When Jessica Zeller went to a show at Pocket Sandwich Theatre for the first time three years ago, she thought she was settling in for a night of serious theater. Then the popcorn started flying.
"The first show I saw was a melodramatic comedic reimagining of Jekyll and Hyde for Halloween," Zeller says. "Jekyll and Hyde is my favorite book and Broadway musical, so I can't get enough of it."
The Strange Case of Jekyll & Hyde, written by the theater's late co-founder, Joe Dickinson, is true to the central story and setting of the Robert Louis Stevenson classic as well as its thematic exploration of one man's struggle with good and evil.
The similarities stop there.
"There were lots of double entendres and dirty jokes because half the cast was comprised of vulgar prostitutes," Zeller says. "My favorite parts were Hyde's scenes because the actor portrayed the character like a 1920s silent film actor, over the top and cartoonish."
Just like all of Pocket Sandwich's melodramatic comedies, Dickinson wanted the audience to be involved in the story, the drama and the jokes. The 76 original scripts written for the theater by more than 200 local playwrights are strewn with hilarious innuendo and dramatic irony, all delivered with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, with colorful characters who look and sound as though they jumped out of a Rocky & Bullwinkle short.
The villains are impossible to miss. The audience is not just allowed but encouraged to bathe them in boos, hisses and popcorn when they enter a scene.
Pocket Sandwich Theatre's comedic formula hasn't changed much in the last 40 years. Somehow, its unapologetic fun always works.
"When a critic said we were the most fun you could have at a Dallas theater, we said let's run with that," says Rodney Dobbs, the theater’s artistic director, who opened Pocket Sandwich with Dickinson at a Lower Greenville Avenue sandwich shop in 1980. "That's exactly what we want to be."
The theater has helped build a Dallas theater community that's doing everything it can to keep things going after the radioactive landfill that was 2020. The theater has provided the first paychecks to hundreds of actors and crew members whose headshots adorn the theater's walls alongside a stuffed moose head named Bruce. Some have gone on to run local theater successes such as the Pegasus Theatre and the Dallas Shakespeare Festival. Pocket Sandwich gave early breaks to performers who achieved national fame, among them TV actor Brian Jay Smith who starred in Netflix’s Sense8 and Stargate Universe and has a role in the new Matrix film. The Chicks, then known as The Dixie Chicks, performed intermissions during Pocket's mainstage shows in the '90s in between busking their tunes downtown.
“It’s something that adds uniqueness and that you can’t get anywhere else,” says Jeff Vance, a 15-year partner and 25-year director and set designer for the theater. “Dallas’ artistic community would lose a great incubator for artists.”
Storytelling and theater ran deep throughout Dickinson’s life until his death in 2010 at 78. His son Brad Dickinson, who established the Dickinson Bartlett law firm and is a longtime partner of the theater, says his father grew up in a small town in Idaho called St. Maries, where he wrote award-winning plays and stories.
“For some reason, it hit him but no one else in his family as I’m aware of who’s been involved in any type of theater,” Brad says. “It’s just always been from my earliest memories of him being involved with theater and writing.”
Dickinson and Dobbs first met on a set at the Dallas Repertoire Theatre. Dobbs helped with the sets and Dickinson performed on the stage. The two started talking about doing their own productions as soon as they met, and two years later, they went into the theater business together with the first iteration of Pocket Sandwich Theatre, a name that comes from the Pocket Sandwich Shop where they set up their first stage.
“Joe and I just hit it off from the time we met each other,” Dobbs says. “It’s one of those where we were just immediate friends. We always liked and respected each other even though there was 22 years difference in our ages. We always agreed on things artistically. We had fun together and enjoyed working. Everyone said we were perfect partners.”
Melodrama, with its exaggerated characters and plots, experienced its peak in popularity in the 19th century, particularly in western towns. So the theater chose William Henry Smith’s The Drunkard as its first melodrama, the most famous of the temperance plays with the right kind of heroes, damsels and villains for its cheering and booing audiences. The tradition of the audience throwing popcorn at the bad guys or girls is almost as old as the melodrama.
“They were written for frontier entertainment, so they were more of a typical type of melodrama like Snidley Whiplash, Dudley Do-Right and Sweet Sue, characters who were well defined,” Dobbs says.
The theater also performed dramas and comedies like Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s Inherit The Wind, Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park and Mary Chase’s Harvey and even some experimental theater like Kurt Vonnegut’s Happy Birthday, Wanda June. The melodramas adapted by Dickinson were what brought in the biggest and loudest crowds and steadiest income at the box office.
“When we do a show, we think, is it a show people would have fun at?" Vance says. "We've done a few things that are a little bit more dramatic, but the question I ask myself is, is it a show I want to watch with some beer and nachos? If it got too serious from that, maybe it's not for us."
Four or five years after founding the theater, Dickinson and Dobbs realized the melodramas they were doing didn’t have to just stick to stuff from the Old West. They expanded the targets of their parodies by producing spoofs of horror and sci-fi movies that occupied the late-night TV dials. Their subjects ranged from classic Universal movie monsters — Drac in the Saddle Again and Frankenstein: The Musical — to cheesier, lower-budget films with melodramas called Bikini Beach Bloodsuckers, Atomic Cavegirls of Island Zero and Attack of the Killer Mutant Leeches. The theater's reach would expand to the massive scope of pop culture like J.R.R. Tolkein's Hobbit and Lord of the Rings stories (Herbitts, Wizards & Borks...Oh My!), Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek (Star Trip: A Tale of Two Captains) and Mario Puzo's The Godfather (The GodMudda).
Dickinson also wrote a musical version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol called Ebenezer Scrooge that premiered in 1982 and has run every Christmas since.
“You’d bring a kid to a melodrama who thinks, ‘Oh God, I have to go the theater?’ and they have fun,” Brad Dickinson says. “That was something Dad realized. Rodney did too. Those kids are going to grow up and want to go see more serious shows and expand their horizons, and they have. It’s the same experiences with our actors and actresses.”
The theater’s freewheeling nature can be just as fun for the cast.
“You can make a lot more bold choices than you would in most places,” says actor Stevie Witkowicz, who’s been part of several Pocket Sandwich productions over the last years. “There’s a family atmosphere that runs the place, and it bleeds into the show. It’s like a Laugh-In feel where anything can happen, but you’re still safe.”
Pocket Sandwich affords the audience the same opportunity to explore the space. Some sit no more than five feet from the edge of the stage.
“The audience is just as likely to derail the show as anything else,” Witkowicz says. “When I was in [the superhero spoof The Mighty Valkyries] with [actor] Michael Speck, it was the very last scene of the show and he’s got two lines and he screams out, ‘All right!’ and someone throws popcorn right in his mouth. Then there’s an applause break and a cheer and another person throws a piece of popcorn right in this mouth again. We’re backstage going, ‘What is taking so long?’ They just witnessed two half-court shots.”
The schedule expanded to a late night that allowed more room for comedy, music and variety acts as well as more mature spoofs using Pocket Sandwich’s signature stage formula. Thanks to theatrical production groups such as Rooftop Productions, the theatre staged an acclaimed parody called The Roof that skewered Tommy Wiseau’s epically awful film The Room and included a surprise stage cameo by actor Dan Janjigian from Wiseau's original. It also brought Dallas Triassic Trek, a Jurassic Park spoof originally titled Camp Cretaceous until a Netflix kids show of the same name forced them to find another alliterative title.
“I just love the whole parody concept,” says Jeny Siddall, an actress, producer and director with Rooftop Productions who’s also performed in several Pocket Sandwich melodramas. “I love the concept of mocking pop culture in a loving way, and that’s kind of their deal. That and just the people. There are some of the best people I’ve ever met. I just moved from Texas and didn’t know a lot of people. They were all very welcoming and accepting. They are my first Texas family after that.”
Last year was shaping up to be another stellar one for Pocket Sandwich and it planned to celebrate its 40th anniversary by bringing back eight of the theater’s classic favorites for its large fanbase. Instead, the COVID-19 pandemic forced them to put those plans on hold and put Pocket Sandwich in peril. Safety requirements and common decency prevents them from selling food and drinks, performing closer to the crowd and staging shows even with reduced crowds. Still, the theater is on the hook for its monthly expenses.
Dobbs says the theater has been able to stay afloat, for now, thanks to a contingency fund, but “it’s running pretty thin right now.”
“It’s been very disappointing,” Vance says. “We selected a 40th anniversary season that we were very proud about. It celebrated a lot of things: commitment to local playwrights, a variety of shows, a history of our shows. I was sorely disappointed we didn’t get to do it because they were all about expressing appreciation to the writers, designers and actors over the years. It’s a bummer.”
The theater started a GoFundMe campaign in July that’s raised over $13,000 in donations for its staff, who haven’t had shows to work at since the outbreak started. They’ve also held a few online shows, including an interactive murder mystery called The Holiday Inheritance and a sketch show called Twisted Dickens that offered bizarre takes on Dickens' holiday classic. This Christmas season is the first to not have a rendition of Dickinson’s Ebenezer Scrooge musical, but they were able to stage a live radio play rendition of the Frank Capra classic It’s a Wonderful Life for a month-long run to a reduced capacity crowd.
People were even asking if they could make donations, which Vance calls “incredibly generous for a theater that’s not a [nonprofit].”
“There’s a lot of reasons to hope, and I’m trying to hang on to that,” Vance says. “The truth is, at our current fixed expenses, there’s no way we’re going to ride out six months to a year of virtually no sales. If we can get some of our fixed costs to something we can manage so we can survive these few months and I think we’re looking at six to be optimistic where people feel comfortable going out again. If we get to that point, I think we’ve really got a shot.”
Dobbs says they had “a good meeting with our leasing agent” regarding the rent, and the rest of the staff are working on finding ways to reduce their expenses long enough to reopen.
“Yes, we have digital content, but it can’t replace the experience of sitting in an audience with complete strangers who bond over the same activity for two to three hours at a time,” Zeller says.
The absence is just as big to the performers, even those who get booed and pelted with popcorn.
“I’m worried about all theaters,” Siddall says. “That’s kind of my home. I’m just hoping they can hold on long enough to survive. I think a lot of people are in the same place as me, where they consider it their second home and family. Losing it would be devastating.”