It wasn't uncommon for commoners to attend Elizabethan comedies with mutton and brew in hand. And the well-tossed vaudeville tomato, apocryphal or not, has become a symbol for the purest of stage criticism.
But these days, there doesn't seem to be much room for food in the theater, at least not those theaters that want respectability. Roast beef, mashed potatoes and middling wine just aren't seen as conducive to a dignified air. The tinkling sound of plates being carted away as the curtain rises, dessert and coffee served up during what should be the reflective moments of intermission . . . and besides, who comes to a theater to eat, anyway?
All that carping hasn't stopped the owners of dinner theaters, though.
In Orange County, it's not always easy to distinguish between the area's three major dinner theaters, the Grand Dinner Theatre across from Disneyland in Anaheim, the Harlequin Dinner Playhouse in Santa Ana and Elizabeth Howard's Curtain Call Dinner Theatre in Tustin.
For one thing, each has the look of an overdressed Vegas showroom. Beyond that, the playbills depend almost exclusively on the tried-and-true, usually hit Broadway musicals with a few popular comedies thrown in: "Zorba the Greek," "Chorus Line," "Man of La Mancha," "Same Time Next Year."
The Harlequin has gotten a tad giddy in recent years, staging a wacky "Little Shop of Horrors" and the English domestic satire "How the Other Half Loves." But those are exceptions to what's still the general rule, and the game plan for all three of these places is more similar than different.
The small Brobdingnag Dinner Theatre in Tustin, a relative newcomer to the scene, has taken a somewhat unusual, even eccentric, approach in its first productions. It kicked off with the broad farce "Bullshot Crummond." Offerings since then have included a whodunit by Ayn Rand, of all people.
In any case, interviews with several regular patrons indicate that the pragmatic impresarios who own the dinner theaters are correct in their contention that the combination of two great entertainments add to the wealth of both.
Almost all the patrons said they enjoy the convenience of eating in the same place they would be entertained. They further noted that traditional stage offerings are more to their liking than something more inventive.
James Barrera was typical. The 58-year-old Fountain Valley real estate agent said he and his wife, Alma, preferred an evening at the Harlequin over, say, a night at South Coast Repertory's ambitious and intimate Second Stage.
"We have friends who go to Los Angeles to see all the new serious plays, or to South Coast, but we like it light," he explained. "Maybe it's not as sophisticated (but) we always know what to expect."
Cathy O'Connor, a 32-year-old community college instructor from Anaheim, said she regularly attends SCR (almost always opting for the more traditional Mainstage offerings) and the Grove Theatre Company in Garden Grove, but also finds time to visit the Grand. Dinner theater production values, often colorful and professional, impress her, and the ceremony of having a meal followed by a show further charms her.
"I honestly can't say the shows (at the dinner theaters) are the best I've ever seen," O'Connor added. "Some are good, very well done, escapist kinds of experiences. I guess if I was only interested in seeing excellent theater, the kind that makes you think, I'd probably go to Costa Mesa (to SCR) all the time."
But Hester Rose of Newport Beach, a former actress, emphasized the spirit of dinner theater productions as a main attraction. "The performers always seem to try very hard to give you a good time," the 48-year-old said, "and the owners treat you in a very special way. At least that's been my experience."