By Laura Kaae
Killeen Daily Herald
SALADO – It's a warm, sleepy Friday evening in the historical Texas village of Salado. Most shops are closed for the night, the downtown is quiet and the traffic, well, there is none.
But cross the bridge over Salado Creek, take a turn onto Royal Street, and a faint buzz of activity can be heard from the dozens of people lining up outside the Salado Silver Spur Theater, a one-time granary-turned-laugh factory where joking around and acting silly aren't just accepted – they're encouraged.
The four-year-old Silver Spur does theater the old-fashioned way, with variety acts, classic cinema and vaudeville shows making every trip there a throwback to a bygone era, a time when sound effects were made in-house by a Foley sound artist, an accompanist filled the theater with piano music, and popcorn and tickets were reasonably priced.
On this particular night, the theater is filled to capacity as 150 audience members await the Silver Spur's final night of "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged)," a two-hour parody in the Silver Spur's signature slapstick comedic style.
The laughs start with a reminder from the house staff for everyone to turn off their cell phones or pay the price – get shot at. Sure, the audience is having fun, but those behind the scenes – a core handful of people who make all the magic happen – are enjoying every minute of performance nights, too.
After graduating from college with a degree in English, founder Grainger Esch spent several years as a circus clown for Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus and then another eight in California "doing the Hollywood thing" before opening the Silver Spur in 2004.
"I was tired of Hollywood," he said. "There is not as much stage work, and it's not as rewarding as working with a live audience. I was tired of being a part of someone else's dream and wanted to do something different."
So Esch and his wife decided to move to the Salado area, where his grandparents lived, to fulfill a dream – open his own theater.
But not just any theater. Esch hoped his would be unique.
A longtime fan of the 1920s, Esch wanted vaudeville-style live performances, talent acts and quality, family-friendly entertainment.
"There wasn't a place where you could consistently do that kind of a thing," he said.
So Esch set off to open what would later be named the Salado Silver Spur ("it just kind of fit and we liked the alliteration," he said of the name) and found an old, abandoned granary in downtown Salado that fit the bill for his theater.
The warehouse was built in the 1950s. Relics from the granary's heyday still remain, including the original pine walls dotted with anchors where cables were once attached to hold the walls together against the massive pressure of all the grain.
The floors were redone, a stage and an old-fashioned ticket booth were added to the facility, but the original signage remains on the exterior of the building.
"We tried to maintain (its) historic integrity," he said, noting that keeping the old pine walls was a "happy accident" for the acoustics of the theater, which many performers say they enjoy.
But Esch couldn't – and didn't want to – run a one-man show, so he set off on finding additions to the Silver Spur, including putting out an ad for an accompanist.
The first audition was with a woman named Nelda, who claimed she could play, then sat down at the piano and struggled through the first pieces playing with just one hand.
Esch was horrified and didn't know how to tell the woman she wasn't nearly good enough to be an accompanist.
He also had no idea he was the victim of a practical joke by the woman, Nelda Milligan, and her husband, Ben.
Ben gave her the signal and on cue, Nelda began playing her heart out on the instrument she's been playing for decades, thus cementing both her excellent playing abilities and her very-Silver Spur sense of humor.
Nelda was immediately hired along with her husband, who now runs the front of the house operations.
"We love it," Nelda said.
"It's a clean, family entertainment," Ben said. "We're both Christians and that is very important to us."
During shows, you will find Nelda next to the stage playing an old Victor piano adorned with stained glass from 1911 that was passed down through Esch's family – an heirloom Nelda said she loves playing, and Ben in the front of the house grinning in his sequined shirt and cracking jokes to theater-goers.
"The show starts before they even go into the theater," he said.
Also part of the Silver Spur cast and crew (a staff Esch says is more "like a little family" than anything) are Tony Blackman, the technical director and a performer; actress Karen Ewton; writer and director Gary Askins; and Kevin C. Carr, a performer and fellow Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus clown college friend of Esch's.
The hardest part, Esch said, has been learning the business side of the theater – going through the highs and lows of tourist seasons, and building a core group of supporters.
Though he admits getting people to a show in the first place is a challenge, once they come, he said, they always come back.
"Putting a show together, when it all works, is a great feeling," he said. "You never know if it's going to work out or not, but when it does, it's a great feeling."
Though the business side can be tricky, Esch said there is one thing that he never gets tired of: laughter.
The laughs of audience members, Esch said, keep him and the other Silver Spur cast and crew members coming back every weekend to give theater-goers their very best.
On this night in May, the laughs are coming one after the other as audience members are asked to help out with certain scenes and cast members regularly jump of the stage to interact with performers.
Just next to the seating area, behind the knotty pine walls, sits the theater's green room (yes, it's actually a pale shade of green) that's overstuffed with hair spray bottles and costumes, makeup and water bottles with a "believe" banner draped over the makeup table.
Just outside the green room a simple sign offers a saying that suits the quirky theater: "You cannot achieve the impossible without attempting the absurd."
"We have a lot of fun here," Esch said. "That's what we're all about."