Tired of a hectic life spent on the road, the Finnans came to Southern California to settle down and produce only an occasional traveling revue. But Tommy got restless and wanted to try and stage a local show.
Last year, they rented a plot of unpaved land adjacent to Whizin's Mall, brought in tractors to level it, constructed a circus-sized tent, put in bleachers and produced the musical "Barnum." The show was enough of a hit to play for three months.
This year they took over the lot again. They built the Starlight and announced a debut season of "South Pacific," "Kismet" and "The Unsinkable Molly Brown," each to run a month, and a two-week return engagement of "Barnum."
Although both dinner theaters are non-union, the Finnans boast that all actors (a total of 23 for "South Pacific") and crew members (9) in their show get paid, even though it amounts to little more than a stipend.
The Finnans won't disclose how much it cost them to construct the Starlight, but Jan does say that their operating costs are about $40,000 a month. Their goal, this inaugural season, is to break even.
Because their ambitions are decidedly not nonprofit and because they see themselves as running the area's only "professional" theater, the Finnans do not consider Monahan's operation competition.
"There is plenty of room for both of us," Tommy said. "We wish him only the best."
Patrons of the Starlight are seated at long tables decorated with seashells and other ocean paraphernalia to tie in with "South Pacific." A costumed member of the chorus brings each one a box containing a dinner of barbecued ribs, chicken and coleslaw prepared by a catering service in the shopping center. (The manager of the shopping center made a deal with them to provide the food).
Jan circulates throughout the crowd of about 35 on a Thursday night, asking if everything is all right and passing out blankets to those who are cold. The crowd is mostly middle-aged or younger.
Over at the Swedish Inn, about 85 people are in attendance on a Sunday night. The average age hovers around 65. "These are the people who love live theater and remember the classic shows," Monahan says with a sigh. His attempts to bring in a younger audience have proved fruitless, and his one attempt to do a show that was not a vintage Broadway blockbuster, "Dames at Sea," was a financial disaster.
Just before show time at the Swedish Inn, the food is cleared, glasses and pitchers of water are put on the table, and Wayne Gross, who works for a bank selling repossesed luxury cars, comes out from backstage to warm up the audience, just like at his temple.
Like the other Navy uniforms in the show, the one Gross wears was put together from uniforms donated by a local Navy reserve unit. He tells a few jokes, acknowledges birthdays and anniversaries and makes special mention of people there to watch a family member or co-worker perform.
Although the leads are all professionally trained and pursuing serious acting careers, the majority of the 26 cast members are, like Gross, on a lark. As the recorded orchestra track strikes up the overture, Janet Martocchio, who has a small part as a nurse, stands backstage amid the good-natured chaos of last-minute preparations.
"This is my first attempt at show biz," said the 59-year-old secretary. "I was in singing class, and they said they needed singer for this show, so I came over. It's wonderful."
At the Starlight the music is also recorded, but it was done in a recording studio exclusively for this show. Some of the voices were recorded, too, to give the performers a fuller sound.
The "extravaganza" aspects of the production, so important to Tommy Finnan, are readily apparent. He makes good on his promise that the sailors will make their grand entrance through the audience in a "Jeep" and that during the "Bali Ha'i" number the "island girls" will look exotic.
Unfortunately, when a desire for extravagance outpaces a budget, the glitz can end up looking pretty tawdry. The "Jeep" turns out to be a Suzuki Samarai, a wild incongruity in a show about servicemen in World War II. The costumes and headdresses look as if they were borrowed from a 'round-the-world revue from one of the smaller Nevada casinos.
The Finnans may, however, be on the right track commercially. If they can bring big-time production values to their shows, they might be able to find a large audience.
"This is becoming an affluent area," Jan noted. "Even in the time we've been here there have been a number of new office buildings that have gone up."
"We've already had interest in providing the investment to make this a permanent theater, with a removable roof so it could still be the 'Starlight,' " Tommy added. "We're going to give the people something that can't see anywhere else in the area."