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THEATER : Dinner Theaters Survive Despite Soaring Costs, Attendance Slump

December 15, 1987|HERMAN WONG | Times Staff Writer

A decade ago, things looked nice and nifty for dinner theaters.

They had overcome much of the critical barrage that depicted their genre as dubious, as a haven for has-been stars and tired stage fare.

If anything, with such posh establishments as the Harlequin and Grand in Orange County and the Burt Reynolds in Florida, the eatery-playhouse was even starting to seem a bit classy.

Then, three years ago, the American Dinner Theatre Institute, the largest organization devoted to these places, issued a dismal report: Attendance had slipped badly, and scores of playhouses had folded. The number of full-fledged operations had dropped from 175 to 115.

The reasons were all too clear, according to Frank Wyka, the Grand's operating producer and newly elected president of the institute. "Production costs were soaring like crazy," Wyka said, "while the economic crunch was making customers choosier and less free spending."

And today? Wyka happily reports that the attendance slump has subsided and that business, generally, is much perkier, thanks largely to more aggressive marketing.

"The established, quality operations are doing well. We've survived," Wyka said.

"But," he added, "we have to work twice as hard to stay in there. Everything from food and office operations to costumes and actors have gone sky high."

For instance, he said, a 22-member musical at the Grand, which is affiliated with Equity Actors Assn., costs about $40,000 to stage. A few years ago, the cost was about $15,000.

The dinner theaters' drawing card hasn't changed since the 1960s, when this form of one-stop entertainment first took hold in America. "Where else can you get all this--food, a show, uncongested parking--and for a decent price," said Elizabeth Howard, who runs the Curtain Call in Tustin with her producer-director brother, John Ferola. "We still offer the best entertainment deal around, we think."

In Orange County, dinner-theater tickets range from about $20 to $30. The core audience is still what it always has been: those older than 45, with group sales making up 35% to 40% of business.

The 420-seat Grand, housed in Anaheim's Grand Hotel since 1977, presents the latest Broadway musicals--such as "A Chorus Line," "Singin' in the Rain" and now "42nd Street"--as soon as they are made available to the dinner-theater circuit.

In Santa Ana, the 450-seat Harlequin, built in 1977, has provided comedy-drama such as Neil Simon's "Brighton Beach Memoirs," along with musicals ("My One and Only," the current "Can-Can").

The 7-year-old Curtain Call has followed its own formula: strictly the musical oldies, from "Oklahoma!" to the current show, "Fiddler on the Roof."

The county's first dinner playhouse, the 315-seat Sebastian's West that opened in San Clemente in 1973, has fallen on bad times: box office failures, management turnover, fiscal collapses. Harlequin owners Al and Barbara Hampton, who took over Sebastian's in 1986 and renamed it the Southampton, have already spent $250,000 overhauling the facility, where the current production is a revue, "You Must Remember This."

"It's taking time, and there's a lot of old image problems to overcome," Al Hampton said. "But we feel it's coming back, and we can win back the audiences there."

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