If there was an anthology of Maine folklore, Dave’s Sauna in South Paris would occupy at least one chapter. A wild chapter filled with debauchery.
Jonathan Leavitt remembers being there as a young boy with his father in the late 1970s and, when he was old enough, returning there with friends. Years later, his wife’s mother purchased the one-of-a-kind business after the death of its namesake, Dave Gravier, in 2008, and Leavitt returned to the establishment.
“As a writer, I just thought these are stories that need to be shared,” said Leavitt, an activist, marijuana grower and playwright.
So Leavitt started writing a screenplay and some songs. He contacted a musician friend, Dawson Hill, who helped construct the music. “An Evening at Dave’s Sauna” was born. The original musical has been staged a handful of times and is back for a pair of performances, Friday and Saturday at the Deertrees Theater in Harrison.
Leavitt, who also directs, said the production is a tribute to Gravier, whose exploits made him a legend in Oxford County.
“He came to Maine in that first wave where people were moving to off-grid areas, but the big questions became, ‘How do you survive economically,'” Leavitt said. “Dave managed to carve out a unique niche where he celebrated swinger lifestyles.”
Gravier’s business became a gathering place for all sorts of archetypes: originally hippies still clinging to the counterculture, bikers who wanted to sit naked around a pool and drink beer, couples locked up homosexuals who didn’t yet have places where they were accepted even off-duty cops who were willing to turn a blind eye to some of the activity going on that didn’t exactly fall within the law.
All of this is explored in “An Evening at Dave’s Sauna”.
“Dave had a diving element, and I think people liked that. It embraced the grittier, darker side of life, but really it was just a place to find community,” Leavitt said.
Because Leavitt didn’t sanitize the story, certain topics — illegal drug use, sexual escapades — aren’t for everyone. It focuses on Gravier as the larger-than-life owner, all is well, who shares his philosophies on life and interacts with various customers and characters one night in 1980.
The musical includes song numbers with titles such as “Cocaine’s a Wonderful Drug”, “Trailer Park Woman”, and “I Got Beer Behind the Counter”.
“I say it’s rated N for nasty, but it’s nasty in Maine,” he said. “It’s perfectly digestible for everyone. I would have preferred to be a little riskier, but I have to bend to the whims of the place and what people are used to.
Leavitt said there weren’t many performance venues that were willing to host his musical and credited Deertrees for taking a risk.
“We were looking for something that was uniquely Maine. ‘Almost, Maine’ was done to death,” said Gail Phaneuf, managing director of Deertrees, referring to the well-known play by John Cariani. “When Jonathan came to see me, it seemed like a good opportunity to do something different.”
Phaneuf said “An Evening at Dave’s Sauna” is the kind of show where parents should “leave the kids at home,” but she said it’s already generating buzz.
“There’s so much nostalgia around it,” she said. “Everyone in this field seems to know about it or have these weird ties to it.”
Deertrees also leans into the villain. Phaneuf said ushers will wear towels (with bathing suits underneath, of course).
Leavitt said casting the show was a bit difficult, but he’s thrilled with the casting. The main character is played by Justin Bondesen, in his theater debut. His real-life wife, Jessica Cooper, who has extensive dance experience, plays Gravier’s wife, Nancy.
Music by Leavitt and Hill is complemented by dance choreography by Nettie Gentempo, who also performs Sauna Siren #1 (there are five).
Leavitt, who is also writing a book on Dave’s Sauna, said he hopes people react to the show, even though it can sometimes make them squirm.
“If there’s one institution that should do this consistently, it’s the theatre,” he said.
Phaneuf accepted. She said theater audiences are often interested in the traditional, but “there is room for both”.
“You have to give the audience what they want, but I always like to add a tough thing,” she said. “If the public is with you, they will generally accept it.”
As for Dave’s Sauna, it still exists, but under a new name – Riverside Lodge and Sauna. Guests aren’t likely to see or experience some of the things that made the place popular in the 1970s and 1980s.