By Chuck Graham
How many people turn their dreams into a lifetime of success? Not many – but Tony Terry did.
Just a college student in the mid-1970s when he saw his first old-time comedy melodrama – in Durango, Colo. – this Tucson native could not wait to create one of those for himself.
“My gift is that I’ve always felt if I just worked hard enough, I could make it work…no matter what it was,” Terry said, now basking in the achievement of 35 successful years as founder, builder and owner of the Gaslight Theatre, 7010 E. Broadway.
“He is very driven,” said Becky Gilmour, a Gaslight fan since childhood, and now the theater’s GM. “But Tony doesn’t micromanage. He trusts people to do their jobs.”
Back in 1976, Terry’s youthful enthusiasm convinced him to take some local actor friends to Alaska, for the summer. Their plan was to produce an old-time melodrama for the cruise ship tourists who came ashore daily in Skagway.
Thanks to a frigid summer – he discovered the name Skagway means “home of the north wind” – the venture was not a financial success. But this University of Arizona pre-med student, with a minor in technical theater, was show-biz bitten.
“So then we had all these stage lights I had built out of old one-gallon cans. We also had a crude lighting board. When my brother Tom found an empty space at Trail Dust Town that we could convert into a 100-seat theater, we did it.”
Thus in 1977, Tucson’s own Gaslight Theatre was born. Terry has never looked back.
“Decades after that, my dad was still asking me when I was going back to med school,” said the self-made showman.
Instead of med school, Terry more than doubled his audience seating in 1980 by relocating the theater out on Tanque Verde Road in a shopping complex that was soon renamed Gaslight Square.
After 10 years there, he bought and developed the present Gaslight Theatre and complex of complementary services on Broadway near Kolb.
Even with no title by his name, there is no doubting Terry’s success. He’s running a six-business empire grossing several million dollars annually that isn’t feeling any side effects of the sluggish economy.
“The last two years have been our best ever,” he said.
Gaslight Theatre is the heart of the operation, which pulses life through Little Anthony’s 1950s-style diner and Grandma Tony’s pizza carry-out – plus a catering business, costume rental shop and print shop.
“They were businesses that got started out of necessity,” Terry said of his expanding domain. “If I were spending a lot of money on something, like printing menus, tickets and programs, I’d decide how to save money by doing it myself.”
For decades, going to the Gaslight Theatre has been a family tradition for many thousands of Tucsonans – especially at Christmas time. Sold-out performances in the 242-seat space are a daily occurrence. Make that several times daily during the holiday season.
Another of Terry’s gifts could well be an uncanny sense of the Gaslight’s appeal. Nothing is ever taken for granted.
In the years since 9/11, Terry began feeling his audience wanted to escape daily life even more. One big artistic change came in the traditional Christmas shows – which were always heavy on sentiment. He began lightening them up by adding more holiday songs, often from the 1950s.
Also for the last few years, at every performance of every show, all military veterans are asked to stand to be honored. Then after every performance, cast members in their costumes wait at the door to thank people for attending.
There is a very clear line of business/artistic separation between Terry and the “three geniuses” – as he calls his creative team of set designer Tom Benson, writer/director Peter Van Slyke and music director Linda Ackerman.
“We all work together with a firm level of trust,” said Terry. “I do have creative input, but they don’t have to take my input.
“Even so, we still want to be true to our melodrama origins.”
Decades of backstage tinkering with scripts, costumes and outlandish characters have led Terry and his associates to a refined formula combining campy acting, song parodies and corny jokes.
This formula is the active ingredient in what all the employees call “the Gaslight experience.”
“As an audience member, it’s magic. But as an employee it’s magic, too,” said Gilmour. “For a lot of the employees, this is their first job.
“There are so many married couples here who met while they were both working at Gaslight. This really is a big family.”
“Tony is a local family guy,” said Rene Cloutier, explaining why she has stayed with these siblings of the stage for 29 years, designing costumes and running the Gaslight Costume Shoppe.
That “family” word keeps popping in every conversation about why the staff is so stable. Benson has designed virtually all of the Gaslight shows from the very beginning. Van Slyke was one of Terry’s childhood friends. They were in Boy Scouts together.
“We’re all family, really we are,” Carla Childs explained simply. She has been a Gaslight staffer for 25 years. She runs the Gaslight Print Shop.
“You can call the growth of this business magical, fortuitous, whatever you care to call it,” Terry said. “All I ever really wanted to do was make people laugh.
“But I do have high standards, and everyone here knows my standards. So we start every day with the same expectations.”