The Sears Years

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Each Saturday since 1953, without a break, a cast of characters has taken the stage at Tulsa’s Spotlight Theater to enact a performance of The Drunkard. The production is legendary, and rumor has it that the play is the longest continuously running production in America.

Such an illustrious performance calls for an equally celebrated leader. And now, the production and theater have one.

Bartlesville native Joe Sears returns to community theater following a successful professional theater career. Photo by Brandon Scott.
Bartlesville native Joe Sears returns to community theater following a successful professional theater career.
Photo by Brandon Scott.

Renowned stage actor Joe Sears has returned to the Oklahoma small stage after retiring from a legendary career. Sears is best known for the Greater Tuna plays, a comedy series that he coauthored with Jaston Williams and in which they costarred to play a cast of characters in a small Texas town. The Tuna era began in 1981 as a simple party skit and grew into four wildly popular plays, a stand-up comedy routine, a cookbook and an avid fan following.

Sears’ performances in the Tuna series earned him a Tony Award nomination for Best Actor in a Play and the opportunity to perform at the White House twice.
He has fond memories of The Drunkard, a production he remembers watching as a teenager growing up in Bartlesville.

“The show stays the same, but the actors change,” explains Sears. “It’s the same show I saw back in the ‘60s.” 

“Every week there are different acts,” explains Sears. “Sometimes there are jugglers, dancers, musicians, comedians or a magic act.”

In fact, The Drunkard dates back to the mid 1800s, and Tulsa’s tongue-in-cheek version has been ongoing since 1953. But, don’t be deceived by its longevity. Sears says the play is a fast-paced, laugh-filled event that brings smiles to the entire family.

“There are lots of fun things to keep the guest entertained,” says Sears. Before the evening’s main event, audiences enjoy The Olio and a sing-a-long. “Every week there are different acts,” explains Sears. “Sometimes there are jugglers, dancers, musicians, comedians or a magic act.”

The production’s home is the Spotlight Theater on Riverside Drive. It’s even older than Tulsa’s Drunkard. A capital improvements campaign is underway to pay for necessary renovations and repairs of the theater, designed by renowned architect Bruce Goff and built in 1928.

“The building needs to be restored for the generations of audiences and actors to come,” says Sears.

He hopes that the building can bring joy and inspiration to young actors, just as it inspired him when he was young. The Spotlight Theater has a popular children’s theater program.

“My family history is steeped in Oklahoma,” says Sears, who once again calls Oklahoma home. “I started in theater here. I would have been perfectly content to spend my life in community theater here.”

And, he’s returned to the small stage to encourage a new generation of actors.
“I wanted to come back to offer something to my state, to work with Oklahoma kids,” says Sears. “I like to work with kids who wouldn’t normally have the opportunity to be on stage. When you have learned a discipline, apply the director’s teaching and receive the audience’s applause, it is so uplifting.”

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