Full-immersion ‘Speakeasy’ brings visitors to 1920s San Francisco

From left, Geoffrey Libby, Nick Olivero and David Gluck are the men behind "The Speakeasy." {Jessica Christian/SF Examiner)

The proprietors of Boxcar Theatre’s “The Speakeasy” are doing everything they possibly can to keep patrons coming to their underground hideaway in San Francisco.

“There’s so much to see,” says producer David Gluck, who, along with producer-director Nick A. Olivero and producer-bartender Geoffrey Libby, is selling passes (in addition to regular tickets) to the interactive theatrical show set during Prohibition in The City.

With a $3 million investment, they’ve spared no expense and seemingly have covered every historical angle in re-creating the 1920-30s in their extravaganza, which they call an “illicit bar, crooked casino, vaudeville cabaret and immersive theater adventure.”

The production officially reopened this week in a secret North Beach location following a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Nov. 14 as well as years of preparation and numerous previews.

“All we do is dress up from the twenties, and talk about it,” says Olivero, who adds that it’s impossible to fully experience “The Speakeasy” after seeing it just once.

The script is nearly 1,500 pages and there are six story lines happening concurrently in 14 hours’ worth of material.

It takes five visits to capture all of the different episodes, says Olivero.

The cast has 36 actors, not including staff (bartenders and the like), bringing the total to 75-80 people serving an audience of about 225 — about a 3 to 1 ratio.

”I call it Montessori theater,” Olivero jokes.

Previous incarnations of “The Speakeasy,” however, have had a 2 to 1 one ratio of staff to patrons. A smaller version of the show in 2014 ran for five months in the Tenderloin before it had to close because the space became unavailable.

The creators decided to up the ante, and began looking for a new site. They came up with the perfect spot in June 2016.

“We walked into this place and knew we found our new home,” says Gluck, mentioning that not only did it meet accessibility standards for audience members with disabilities, it also had columns 20 feet apart and plenty of space to accommodate a custom-built bar.

The new 9,050-square foot space has a two-story cabaret, secret passageways, disguised entrances and even period-authentic wooden partitions in the bathrooms.

Authentic (and strong) cocktails created by Libby are in important part of “The Speakeasy’s” equation. A menu of 10 drinks ranges from a sparkly Bubble Baby, which is served on arrival, to the heftier Black Manhattan.

It’s pretty clear when patrons have had their fill (“We can tell when they’ve had four,” Olivero says), adding that they pay their bar tabs with a wooden nickel.

Twenty-first century technology is welcome before, but not during, the show. Visitors provide credit card information before entering the venue, and cell phones are taken at the door.

“We’re really trying to do time travel,” says Olivero, adding, “We will rent costumes.”

Although most of the patrons are between 25 and 35, the show’s creators say they have hosted folks in their 80s and 90s who recounted stories about their parents going to places like “The Speakeasy.”

Given the major investment of time, energy and money, the idea is for “The Speakeasy” to have a very long life in its new permanent location, which is just down the street from the home of “Beach Blanket Babylon.”

“We’ve taken a big risk,” says Gluck. If things go as planned, “The Speakeasy,” he says, will join “BBB” as another amazing San Francisco phenomenon at “the crossroads of history and entertainment.”

“The Speakeasy” runs Thursdays through Sundays at a secret spot divulged upon ticket purchase; prices range from $85 to $650 (for 10 visits). To reserve, visit www.thespeakeasysf.com/reservations.

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