Sawdust Memories

Author: Thomas James Martin
Published on: July 15, 2003

Love is now the stardust of yesterday
The music of the years gone by.
by Hoagy Carmichael and Mitchell Parish

It's evening at the Sawdust Theatre in Coquille, Oregon, and Darling Dearheart, a heroine dressed all in white, enters stage left; the audience Oohs and Ahs as she puts her hands together, starts to say her line, and then sneezes for what seems like the "twenty-third" time in the play. No one minds; everyone just laughs and smiles for the twenty-third time.

"Boo!" cries the audience as the dastardly villain appears dressed in black, sporting a V-shaped moustache and, screaming, "Curses, foiled again!" No one minds; they laugh and yell at Hadrian Heartless, once again for the twenty-third time.

The players who come from Coquille, Bandon, Coos Bay and other cities of the South Coast and refer to themselves as "Sawdusters," take the stage every year from May to September to act, sing and dance their hearts out. They continue a city tradition that goes back 37 years.

They are ordinary people from the South Coast area; a few have professional experience; a few more maybe acted in a high school play or appeared in other local theater. Mostly though, they are people from all walks of life: Title clerks and social workers, bus drivers and school superintendents; fathers and grandfathers, mothers and daughters.

They come in all shapes and sizes, just like ordinary people, from svelte to chubby, from blonde and brunette to gray and balding. Some are players who act in the comic melodramas; some are olios.

A bit slow on the uptake, I finally figure out that an olio is a performer who sings and dances or participates in sketches before the curtain during set changes. Later, I discover that the heyday of the olio was in Vaudeville. Examples of the olios (sketches and performers) are seen in the movies Hello Dolly and The Seven Little Foys.


A lady olio, in skimpy dress and fishnet stockings, lifts her long legs and braving male catcalls and other taunts, dances from stage left holding a sign that says These Cinderellas. When she reaches center stage, she flips the sign over and it reads, Sure Get The Fellas as she dances off stage right.

Sitting between my wife and her aunt, I try-- unsuccessfully I fear--to avoid staring at those shapely "be-stockinged" legs. Joyce good naturedly punches me in the side with her elbow, and I stare straight ahead for a while. Finally, I look at her smirking face and pretend to hang my head.

This season the melodrama that the "Sawdusters" are putting on is called Dire Doings At the Dusty Saw Theatre and Saloon or There Will Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight. The company puts on a different melodrama every season, and they are very entertaining. Be sure to check out the website of the Sawdust Theatre for some excellent pictures of the performance, the players and the olios.

Audience participation (Boo, Hiss, Ahhh, catcalls) is one of the elements that makes the theatre unique and contributes to making it one of the finest and oldest melodrama traditions in the western United States. Other attributes of their success are the sheer energy and skill with which they perform in offering their audience such viewing pleasure. The fact that the cast stands outside the theatre shaking hands and thanking members of the audience for attending their performance is still another element in the Sawdust's success and quite a pleasant touch also.

Besides, unbeknownst to Joyce I got to shake hands with the lady olio whose legs I admired.

You can tell they have rehearsed long and hard to produce such a fine evening. The sets are great, the music from the lone piano enthralling, but the costumes are simply wonderful and really evoke those days of gas lamps and horse-drawn carriages. You cannot help but admire and appreciate the effort of this community and the pride the all-volunteer cast and staff take in establishing successful theatre in their city.


Before the curtain goes up on Act Two in which the heroine will most likely sneeze several more times and be saved from the dastardly clutches of the evil villain by the young, dashing hero, an olio dances out cradling a sign that says These Insects Don't Bite. At mid-stage she turns it over where we see, They're Beauty in Flight.

Then, the other olios materialize in front of the curtain with the men dressed in Victorian casual clothes looking like butterfly collectors out of a Gary Larson cartoon (The Far Side) chasing fair damsels dressed as butterflies around the stage as the piano plays a bright, sparkling tune from olden days.

The original Roxy Theatre—home for the Sawdusters Old Playbillfor 28 years—burned in 1994. The new Sawdust Theatre is the result of many hours of volunteer labor and hundreds of thousands of dollars. Locals say the ambience of the "Gay 90s" that was so much a part of the old Roxy is slowly coming alive in the new theatre as volunteers finish the interior.

The Sawdusters put on their shows from Memorial Day to Labor Day, every Friday and Saturday. The curtain rises at 8 PM, but the "Gay 90's" ambience starts before the curtain goes up with a sing-along featuring old favorites from the American songbook of the era, such as and By the Light of the Silvery Moon. Prior to the play, the lady olios perform the French dance famous from 19th century music halls, the Can-Can, with lots of attractive, high-kicking legs and rustling petticoats.

Oh yes. . .I forgot to mention that the popcorn is free and plentiful. They also sell beverages and snacks in the "saloon."

Two separate casts alternate performances so each performance may be slightly different from any other. Many members of the audience come several times during the season and find the production fresh eveery time.

The Sawdust Theatre is located at the corner of 1st and Adams in Coquille, which is 15 miles from Coos Bay. The entire area is accessible from Interstate 5; take the exit for Highway 42 at Roseburg.

Reservations are taken only from Tuesday through Saturday from 10am until 6pm. Please contact:


River Bend Floral & Gifts
38 E. First Street
Coquille, OR 97423

Oh yes, a final word. . .please remember that "Gentlemen are asked to use receptacles for chewing tobacco juices. . ."

Editor's Notes: Melodrama--literally a blend of music (melody) and drama evolved from the early 1800's and survived through the 1920's. In accord with the artistic sensibilities of many in the Victorian Age, most melodramas involved simple, often sentimental plots, stock characters that appealed to the audience's emotions. Men were men, women were women, heroes were usually bright and brave while villains were usually dark and dastardly.

Melodrama developed hand in hand with a type of acting developed by Francois Delsarte, a Frenchman. Delsarte developed theatrical aesthetics that coordinated actors' expressions of their characters with a near scientific application of appropriate gestures to help define character and acting situations. Many famous actors and singers of the day studied with Delsarte, including Jenny Lind.

Modern melodrama--such as presented at the Sawdust Theatre--often pokes fun at many of the standard plots and characters of the Gilded Age. According to Dictionary.Com, modern usage of the term, melodrama, now usually refers to plays, movie and television dramas "characterized by exaggerated emotions, stereotypical characters, and interpersonal conflicts."

Copyright 2003, Thomas James Martin, all rights reserved.

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