‘An Evening at Dave’s Sauna’ tells the mostly true story of an Oxford County legend

The cast of “An Evening at Dave’s Sauna,” during a recent rehearsal. The show will run for two nights, Friday and Saturday,
at Deertrees Theatre in Harrison. Photo by Benjamin Wells-Goodwin

The musical, playing Friday and Saturday at Deertrees in Harrison, focuses on Dave Graiver and his eponymous establishment in South Paris.

PORTLAND PRESS HERALD – If an anthology of Maine folklore existed, Dave’s Sauna in South Paris would occupy at least one chapter. One wild, debauchery-filled chapter.

Jonathan Leavitt remembers tagging along there as a young boy with his dad in the late 1970s and, when he was old enough, going back with friends. Years later, his wife’s mother purchased the one-of-a-kind business after its namesake, Dave Graiver, passed away in 2008, and Leavitt became reacquainted with the establishment.

“As a writer, I just thought, these are stories that need be shared,” said Leavitt, an activist, marijuana farmer and playwright.

So, Leavitt began writing a script and some songs. He reached out to a musician friend, Dawson Hill, who helped build 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 Deertrees Theater in Harrison.

“An Evening at Dave’s Sauna” playwright Jonathan Leavitt. Photo by Erik Peterson

Leavitt, who is directing as well, said the production is a tribute to Graiver, whose exploits made him a legend in Oxford County.

“He came to Maine in that first wave where people were moving to areas that were off the grid, but the big questions became, ‘How do you survive economically,’ ” Leavitt said. “Dave was able to carve out a unique niche where he celebrated libertine lifestyles.”

Graiver’s business became a gathering place for all sorts of archetypes: originally hippies still hanging on to the counterculture lifestyle, bikers who wanted sit naked around a pool and drink beer, closeted gay couples who didn’t yet have places they were accepted, even off-duty cops who were willing to look the other way at some of the activities going on that didn’t exactly square with the law.

All of it is explored in “An Evening at Dave’s Sauna.”

“Dave’s had a dive element to it, and I think people liked that. It embraced the grittier, grimier side of life, but really it was just a place to find a community,” Leavitt said.

Because Leavitt didn’t sanitize the story, some of the subject matter – illegal drug use, sexual escapades – is not for everyone. It focuses on Graiver as a larger-than-life, anything-goes proprietor who shares his philosophies on life and interacts with various customers and characters one night in 1980.

Included in the musical are song numbers with titles like “Cocaine’s a Wonderful Drug,” “Trailer Park Woman” and “I Got Beer Behind the Counter.”

Jessica Cooper as Nancy Graiver and Justin Bondesen as Dave Graiver, the title character in Jonathan Leavitt’s “An Evening at Dave’s Sauna.”
Photo by Benjamin Wells-Goodwin

“I say it’s rated N for naughty, but it’s Maine naughty,” he said. “It’s perfectly digestible for all people. I would have preferred to be a little more risqué, but I have to bend to the whim of venues and what people are used to.”

Leavitt said there weren’t many performance venues who were willing to host his musical and credited Deertrees for taking a risk.

“We were looking for something that was uniquely Maine. ‘Almost, Maine’ has been done to death,” said Gail Phaneuf, Deertrees’ executive director, referring to the well-known John Cariani play. “When Jonathan came to 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 is so much nostalgia around it,” she said. “Everyone in this area seems to know about it or have these bizarre connections to it.”

Deertrees is leaning into the naughty as well. Phaneuf said ushers will be wearing towels (with bathing suits underneath, of course).

Leavitt said casting the show was a bit of a challenge but he’s ecstatic about the cast. The title character is played by Justin Bondesen, in his theater debut. His real-life spouse, Jessica Cooper, who has an extensive dance background, plays Gravier’s wife, Nancy.

Leavitt and Hill’s music is complemented by dance choreography from Nettie Gentempo, who also plays Sauna Siren #1 (there are five).

Leavitt, who also is writing a book about Dave’s Sauna, said he hopes people respond to the show, even if it might make them squirm at times.

“If there is any institution that should be doing that consistently, it’s theater,” he said.

Phaneuf agreed. She said theater audiences are often interested in traditional, but “there is room for both.”

“You have to give audiences what they want, but I always like to throw in one challenging thing,” she said. “If the audience is with you, they’ll usually accept it.”

As for Dave’s Sauna, it still exists, albeit under a new name – Riverside Lodge and Sauna. Patrons aren’t likely to see or experience some of the things that made the place popular in the 1970s and ’80s.

By Eric Russell

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IF YOU GO

WHAT: “An Evening at Dave’s Sauna,” a mostly true original musical by playwright Jonathan Leavitt

about Dave Graiver and his anything-goes business in South Paris.

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday and 7:30 p.m. Saturday

WHERE: Deertrees Theatre, 156 Deertrees Road, Harrison

HOW MUCH: $28, not recommended for children. Tickets can be purchased at ticketstripe.com 

or by calling (207) 583-6747.