For five years, the theater at 255 Elm St. has been home to poetry readings, plays, and children's programs. But its name, Jimmy Tingle's Off Broadway Theater, tells the real story.
More than anything, this has been the place where Tingle could perform his one-man, political stand-up routines and fulfill his dream of opening his own theater. Tingle, who describes himself as a comic, actor, and writer, said he is happiest when he's performing. "That's what I love to do," he said. "That's really what my calling is."
Managing a theater, however, wasn't such a good fit. So this month, Tingle decided not to renew his lease, which will expire Wednesday; his run in Davis Square is to end with a show at 7 tonight.
"This is like running a restaurant, only every weekend there's a different menu," he said. "It was a learning experience every day."
On a recent Friday night, the 52-year-old Cambridge native bounded onto the theater's basement stage to perform his latest show, "Jimmy Tingle for President." He was dressed in a wholly unpresidential outfit - a faded red, short-sleeved button-up shirt with black pants that bunched at the bottom, and clunky black shoes - as he outlined the platform for his 2008 presidential campaign.
Despite announcing days earlier that his theater would close at the end of the month, Tingle didn't sell out the 200-seat theater that night. But the crowd of mostly gray- and white-haired fans roared with laughter throughout his performance, which featured the entire clip of his appearance on "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" nearly 20 years ago.
"Johnny Carson never asked me back," he said. "That's why I'm here."
Tingle has become a popular figure in Davis Square, where there's a progressive political base that favors locally owned businesses.
"We're really sorry to see him leave," said Jeff Broadman, general manager of Redbones barbecue, which teamed up with Tingle to offer discounts on its food for theatergoers.
"It's a big loss for Davis Square," said Rebekah Gewirtz, the Somerville alderwoman who represents the neighborhood.
Tingle said he had never run a business when the theater's previous managers approached him about performing there. In the middle of discussions, the owners said they no longer wanted to run the theater and would introduce Tingle to the landlord if he were interested. "I always wanted to try having my own place," he said.
It turned out to be the best place he ever performed. If only 20 people attended a show, he said, it was always an appreciative crowd. He found that the space lent itself to commentary and comedy, and he felt comfortable trying new things.
In his current show, he proposes ways to improve the environment, such as installing a windmill on every traffic light. He discusses the benefits of global warming, theorizing on the possibility of spotting a polar bear at Walden Pond. And he pokes fun at insurance companies, comparing them with police departments that want to deal only with the well-behaved.
"They don't want to cover sick people," he said. "What are you doing in the health insurance business? Buy a health club."
He works to draw out the crowd, taking questions in a press conference-style format and encouraging the audience to sing along when he plays "This Land Is Your Land" on the harmonica.
Jean Christensen, a retired city planner from Marshfield, said she had planned to wait until November to see his latest show, until she heard the theater was closing. Christensen, who made four trips to the theater over the years, said Tingle's politics are compatible with her own, and she wants to make sure his message is still heard after the theater's doors close this week. "Perhaps he'll go on to something more exciting," she said.
Kathy Hanlan, an occupational therapist from Arlington, brought a couple of friends to the show and connected with Tingle's humor, calling it "right on." She found him "very quick" and "very bright."
"I think it's sad that it's closing, that he won't have such an easy venue for his humor."
Tingle said he doesn't know what he'll do next, and the theater's landlord, Micah Gorin, didn't return phone calls seeking comment on what will happen to it.
Early this month, Tingle was hanging ceiling lights and looking for a new business manager. He was planning on staying, but found himself being pulled in two directions.
Tingle realized he wasn't much of a businessman. He said he made money some years, and lost money in others, but the bottom line wasn't the only issue. At any given time, he had about 10 people working for him, but running a theater still required keeping up with lots of details, he said. Planning ahead proved to be difficult.
"You're putting out fires that day," he said. "It started to take a toll on me personally."
But there were benefits. As he said in a recent show, "Since I started it, the rest of the world doesn't affect me like it used to."
Performing, particularly in his own theater, brought him peace.
"That's really what my first love has always been," he said. "It was just great to be in there."