I’m definitely old school — I save ticket stubs. Old ticket stubs collected in a shoe box are a treasure trove of memories. Pick up any ticket from my stashed stacks of old stubs and I can tell you about seeing that performer, at that show, at that venue, including details about that particular night. It’s almost like a Time Machine, returning me in mind, if not body, to part of the past.
I recently ran across a set of tickets from my many trips to Tuna, Texas, the 3rd-smallest town in Texas, to visit Joe Sears and Jaston Williams. With a little help from Ed Hoawrd on the script, Joe and Jaston brought the fictional folks of Tuna to life in a dizzying, dazzling display of larger-than-life true Texas characters. With the two actors playing over 20 separate (but related) quirky characters, the whole thing is a tour de force for two masterful performers.
Greater Tuna — Trans/Act Theater, 1982
The original play, Greater Tuna, premiered in the fall of 1981 in a tiny theater on then-sleepy Sixth Street called the Trans/Act Theater & Bar. After that initial run received rave reviews, they brought it back for a return run, and I caught it in early 1982.
The truth is I have little actual recollection of the individual characters from this first exposure. Mostly, I remember it as more a stunning performance by 2 incredible people inhabiting a host of hilariously true, if stereotyped, Texas characters. These were people I either knew directly, or knew of them, so everything they said and did rang true to this Texan.
This first production of the play was still shaky due to technical difficulties, as it were. With the emphasis on the script and creating the characters, there was barely a set to establish place and Joe and Jaston had not yet discovered the magic of quick-change costumes and dedicated dressers to help them. Instead, costume changes took a little longer and sometimes were sloppy or incomplete. I seem to recall Jaston reaching over to snatch a mismatched hat off Joe’s head once when he emerged as a different character.
None of that mattered, though, once they caught the eye of a critic from Variety who brought it to national attention. Later that same year, they would take Greater Tuna to a off-Broadway run for a year.
Taking Sara to Tuna, 1991
Importing my wife, Sara, to Texas meant indoctrination into the living myth known as Texas. In her first months here, we went to Galveston and the Bolivar Peninsula and Big Bend. She saw more of Texas that first year than many Texans do their whole lives. The 1990 Austin Music Awards (when Stevie Ray Vaughan swept the big ones) and Kerrville Folk Festival gave her a taste of Austin music, as well as more intimate shows at the Cactus Cafe.
And having met my extended family and visited with them out in San Angelo, she had in one sense, already had glimpses of the mythical Tuna, Texas. But when Joe & Jaston brought it back to life again on Congress Avenue, well, I knew we had to go see it.
Sara’s first trip to Tuna, Texas would not be her last.
A Tuna Christmas, Christmas Day 1991
Later that same year, Joe and Jaston unveiled their second installment in the Tuna chronicles, A Tuna Christmas.
This meant we had the chance to introduce Sara’s mom, Ginny, to Aunt Pearl & the crew on Christmas Day while she was visiting us in Austin. While Ginny had met some of my extended family on an earlier visit to Texas, we knew she would love the fine folks of Tuna, Texas.
Days before we went to the show — front row center on Christmas Day, no less! — I bought Aunt Pearl’s Cookbook at the Armadillo Christmas Bazaar where I was able to get Joe Sears to autograph it. I told him we were bringing a Yankee to Tuna on Christmas Day and he replied, “Oh, she’ll be scandalized!”
More likely, her raucous laughter scandalized our neighbors there in the audience.
Another Tuna Christmas — January 7, 1993
A little over a year later, Sara and I returned to Tuna for our 3rd anniversary. More memorably, we went to see A Tuna Christmas, with Sara in her final month of pregnancy. Little did we know that Lucas would be born 3 weeks later to the day.
Sitting for an entire play was not exactly comfortable for Sara by then but by that point in the pregnancy, nothing was comfortable for Sara. She told me recently the lady sitting next to her looked even more uncomfortable, as she kept eyeing Sara’s belly suspiciously as if a baby might suddenly pop out with the next belly laugh.
Red, White, and Tuna — 1998
It would be another 5 years before Joe and Jaston added a third installment of the Tuna chronicles, Red, White, and Tuna. Of course we went to see it on its opening run at the Paramount. They did add a 4th installment, Tuna Does Vegas in 2008 that we’ve never seen.
Now it’s been nearly 40 years since they started and maybe you never even heard of Tuna, Texas. That is definitely your loss, as it has undoubtedly been absorbed by the exurbs of the major metropolises of Texas or sank into the sands of the fracking frenzy. Joe and Jaston retired from performing the plays almost 10 years ago.
At least I still have the ticket stubs. I’ll always have the memories, of course, but the ticket stubs really do help trigger the emotional connection that brings those memories to life. Somehow, all the e-passes and online ticketing just doesn’t compare to the feel of holding that remnant of former magic you can in your hand like a magic carpet back through time.
I love this post, Alan. I saw all of the Tuna plays at least once, either in Houston or at the Grand 1894 Opera House in Galveston. I heartily agree with you that they are both perfectly poignant insights into small-town Texas life (like you, I repeatedly I had the sensation of “I know that guy!”) and remarkable performances by two sublimely talented actors. The way that they could rapidly switch back and forth between characters with minor changes of costume and completely inhabit their characters never ceased to amaze me. I only wish I had done a better job of saving ticket stubs. I never thought of the stories that they could tell. We may have attended shows on holidays or anniversaries or deep into pregnancies, but now they are hazy memories, and I don’t remember when or where I saw certain shows. Passes printed on a computer just aren’t the same, and bar codes on cell phone are the worst. Thanks for making me pause and consider the loss of Tuna performances and ticket stubs. The