Dinner theaters still offer an alternative menu

Only of couple of them remain, but they're both marking big anniversaries. Operators say that in this economy the idea is not just low-cost dinner and a show but theatrical variety as well.

By Christopher Smith, Special to the Los Angeles Times

January 7, 2011

A few years back, theater manager Michael Bollinger had an open slot on his schedule and a philosophical decision to make. In the middle of the worst economy in memory, he could go with a tried and true warhorse, like a "Sound of Music," or try a musical that never even made it to Broadway.

Bollinger isn't some Theater Row gunslinger running a storefront operation on Santa Monica Boulevard. He's the general manager of a conservative, risk-avoidant form of American theater — a dinner theater.

The choice for his Candlelight Pavilion stage was a surprise, even to himself. "I kept hearing from other dinner theater guys around the country — do 'Smoke on the Mountain,' this one will draw for you." Bollinger recalled. "We started slow, but at the end of the five-week run it was selling out, and now people come up and ask when we'll bring it back."

Even dinner theaters, it turns out, are having to take a chance these days. While 2010 saw the closure of the last existing house in once-dinner-theater-obsessed Orange County (on-stage at the time was the umpteenth revival of " Oklahoma!"), 2011 marks landmark anniversaries for two survivors on the outskirts of Southern California that have managed to survive and even thrive by turning dinner theater conventions upside down.

Here's a look at how the two remaining dinner theaters have managed to survive:

Candlelight Pavilion

The Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, which opened in 1985 under the name Griswold's, is a 299-seat theater situated in a onetime converted barn in Claremont. It's probably one of the Southland's strongest theaters measured by longevity and enterprise: During 25 years, it has staged more than 170 shows. An average season sees seven or eight works for runs of between five and eight weeks, usually presenting six performances on Thursdays through Sundays. A non-Equity, for-profit house, it employs more than 100 people.

Founded by Ben Bollinger, a longtime music department chair at Citrus College in Glendale, the theater has been a family business from Day One, with nine members of the clan having worked there in some capacity over the years. Michael Bollinger, the general manager, did time at Dad's theater on opening night as a busboy. Over the years he inter-mixed college at USC and Cal Poly Pomona with a progression of in-house jobs, from bartender to working the box office.

Why has this theater succeeded while others failed? Bollinger has strong opinions that go against conventional wisdom:

The audience: "It's not just older people showing up in buses anymore; we draw from all age levels. For instance, a children's conservancy program we have brings in a lot of family audiences."

The shows: "The taste in musicals has broadened out — doing standards over and over isn't what people go for now. Our most successful titles cover a range of styles — "Dreamgirls," "The Buddy Holly Story" and "Menopause: The Musical."

Dinner theater's appeal: "We give people an affordable one-stop evening. Drive into L.A. for a show, there's gas, parking, the restaurant and then the tickets — even for a couple, that can add up to a few hundred dollars. Our price per person ranges from $48 to $70 depending on where you sit."

Will there even be dinner theater in 10 years? "Well, we'll be here [laughs]. The economy is a big thing.... All the losses in the housing sector really hurt bad in 2008 and 2009. But people always want to have a good time, so we just have to keep figuring out how to give it to them." 

Circle Bar B

A much smaller venue — and definitely a longer drive — awaits dinner theatergoers headed to the unlikely confines of the Circle Bar B ranch in Goleta. This compound in the foothills about 20 minutes north of Santa Barbara offers accommodations and horseback riding, but it also sports an 86-seat theater that marks its 40th season pairing tri-tip barbecue with plays (a recent title: "The Girl in the Freudian Slip") when it starts in April.

Cost for dinner and show? $45.

Susie Couch has had a 17-year association with the nonprofessional, for-profit theater, first as patron, then actress and, since 2004 with her husband, David, producing the four-play season. Based on her experiences, dinner theater at this scale is viable, but keeping a close eye on the wants of the fiftysomething demographic is a must.

"We won't do older musicals — they cost a lot to stage and audiences now don't want the same old shows. We search out four- to 10-character comedies or smaller musicals like "Pump Boys and Dinettes" that maybe people haven't seen before. These are popular, and if they have serious themes among the laughs or are comedies that we can stage in an '80s or '90s setting, that works well for us."

Couch, who says about 40% of the audience comes from L.A. and Orange counties, is equally attuned to contemporary marketing strategies. "We aren't texting or twittering … yet. But we do have a Facebook page as well as an online homepage that help us get to people — no more mailing fliers.

"But here's the main thing: You have to be affordable, no matter what the entertainment is. People now pay attention to price first. So we do too."

calendar@latimes.com

Copyright © 2011, Los Angeles Times