway)—and, ironically, the Four Moon is just the place to register such disgruntlement. It's a killer theater hangout, crazy with performers, armchair performance historians and a bunch of people who fancy themselves part of either crowd. It was founded by four actors who needed day jobs—now, it's acclaimed for its beer, Sunday brunch, beer, crab cakes, beer, spinach salad, beer, women, beer and the disarming friendliness that often separates actors' off-stage conduct from that of their audiences.
Minneapolis. New York. San Francisco. L.A. These and other cities boast several haunts that herald a true local actors community (especially Chicago, the total theater center of the solar system). So, by gosh, wherefore art San Diego in all this, with its $250 million annual theater trade and its 50 or so Performing Arts League theater member groups and its two titanic regional flagships? Understand: I'm not talking about a place where the cast happens to wind up after a show and leaves in an hour. I mean a full-time, real actors hangout, a de facto theater in and of itself, where performance people get together like they do at their own houses.
Can anybody point me to the booze?
Longtime local theater figure Duane Daniels, star of stage, screen and TV and late of San Diego's Fritz Theatre, says no. He says I'm about 25 years too late.
“I was trying to think,” the Hollywood resident told CityBeat, “about how many deals went down at Uncle Bill's”—now Hillcrest gay bar SRO—“how many babies were made, how many theories about acting and theater and how to get an audience and what show to do next. It was incredible how much stuff happened there.” The theater crowd, Daniels said, would also feel its oats at Downtown spots like Playbill's and The Jewel Box, with its core drinking history tapering off at Nunu's in Hillcrest about 10 years ago.
“In those days,” Daniels explained, “there was a romantic quality to knowing that after the curtain call, we're all gonna change into our streetclothes and go over and start drinking and be there until the place closes and then do it again tomorrow. And that's also when the best casting and play decisions were made. The ideal tech person might be sitting at the table next to you. You never knew.”
While Nunu's is still standing, the other venues have gone on to separate pursuits. At the same time, San Diego theater has hit a low point in several respects. Daniels' own acclaimed Fritz, founded in 1991, is just about defunct. The city has lost a number of performance venues over the last four years; fewer wannabes get the chance to perform in earnest, and the larger houses are redoubling and retripling their ticket-sales efforts.
Could it be, then, that alcohol—America's social lubricant of choice and one of the central ingredients in the juiciest performance lore—is by some stretch of the imagination the missing link in local theater activity's recent downturns?Probably not. San Diego, after all, isn't necessarily a bona fide theater town, any more than it's primarily a dance town or a jazz town or a visual-arts town. The city's postmodern, anything-goes mentality usually outstrips whatever stamp theater's placed on it—so while taverns may speak to other cities' performance traditions, they're likely a poor gauge of San Diego's most important grass-roots advances in theater.
Another source, in fact, wonders whether today's local artists comprehend the vital function theater hangouts performed in Daniels' day.
“A lot of theater people here,” noted improv veteran Milo Shapiro, “see San Diego as a temporary place on their way to L.A., or they're just into it as a side-jaunt thing. Of course, there are exceptions to that. There are people who absolutely want to build their lives here and make this the theater city it ought to be or could be.
“But a lot of times, there's a feeling that San Diego's only a pit-stop: If you're serious enough to hang out in a bar with other actors, why aren't you in [Chicago]?”
If I drank, I'd drink to that. Preferably at The Four Moon.
Write to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.