Saturday evening, 28 February, I rode over to New Jersey to see a performance of Once Upon a Mystery, a play by my friend Kirk Woodward which he directed for the Theater League of Clifton’s Annual Dinner Theater production. Two years ago, Kirk invited me to come out for that year’s TLC event, Murder Me Always by Lee Mueller, in which Kirk and his son, Craig, were appearing. Kirk says it was after that 2013 experience that he decided to try his hand at writing “a play specifically for dinner theater,” with all its demands and limitations, and Once Upon a Mystery was the result. (Murder mystery dinner theater is a popular sub-classification of dinner theater. This uniquely American entertainment form, which my American Heritage Dictionary defines as a “restaurant that presents a play during or after dinner,” is sometimes also called “dinner and a show”; that show isn’t necessarily a play, but may be some other form of entertainment such as a cabaret act, a comedy routine, or a revue.)
Both plays were staged at Mario’s Restaurant in Clifton, which isn’t, strictly speaking, a dinner theater. (The Theater League of Clifton presents regular community theater productions, such as Marc Camoletti’s French farce Boeing Boeing and the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific, in other venues in its area during the year. Their dinner theater show is a special event.) The performances are staged in the restaurant’s large back room with the dining tables and patrons positioned around the periphery of the rectangular space and the performance area in the center—though some of the action takes place among the tables. There’s a single entrance to the space, little room for set or props, and no stage lighting to speak of.
When the phenomenon of dinner theater was at its height in the 1970s, there were hundreds of dedicated dinner theater houses around the country. According to Tod Booth, owner of the Alhambra Dinner Theatre in Jacksonville, Florida, there were as many as 174 dinner theaters in the country which were signatories to Actors’ Equity contracts; there were probably scores more that operated outside the union’s jurisdiction. The attraction in this period of prosperity and popularity was the prospect of seeing a celebrity in a starring role. The likes of Rat Pack comic Joey Bishop; film stars like Mickey Rooney, Van Johnson, Myrna Loy, and Cesar Romero; or TV stars such as Julie Kavner, “Rhoda’s sister” on that late-’70s series (and the voice of Marge Simpson today), and Esther Rolle of the ’70s sit-com Good Times appeared in revivals of old-standard comedies and musicals. There are even rumors that Robert de Niro did a dinner-theater show (and was fired from it in mid-run!). Actors Burt Reynolds and Earl Holliman both owned dinner theaters (respectively the Burt Reynolds Dinner Theater in Jupiter, Florida, 1979-97, and the Fiesta Dinner Playhouse in San Antonio, Texas, 1977-87). Dinner theaters essentially replaced summer stock, which by the 1960s had all but disappeared except in vacation spots like Cape Cod and the Poconos, as venues for young actors and waning stars, as well as light entertainment sources for theatergoers—with the added benefit that the dinner theaters were available year round.
Actors’ Equity councilor Jay Barney, who wrote a regular column on dinner theater in Back Stage, the actors’ trade weekly, joked that the origins of dinner theater go back to when “the Romans washed down their lavish spreads with wine while watching the Lions vs. the Christians and the elimination contests of the Gladiators.” Other wags have pointed out that patrons of Shakespeare’s Globe ate while the plays unfolded and that food was hawked during performances at the Hôtel de Bourgogne. The first dinner theaters in the modern United States, however, served the meal in one room and presented the performance in another. Those are now known as theatre restaurants, and by the late 1960s, the houses were specially designed spaces that served as both a dining area, where the auditorium is in a conventional playhouse, and a raised stage at the far end, usually either a proscenium or thrust configuration, just like an ordinary theater. (A few dinner theaters were built on the arena or theater-in-the-round model.)
In 1946, Tony DeSantis, a former trumpet-player in Chicago turned club-owner, opened the Martinique Restaurant in Evergreen Park, Illinois—about 15 miles outside Chicago. In 1949, he began producing plays in a tent next to the restaurant to attract diners. The Martinique was so successful that DeSantis decided to build his first theater, the Drury Lane Evergreen Park, in 1958, the first of six dinner theaters he started and a Chicago-area entertainment attraction for 45 years before it closed in 2003.
The first formal dinner theater was Barksdale Theatre at the historic, but derelict, Hanover Tavern in a suburb of Richmond, Virginia, founded in 1953. After David and Nancy Kilgore and four other displaced New York actors established the theater in the tavern’s basement (the six operators, their children, and assorted pets lived upstairs), they opened rooms on the first and second floors where they served a buffet dinner before the show for groups of theatergoers; soon the buffet was made available to all the Barksdale’s patrons. The Barksdale is still running, though in 2012 it merged with Theatre IV to become the Virginia Repertory Theatre. It no longer serves dinner with the show, however.
In 1959, Bill Pullinsi, a Catholic University theater student in Washington, D.C., launched a new entertainment concept at the Presidential Arms Hotel during summer vacation, perceiving that the old theater cliché about “dinner and a show” would succeed if he put them together literally. Pullinsi called his venture the Candlelight Theatre Restaurant and he served dinner and presented a show in the same room. The idea caught on and was successful, but Pullinsi couldn’t turn it into a year-round operation because the Presidential Arms, located on G Street, N.W., in downtown Washington, not far from Lafayette Park and the White House, did heavy convention business the rest of the year. So Pullinsi, a Chicago native, went back to the Windy City and in 1961 opened the Candlelight Dinner Playhouse in nearby Summit. Eventually, the young impresario built a 560-seat home for his new dinner theater. The Candlelight closed in 1997 after 36 years of operation.
In 1960, a half hour from Manhattan, the Meadowbrook Theatre Restaurant opened in Cedar Grove, New Jersey. The second dinner theater in the U.S., it originally operated as Frank Dailey’s Meadowbrook, opened in 1923 as a dance hall featuring big bands. Gary and Helga McHugh came up with the idea for a dinner theater and rented the dance hall as a union theater, under contract with both the theater unions and the restaurant staff guilds. (There is some dispute over whether the Candlelight or the Meadowbrook was really the first dinner theater; the Meadowbrook’s own history asserts that it was founded in 1959, not 1960.) The theater and dining space was an arena house and after the performance, the stage was removed to allow the patrons to use the dance floor, accompanied by a live band. The Meadowbrook only lasted 13 years, in part because of its over-700-seat dining capacity and the competition of nearby Broadway. Actors’ Equity Association, the professional stage actors’ union, also ruled in 1973 that dinner theaters had to follow the procedures that governed Broadway houses, including pay scales, pension and welfare payments, rehearsal limitations, and other contractual restrictions. Tax issues (which had caused an earlier closure) and a recession were contributing factors to the Meadowbrook’s final demise.
Following these innovators, theaters with names like the Barn (an eventual chain that started in 1961 in Virginia), Alhambra in Florida, Chanhassen (another eventual chain in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area), and Carousel in Ohio flourished across the country (and even spread north into Canada). Dinner theaters went on to thrive in the 1960s and ’70s, becoming popular family entertainment forums and great date-night venues. The term itself seems to have been coined in about 1960, in fact, and became common in the middle of the decade. Generally, the offerings were either former Broadway musicals (and occasionally Off-Broadway musicals, if they were prominent enough like The Fantasticks or Little Shop of Horrors)—sometimes fresh off the boards in New York City—comedies, or, in a sub-genre as I noted, whodunits in the mold of Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap, Middle of the Night by Paddy Chayefsky, or Emlyn Williams’s Night Must Fall. Intense dramas and classical tragedies don’t make for conducive fare for dinner-theater patrons looking for a light entertainment of an evening—though a few houses like the Hayloft Dinner Theatre in Manassas, Virginia, or the Windmill Dinner Theatre chain, headquartered in Dallas, took a chance on The Lion in Winter or Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (The review-writer for the Houston Post described his impression of the Virginia Woolf starring Mercedes McCambridge: “Not bad coupling, but . . . it is a play you have to listen to. Tinkling glasses, intractable chatter, scurrying cocktail waitresses and a stomach full of beef and bourbon don’t make for good listening. That sole experiment in serious theatre closed early and we were back to sweater girls and matterless farces . . . .”)
In the murder-mystery houses, as well as some of the other themed shows (Tony and Tina’s Wedding and its many spin-offs were also popular fare at many dinner theaters), the spectators were encouraged to participate in planned ways, much the way they were even in the Broadway presentation of Rupert Holmes’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
Although Mario’s of Clifton served the meal before the performance and between acts of the play (two intermissions), and playwright Woodward wrote Once Upon a Mystery purposely to accommodate this structure (Mueller’s Murder Me Always in 2013 was adapted slightly by director Geoffrey Waumans to allow for the dinner intermissions), dinner theaters commonly serve the meal before the show, perhaps permitting coffee and dessert or drinks from the bar to remain on the tables during the performance. (In many non-union houses, the actors are required to double as servers during the meal. Equity rules make that prohibitively difficult—though not expressly disallowed.) Equity prohibits service during the show to avoid clinking plates and patrons who pay more attention to their food than to the performance. As we’ve learned, the Meadowbrook Theatre Restaurant in New Jersey used the theater space for a dance floor after the performance, but that was rare.
Obviously, the theaters ranged in size, not to mention quality. Some were as small as 134 seats (Chanhassen Downstairs, Chanhassen, Minnesota—20 miles southwest of Minneapolis) or as large as 900 (Plantation Dinner Theater, St. Louis). The union-contracted theaters, while they had to pay higher costs for the stage talent they employed, could cast from the pool of experienced, professional actors (as well as stage managers, directors, and other theater personnel), while the often smaller theaters that used non-Equity performers, usually drawn from the local area, were more akin to community theaters. The food varied in quality, too, but the selling point was always that the cost of dinner and a show at a dinner theater was far less than for tickets to a performance at a conventional theater plus a comparable meal at a separate restaurant—and it was predictable: patrons knew the final cost, minus tips and extra drinks, when they booked the evening. (And, of course, there was no chance of being late for curtain.)
In 1978, at the height of dinner theater’s popularity, Jay Barney wrote that theater tickets would cost between $20 and $50 on Broadway or at a good rep company outside New York City; dinner at a nice restaurant would add another $20 to $50; and parking or a taxi would run $5 to $10, for a total of between $45 to $110. At a dinner theater, with its free parking, the whole tab would come to $10.95 for weeknights or $12.95 for Friday or Saturday evenings, all inclusive. As one theater writer put it: “To first-class entertainment add first-class food, mix well, then add impeccable management for a well-seasoned dinner theatre. A garnish of substantial funding enhances the dish.” Prices have risen since those days, of course. A Broadway musical costs north of $150 a seat—and much more in some cases—and Off-Broadway tickets go for $65-75, which is the same for major rep companies across the country. The TLC dinner and a show last month cost me $40—still a bargain, but not the under-15 bucks Barney wrote about 37 years ago. But the bargain, of course, is in the mind of the patrons. For $12.95 or $40, if they feel they’re getting a good deal, what the business folk call “perceived value,” then they’ll be satisfied and come back—and give the theater good word-of-mouth.
In some dinner theaters, the play was incidental to the meal, an evening’s entertainment to accompany a nice dinner. In others, the play might be a major production of Broadway quality with stars or name actors, and the dinner was less important—or in some instances, even optional. The most successful dinner theaters, of course, served an excellent meal (sometimes thematically keyed to the play on stage—say, an Italian menu for a production of Most Happy Fella—but not necessarily) followed by a top-flight play and performance. (In point of fact, I never heard of a dinner theater that became renowned for the quality of its cuisine.) “A dinner theatre needs a good but limited menu,” one dinner theater-owner says, “and a staff that’s trained to produce food and serve it on time.” The food must be easy to serve, eat, and clear away, unlike the less-limited selections of a conventional restaurant. Another theater-owner draws this comparison: “The efficiency of banquets plus the quality of restaurants.” In any case, it’s a three-ball juggling act for, as the Alhambra’s Booth put it, “You've got to run a theater, run a restaurant and run a bar.” Like restaurateurs, dinner theater owners and managers have to be cognizant of the ambiance, the quality of the food, and the efficiency and courtesy of the service; like producers, they have to oversee the selection of the play, the quality of the actors and directors, and the excellence of the final production.
Of course, as with any enterprise, things don’t always run smoothly. A Canadian theater journalist observed that “even with the best of everything at hand, ministering to this mostly happy marriage of mind and palate does have its headaches.” Ernie Schier, the late reviewer for the Philadelphia Bulletin and director of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center, quipped: “Dinner theatre is one of the few places I know where it is possible to strike out twice in the same evening. I have often suspected that the chef was also the producer or, on another night, that the producer the chef.” There are lots of important considerations that go into starting and running a dinner theater, combining the mines in the field of theater with those in the restaurant business—neither of them easy endeavors at which to succeed. When the first dinner theaters in the country were opening, only a few could afford to build a dedicated facility for their venue like the Candlelight’s Bill Pullinsi. (He was lucky: his first site in Summit, Illinois, was on property owned by his grandfather.) One 1978 report cited a cost of $2 million (equivalent to over $7 million today) to build a dinner theater from scratch. Most dinner theaters were converted from some other use, among them department or chain stores, night clubs, catering halls, a laundry, and a bowling alley.
In many other cases, the impresarios had to choose between converting a restaurant into a theater or an existing theater into a restaurant. In the opinion of one dinner theater-owner, the latter works better. Simply adding the performance of a play to a meal to turn a restaurant into a dinner theater can work sometimes, but, “They’re just former restaurants with entertainment,” but as another owner noted: “The most successful dinner theatres are theatres that also serve dinner.” Among the advantages such entrepreneurs found were that former theaters and entertainment venues (such as night clubs and cabarets) have a stage or performance space—though some can be quite small; high ceilings (for lighting and even flying scenery); no pillars to block views, make seating awkward, or impede smooth staging; a box office; dressing rooms; a cloakroom; and washrooms that aren’t “back stage” or within earshot of the performance area. To these considerations, the would-be dinner theater producer must add ample parking, since many dinner theaters are in suburbs but want to draw patrons from the city, and ease of access—say near a major road or highway, and even reliable public transportation.
One matter that’s unique really to dinner theaters, as different from either conventional theaters or restaurants, is the size of the seating or dining area. One dinner theater manager asserted, “With 200 or more seats, you can’t carry more than a three-hander [play] but with 400 capacity, you can do full theatrical productions.” As we’ve seen in the case of the Meadowbrook, a very large capacity, like 500 to 700 seats, can cause problems keeping the theater filled. (It snowballs, too: a larger clientele means a larger kitchen and a larger restaurant staff, all of which add costs to the overhead.) While a 250-seat dinner theatre can sell out three times over on a Saturday night, it can’t capitalize on this popularity—you can’t really sell a seat three times for one performance—so the theater may not break even. A 400-seat capacity, conversely, permits a greater choice of productions and a better repertoire means larger audiences.
The performance schedule is also something that dinner theater producers have to keep in mind differently from rep company directors. Many theaters that draw spectators from a wide area try to make allowances for travel with early curtains and precise curtain times, but dinner theaters, so often located in suburbs, have to be even more cognizant of their commuting audiences. (To keep the first act starting on time, the dinner service has to be precisely orchestrated as well: too much time taken to serve and clear a meal means a delay in the start of the show.) But while conventional theater companies can present matinees even during the week (traditionally on Wednesdays), it’s hard for a dinner theater to do that. A full performance of even a 90-minute play with a meal is too long for a lunchtime show. Weekend matinees are possible, of course, but the dinner theater managers would have to determine if the local audience will sufficiently fill the theater on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon to warrant paying the restaurant staff for the extra work (not to mention paying for the extra utilities to keep the dinner theater open in the middle of the day).
At its highpoint, the dinner theater arena was a big business, particularly in the field of live entertainment. In 1974, the theater trade paper Show Business reported that “more actors work in Equity dinner theatres . . . than work on Broadway!” And that was only the union houses. In the same year, the Christian Science Monitor stated, “Dinner theaters—America’s fastest-growing show-business movement—outdrew fabled Broadway itself last season and now claim to be the biggest employer of professional actors.” The paper went on to specify: “In 1973 [over half a million patrons] paid more than $60 million for the combination of a meal and stage performance. By comparison, Broadway grossed $42.2 million” in that same period. By 1978, Jay Barney reported, dinner theaters played to 26,000 patrons a night, grossing about $55 to $60 million a year. Between 500 and 625 Equity actors worked every week of the year in dinner theaters, as opposed to 350 a week in the middle of the summer to 800 at the height of season on Broadway. League of Resident Theatres (LORT) companies employed about 550 to 690 union actors for from several months to several years as a rule.
For the actors themselves, the work was appealing from the perspective of craft and art as well. In stock companies, where actors traditionally got their on-the-job training and experience, a cast rehearsed for six or seven days, performed for a week or two, and moved on to the next gig. In resident stock, actors begin rehearsing the next show during the day while performing the previous one at night. It was an arduous routine and more wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am than professionally satisfying. In dinner theaters, which often became the replacement for the disappearing stock theaters, actors never got less than a week’s rehearsal and usually 10 days’. Then they played the show for a minimum of five weeks, sometimes as many as six or seven. If the theater was part of a chain, they’d perform the same part for perhaps 10, 15, or 20 weeks along the circuit, getting the chance to develop their roles, try out new business, and expand their techniques. Of the performance procedure, though, one experienced dinner theater actor described the difference with a conventional show where the curtain normally rises at 8 and the audience arrives around 7:45:
However, at a dinner theater, the dynamics are so different because the audiences [sic] has been there for about two hours since they go through a buffet and have drinks around 6:00 p.m. . . . By the time the curtain goes up, they’ve eaten a big meal and maybe had a beer, and now, all of a sudden, you’ve got to keep them interested in the show and entertained—that’s a real challenge.
But the dinner-theater boom came to an end in the mid-1980s. Many of the theaters closed and the remaining houses could no longer afford or attract celebrities, even faded ones, to star in their productions. (Some of the dinner theaters that operated during the high point continued to produce dinner shows but started hiring non-Equity actors and stage managers to reduce costs and left the National Dinner Theatre Association, thus reducing its membership count.) Competition from increased repertory-theater development, especially in cities like Boston, Minneapolis, Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco, Atlanta, Houston, and Washington, D.C., reduced the audience for dinner theaters, and non-theater entertainment like casino gambling, which proliferated around the country, drew more potential patrons away. What the L.A. Times called “spin-off genres” replaced dinner theaters as the entertainment of choice: audience-participation murder mysteries, plot-less cabarets coexisting with cold-cut buffets, medieval knights on horseback jousting in an arena setting. Theater in general began to lose its audience, which was aging and turning to other forms of entertainment.
Add to these factors bad business practices, generally rising costs—Equity organized dinner theaters in 1973 and began enforcing contractual obligations with its first negotiated agreement in 1975—and a poor economy (there were recessions in the U.S. in 1981-82 and 1990-91); dinner theaters, a non-essential expense for most potential customers, were set back. Possibly the most deleterious business practice was star-chasing. Even as theater profits fell back and royalty demands rose, theaters continued to hire name actors for lead roles. As demand increased, so did the stars’ asking prices until even low-level celebrities were commanding huge salaries, essentially taking funds away from other needs of the theaters. To pay the stars, many theaters decreased the quality of the food they served and reduced their staffs, even lowered the pay for the other members of the casts (especially if they were non-union actors). As Jay Barney saw it, the dinner theater producer thus “often ends up being merely a pipeline to convey money from the customers to the star—with not enough left over for the upkeep, staff, food, promotion, and utilities.”
Furthermore, Broadway began producing fewer shows suitable for regional theaters. Elaborate spectaculars like Les Miz, Miss Saigon, Phantom of the Opera, and even The Lion King are expensive and hard to duplicate on regional stages, and the subject matter of other shows, like The Life, a 1990 (Off-Broadway; 1997 Broadway) musical about hookers on 42nd Street, is less wholesome and unappealing to family audiences. Even popular Broadway musicals like La Cage aux Folles or Victor / Victoria could make some conservative spectators uncomfortable and shows intended to reach a younger audience also faced problems with the dinner-theater crowd: Rent, for instance, a rock-oriented play (based on La Bohème) about young people in New York’s East Village, didn’t do well outside New York City. Additionally, even as real stars, even waning ones, were becoming harder to find and more costly to contract, the dinner-theater arena was becoming more and more dependent on star names, so they were hit with a double-whammy: reliant on a commodity they could no longer supply.
Choosing appropriate scripts was hard for dinner theater producers. While a good resident company, even a nascent and small one, can push audiences into new experiences—and some theater pros think it should challenge its audiences—dinner theaters may have to toe a line of acceptability and appeal to the existing audience. Reviewer Barbara Mackay of the Denver Post in the ‘70s described that audience as “a special group of people who don’t go to ‘straight’ theatres, people who don’t particularly care what they get in terms of drama. They go because they know they will get a dependable evening package: plenty of food and drink and light music before, during and after the show.” Said Robert D. Zehr, a dinner theater manager: “We basically are a commercial operation that provides quality theater, but theater people want to buy. That’s why we have a problem of having to do what’s available.”
Regional theaters have become increasingly important as testing grounds for new plays and new writers; several rep theaters even specialize in new works and even those that don’t try to offer plays soon after they début in New York City or other première venues. Dinner theaters, whose goal is making profit, not advancing art, can’t do that easily. “There’s not much risk taking even with established serious plays, so there would naturally be less in the tryout sense,” wrote Barney. (This doesn’t mean that there’s no new-play presentation in dinner theaters. A few have tried it and several have succeeded notably. Playwrights like Nick Hall and Edward Clinton had plays like Accommodations and The Lady Who Cried Fox, respectively, début at dinner theaters where they did very well both for the writers and for the theaters.) Rep companies are mostly non-profit operations and get subsidies from city, county, state, and federal agencies or corporations to support new-play development; dinner theaters are private, for-profit businesses and don’t get grants and tax-deductible donations. That’s why they must rely on the tried-and-true popular shows they can sell easily to entertainment-seeking audiences.
The butt of jokes about actors whose careers were on the wane, dinner theater became stigmatized and audiences got tired of theatrical pabulum in the form of old chestnuts like The Last of the Red Hot Lovers, Arsenic and Old Lace, and 6 Rms Riv Vu (not to mention such shudder-inducers as Natalie Needs a Nightie and Girl in the Freudian Slip). According to Booth, “A lot of that was crap” and theater historian Ken Bloom quipped, “Most dinner theater has been theater at its lowest-common denominator. At the small places, it could be bad ham on stage meets bad ham at the buffet table.” By 1999, NDTA, founded in 1978, had only 9 members. (Another trade association, the American Dinner Theatre Institute, was founded in 1972 to represent theaters affiliated with unions, most notably AEA, opposite whom ADTI was the designated contract negotiator. NDTA originally started as the representative for non-union theaters.)
The press wasn’t always very accommodating to dinner theaters, either. Though many papers covered dinner-theater productions the same way they did national tours and rep company shows, a few, like the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, made it a policy not to review dinner theaters on a regular basis. “Dinner theatre is less capital-T Theatre than television with flesh and blood . . .,” said William Albright, theater reviewer for the Houston Post in the 1970s. That’s a comparison several theater journalists made at the time. Bill Doll of Cleveland’s Plain Dealer even cited a dinner theater producer who made the link: “David Fulford [of the Carousel Dinner Theatre in Ravenna, Ohio], a man who knows his business, once asked that we not review his shows because it isn’t theatre in the traditional sense. He has said that his audience is a TV audience looking for a change of channels.”
After 2000, however, there seemed to be a resurgence in the field, with a number of new dinner theaters opening around the country. In reaction to the criticism many theaters began offering new Broadway shows, even some challenging fare, and in answer to the change in available talent, they started casting up-and-coming actors who were talented and attractive but still unknown. NDTA membership increased to 32 by 2006. It’s still miniscule in comparison with, say, LORT theaters, the association of regional rep companies in the U.S., but the concept isn’t dead yet.