From the Last Frontier to Tucson: Gaslight Theatre celebrates 45 years of entertainment

The saloon-style Gaslight Theatre is located in a former Jerry Lewis theater at 7010 E. Broadway, Tucson. (Gaslight Theatre/Submitted)

By Laura Latzko

For Tony Terry Jr., the Gaslight Theatre doesn’t just provide a show. It sells an experience with its partners — the Gaslight Music Hall in Oro Valley, Little Anthony’s Diner, costume and print shops, and Grandma Tony’s Pizza. 

“We’re a for-profit theater,” Terry Jr. says. 

“Not always, but that’s the goal. We’ve got a really good deal. I’m as cheap as they come. Ask anybody. They will tell you. That’s why I opened up my pizza parlor, so I could bribe my actors to do shows on Friday and Saturday. 

“They get paid per show anyway, but I told them I would give them pizza between shows. … And we’ve always had tons of printing. That’s why I opened up my own print shop. The same thing with the costume shop. You can’t rent costumes. We started building them, and people started asking if we could rent them out. We have been renting out our costumes for 35 years. We’ve got a whole retail section where we sell makeup, wigs and fireworks. You name it, we sell it in there.”

Celebrating its 45th anniversary this year, the Gaslight Theatre kicked off its new show, “The Ballad of Two-Gun McGraw: A Wacky Western Adventure,” on January 5.

The production, which runs through Sunday, March 26, follows cowboy and ladies man Two-Gun McGraw. When he arrives in San Pecos, Texas, he is tasked with bringing order to a town overrun by cattle rustlers and crooked politicians. 

A Gaslight favorite, David Fanning will play the title role in the show last staged in 2015. Fanning was recently in “Gaslight Christmas Vacation,” playing goofy dad Mark Grinsworth. 

The Last Frontier

The theater planted its roots in Tucson after then-UA student Terry Jr. ventured to Alaska and founded the Mighty Moose Melodrama Theatre in 1977. 

He only staged one show in Alaska, but after returning to Tucson, he started Gaslight in a 100-seat barn in Trail Dust Town. Later, they moved to a room with 223 seats at the corner of Sabino Canyon and Tanque Verde roads. The company has been in its current location, an old Jerry Lewis Theatre, since 1990. 

Each year, Gaslight hosts different productions, which include Westerns, sci-fi and fantasy, and holiday-themed shows. Popular parody shows have been “Space Wars,” “Ghostblasters,” “The Phantom of the Opera,” “The Vampire,” “Elf’d,” “Frankenstein,” “The Wizard of the Rings” and “The Two Amigos.” This year, Gaslight sold out the entire run of its holiday show “Gaslight Christmas Vacation” for the first time.

Along with melodramas, the theater company also offers concerts at its Tucson and Oro Valley locations. 

The company continued to operate during COVID-19, doing concerts and melodramas outdoors. 

“They absolutely loved it. It was a challenge. It didn’t make much money, but it kept my staff employed and paid. We made it through, and here we are,” Terry Jr. says. 

Terry Jr. never expected the theater would approach five decades, but he’s loved every minute of owning and operating it. 

He has been very hands-on since the beginning. 

“I’m not very smart. I’m not very talented, but I can outwork anybody,” says Terry Jr., who studied technical theater at the UA. “I’ve been the carpenter since the beginning. And I build every show and have fun with the special effects.” 

Talented cast

To work at Gaslight, actors must be able to sing, dance, act and improv. 

“Our melodrama has evolved over the years, depending on who my artistic director was,” Terry Jr. says.

“We went from using very little music in our shows to all of our shows being very musical at this point. … We always have a villain and a hero. We borrow a lot and spoof a lot of the different genre movies.”

Often, the audience is encouraged to cheer for the good guys and boo the bad guys. It’s all key to providing entertainment for people of all ages. 

“I’ve got five kids, and I’ve got three grandkids,” Terry Jr. says.

“There’s just not enough family entertainment. I think that’s one of the reasons we have been so successful over the years. I like to call it come have a two-hour vacation. They come, and they forget their troubles for two hours.”

The theater is also known for olios, or Vaudeville-style song and dance numbers, following its shows. This is often the most popular portion of the show. 

“It gives the actors a chance to show the audience just how talented they are,” Terry Jr. says. 

“Their vocal ranges are incredible. A lot of them play different instruments that will end up in our different olios. Mike will play his harmonica, or Todd will play his guitar. The girls will tap dance, which we don’t do very often.”

Recently, Gaslight had a change in leadership. Writer and artistic director Peter Van Slyke stepped down, and longtime actor Mike Yarema and production manager and choreographer Katherine Byrnes have assumed co-director duties.

Many of Gaslight’s creatives have been with the company for several years. Scenic designer and founding partner Tom Benson started with Gaslight 45 years ago in Alaska. 

“He not only has designed and painted every show, but he also designed both theaters. He designed my ’50s diner,” Terry Jr. says. 

“That whole thing where they say surround yourself with people who are better than you and you will be a success, that’s what I’ve done. It is a difficult, labor-intensive, hard, hard business. At the end of the day, I and all of my staff, we are doing what we love every day. So, it’s not work. It’s really our passion, which is why we are successful. I think that translates to our stage.”

“The Ballad of Two-Gun McGraw: A Wacky Western Adventure”

WHEN: Now through Sunday, March 26

WHERE: Gaslight Theatre, 7010 E. Broadway, Tucson 

COST: $27; $15 child 2 to 12; $25 for seniors, military and students 

INFO: 520-886-9428,