When Tom Dudzick was growing up above his parents’ tavern on Seneca Street in the late 1950s, his mother often sent him scurrying down the block to the Swan Lounge to size up the competition.
Young Dudzick would peer into the bar, count the heads of neighborhood characters knocking back bottles of Simon Pure and report back to his mother. Then he’d retreat upstairs and settle down in front of the TV, where he spent countless hours watching “Leave it to Beaver,” Milton Berle’s “Texaco Star Theatre” and “The Dick Van Dyke Show” as the smell of stale beer and the muffled beats of the tavern’s jukebox came up through the vents.
Those 50-year-old memories were fresh in Dudzick’s head on Monday night, when he appeared before a huge crowd at Larkinville, the spit-shined cultural theme park that recently materialized a few hundred feet from where his parents’ tavern and his childhood home once stood. On the sidewalk in front of an empty parking lot on Seneca Street, an oversized plaque marks the spot as “the boyhood home of playwright Tom Dudzick, inspiration for ‘Chet’s Bar and Grill,’ immortalized in his play ‘Over the Tavern,’ first presented by Studio Arena Theatre in 1994.”
Dudzick, who was in town to direct the 20th anniversary production of “Over the Tavern” now playing in the Kavinoky Theatre, has never been able or willing to escape the memories of his early childhood in the city’s Hydraulics district or under the control of the stern nuns who taught him at nearby St. Patrick’s School. He has used those memories to become playwright laureate of Buffalo’s working class, an inspired cross between Tim Russert and A.R. Gurney whose life and work is inextricably tied up with his childhood roots.
After the sold-out opening run of “Over the Tavern” in 1994, demand was so high that Studio Arena brought it back for the next two years. Two sequels followed, along with “Hail Mary,” “Don’t Talk to the Actors” and, in 2012, “Miracle on South Division Street,” now on its way to becoming Dudzick’s biggest hit since “Over the Tavern.” Since its debut, Dudzick estimates that his original “Over the Tavern” has been produced more than 250 times around the world.
Looking out at the neighborhood he left as a young boy, when his parents sold the tavern and moved the family to North Buffalo, Dudzick sees ghosts of the past everywhere. The Swan Lounge is still standing, though empty of those beer-swilling customers, soon to reopen as a restaurant and high-end apartments.
Like his parents’ tavern, St. Pat’s, the school on South Division and Emslie he renamed St. Casimir’s in “Over the Tavern,” is long gone. As is the Dog House, another neighborhood tavern that was shaped exactly like its name implied, and many other neighborhood structures.
When the play debuted in 1994, 10 months after the Bills lost their fourth straight Super Bowl and at a time when living here often felt like running on a broken treadmill to nowhere, Buffalo drank up Dudzick’s sepia-toned brand of nostalgia like the last can of Utica Club in the universe. It was the perfect play at the perfect time, a laugh-riddled picture postcard, not of a perfect youth or a perfect neighborhood, but of the peculiar struggles of a working-class Buffalo youth that felt universal to so many.
“It struck a nerve, I think because childhood memories are so strong, aren’t they?” Dudzick said, recalling the opening night of the play in the Pfeiffer Theater on Dec. 9, 1994. “I remember hearing talk in the lobby at intermission: ‘That’s so true, that’s just how it was.’ You know? And if their father wasn’t crabby, then their uncle was or they knew somebody that was. Everybody had at least one mean nun, if they had nuns. I found the magic key: If I write about my childhood, people are going to relate it to their childhood.”
Though most of the opening night performance is now a blur, one thing sticks out in Dudzick’s mind.
“What I do remember is the noise of the laughter. Just cannonballs of laughter,” he said. “That’s when I thought, ‘Holy mackerel, I’ve got something here!’ The size of the laughs, it was amazing.”
But in 2014, with the prospect of economic revival on the horizon and a revolution in Buffalonians’ self-perception well underway, the piece is bound to strike a different chord.
The last two decades have seen both the intangible return of hope and optimism to the region’s collective psyche and the physical renewal of certain privileged neighborhoods, with Larkinville being perhaps the prime example.
But if “Over the Tavern” was just the medicine for Buffalo’s mid-’90s malaise, this cultural moment might also be ideal for a high-profile remount, if only so we be reminded of how far the region has come.
But for Dudzick, while the city’s renewal has been heartening to watch – it even inspired him to rewrite one of his early songs into a tribute to the city’s emerging charms – it’s not likely to change how people see the show. The most he allowed was that, 20 years later, the play’s message about the shortcomings of religion seems more pronounced than ever.
For him, the production isn’t about the power of nostalgia, or any grand notions about a city’s decline or its revival.
It’s just about the laughs, and about the audience’s immediate identification with a story that belongs uniquely to Buffalo.
“It’s something I never even considered,” Dudzick said of his surprise in the wake of the play’s ecstatic reception in Buffalo and beyond, “that something so personal is so universal.”