Alameda’s Got Talent Revives an Old Tradition
Amateur and pros perform on Friday and Saturday nights at the Alameda Theatre, bringing crazy fun acts to the historic theater.
Magician Steve Nelson has been a regular of Alameda’s Got Talent since 2008
Photo by Stephen Loewinsohn
When the Alameda Theatre opened in 1932, it was considered the last in a tradition of grand movie palaces. Live variety shows were still popular, and the Alameda Theatre featured everything from live bands, newsreels, and Betty Boop cartoons prior to film screening. Today, the theater hearkens back to classic vaudevillian entertainment with Alameda’s Got Talent on Friday and Saturday nights.
“We’re returning to the theater’s origins, and we’re able to maintain it because people are coming early, bringing their kids, and enjoying what we do,” said magician Steve Nelson, whose magic tricks have made up a regular segment of Alameda’s Got Talent since the show opened in 2008, the same year the historic theater reopened.
Emcee for Alameda’s Got Talent, David May, has also been integral to the show from its onset. Both Nelson and May are Alameda born and bred. Nelson graduated from Encinal High, and May from Alameda High. While most of today’s patrons were not around to see a movie at the old Alameda Theatre before it closed, May recalled going there as a high-schooler.
“Sometimes, when I’m out in front of the audience, I talk about those days being up on the balcony on Friday or Saturday nights,” May said. “So, this has always been a very special place for me.”
When it comes to emceeing a variety show, May fits right in. His experience runs the gamut from international recording artist to vocal impressionist to solo performer to television host for a local ’80s cable show, the Hammies. According to May, Alameda Theatre owner Kyle Conner had heard him perform open mic at the High Street Station and urged him to take the emcee job on the spot.
Long before headlining for Alameda’s Got Talent, Nelson, too, had been a musician, playing the trumpet for a travelling band called the Whispering Shadows, which performed skits with their sets. Nelson was nominated by the band to learn magic tricks, and once he started, he never wanted to stop.
“I’d pull a rubber chicken out of a saxophone, silly stuff, but the people were diggin’ it, you know?” Nelson recalled. “I decided to continue doing it, and as the years went by, I played with different groups — not trumpet, but magic. When they’d take a break, I would go on.”
Conner had already brought Nelson into the Alameda’s Got Talent lineup when May came on board, and the two performers hit it off immediately. Comfortable enough to experiment and have fun together, they set a relaxed atmosphere for the theater audience each week.
“We’ve developed a pretty good rapport with kind of in-the-moment slapstick,” May said. “Like the time Steve was standing in the spotlight and I said, ‘Steve, I haven’t introduced you yet.’ So, he goes off into the dark and I say, ‘Steve Nelson,’ then he steps into the spotlight. All this improvisation happens on the job.”
“We play off each other,” Nelson added.
After Nelson and May perform, May presents the local talent, which consists of one to two performers each 25-minute show. The show attracts both professional and amateur acts, from bona fide opera singers to high school musicians.
Previous performers include former American Idol contestant Rachel Rolleri, daughter of Alameda Police Chief Paul Rolleri; guitarist Matt Jones, a former Alameda High School quarterback who played for the Alameda’s Got Talent stage before and after living abroad; and keyboardist Harvell Guiton, whose single “My Dream” is available on iTunes.
Nelson and May’s favorite performers of the last decade include a grandfather and grandchild pair, kids who grow up with the show and move on to the performing arts in college, songwriters who premiere their music at the theater, and others who work through their nerves here before moving on to professional gigs.
“When we get younger kids, we try to alleviate the fear that they may have performing in front of people by boosting their confidence, talking to them, not being shy,” Nelson said.
While new people sign up all the time, the show also has its regulars and occasional surprises. For instance, when the Alameda High School production of Pitch Perfect opened, the cast came on to promote the musical. For the Inside Out premiere, a group of Pixar executives came on stage for introductions, and for the recent premiere of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, a full orchestra played.
May’s wife, Carol, helps to manage the sign-up schedule, and May works with the show’s drummer to get all the equipment set up for the performers.
“We have everything for them,” May said. “We show up an hour before, go backstage, and hook everything up. All they have to do is come on stage.”
The Alameda Theatre staff, often high school kids themselves, are invited to take part in the sound-check and learn a performing arts skill. The public is also welcome to come in early and watch the sound-check before their movie starts.
“How many people get to go to a live performance where they get to watch how they set up and do a sound check?” May said. “We let them in, and they all laugh, and they watch us do sound check, and a couple minutes go by, and we start the show, sometimes by the seat of our pants.”
“It’s almost like an interactive show,” Nelson added, and May retorted, “It’s like watching a movie about a movie, or a show about a show.”
For being a show about a show, Alameda’s Got Talent bears little resemblance to the reality TV show of a similar name, yet it shows no sign of losing relevancy on the Island and celebrates a 10-year anniversary in May.