Oil Lamp Theater owner blazes his own trail

By Kevin Beese For Chronicle Media
Keith Garth has owned and operated Oil Lamp Theater in Glenview for four years.

Keith Garth has owned and operated Oil Lamp Theater in Glenview for four years.

Keith Gerth knew when he could make auditing presentation interesting that he may have a future on stage.

When he made risers for people to watch him and others perform in his Wrigleyville condominium, he knew he definitely had some theater — and carpentry – ability in him. However, Gerth did not stop at just performing, he became director, artistic director and owner of a theater. He has owned and operated Oil Lamp Theater in Glenview for four years.

Gerth relishes the quaintness of the 60-seat theater. He is at the downtown Glenview theater for every performance, checking in guests as well as mingling with patrons as they have a glass of wine or beer before a performance at the bring-your-own-beverage facility.

He said he even thought about his home away from home while at his daughter’s recent wedding in New York – his first time not at Oil Lamp for performances.

“A few times I wondered how things were going,” Gerth admits.

Although at the theater for every performance, Gerth stops short of going in to watch shows. He will sit in the lobby and listen to dialogue and audience reaction. He doesn’t want actors performing for him.

“It is like when you go to your kid’s recital,” Gerth said. “They are performing for you.”

Plus, there are far worse places to be on a given night than Oil Lamp’s lobby. While the lobby at many theaters is simply the connection between the entrance and the theater seating, Oil Lamp’s lobby is an inviting, leisurely parlor made for conversation and kicking back with a glass of wine. There are comfortable chairs, a couch, and complimentary fresh-baked cookies for every show.

“I want people to come here and rest, relax, unplug,” Gerth said. “Even coffee shops now have TVs on and all kind of noise.”

After reinventing himself several times – from carpenter to history major to CPA to auditor – Gerth started performing for friends at his condo on Chicago’s North Side.

From a young age, Gerth would play Charades and other acting games with family and friends at his home outside Streator. He started working as a carpenter and many in his family thought he was set with his career.

“In my family, you are either a carpenter or a minister,” Gerth said. “If I stayed a carpenter, I did not see myself ever getting out of town.”

So Gerth enrolled in Illinois State University, but had no clue as to what he wanted to study. A lover of history, he figured he would major in the subject and possibly teach. Then a friend gave him some eye-opening news.

“He said a guy he knew had a history degree and he was working at Pizza Hut,” Gerth said. “Already being older starting college, I figured I would be 80 before I got a job.”

An individual who likes order and balance, Gerth changed majors, opting for an accounting degree instead and spent 15 years as a CPA. He then moved on to auditing and during one auditing program he gave that included actors, one of the performers asked if he had ever done any acting.

“I was like ‘Me? Nooo!’ but that stayed with me,” Gerth said.

He eventually starting performing with friends for friends and fellow condo owners at his Wrigleyville place.

When he became serious with his future wife, a Northbrook resident, he figured establishing a theater somewhere in the Glenview-Northbrook area made sense.

“When choosing a location for the business, I wanted to be in a community that supported the arts,” Gerth said.

When he couldn’t reach an agreement on a proposed theater site in Northbrook, the Realtor he was working with suggested the 1723 Glenview Road location, a site that was in foreclosure and had been vacant for years.

“I walked in and said ‘This isn’t happening,” he said of the site of a former restaurant with gold wallpaper and lots of damage. “It was apparent they were not happy when they were leaving.”

However, Gerth’s wife saw charm and a classic style with the building. She convinced him to take it.

Gerth did much of the improvement work himself and turned the edifice into a facility that has put 25,000 people in its seats during its first four years.

The theater’s name, Oil Lamp, comes from Gerth’s rural upbringing and his mother’s collection of oil lamps that were used whenever power outages occurred.

“We would sit around the light and it would bring us together,” Gerth said.


Oil Lamp will finish the third play in its trilogy on the dynamics of father-daughter relationships with “On Golden Pond” with performances from June 16-July 31. Performances are at 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets for all performances are $35. The box office can be reached at 847-834-0738 or by emailing oillamptheater.org.

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