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Tinseltown Theater Will Give Diners a Taste of Celebrity

November 11, 1998|E. SCOTT RECKARD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When the $15-million Tinseltown Studios dinner theater debuts in Anaheim on Friday, the stars of the show will often hail from boardrooms and sales offices.

Want an unusual reward for a chief executive or top agents? As part of a group booking, they can be worked into the ceremony, which makes customers "insiders" at a Hollywood awards banquet. Or, for $25,000 or $30,000, buy out the entire show--and guarantee someone a place in the spotlight, clutching a statuette.

Tinseltown hopes to get 30% of its customers from business or other groups. Special roles in the show can be arranged for groups as small as 20 or 30 in the 678-seat hall, said Thomas C. Etter, senior vice president of owner Ogden Entertainment.

"And if people want to buy out the facility," Etter said, "we'll do anything they want: change the show, cook a special meal, serve a special wine."

Tinseltown, which resembles a movie studio lot, was dreamed up by a group that includes former Disneyland President Jack Lindquist. Ogden Entertainment, which manages the Anaheim Pond and operates concessions at Edison International Field, wanted to bankroll a dinner theater and liked the Hollywood concept.

The alliance is betting that thrill-seeking suburbanites, visiting aunts from Dubuque, tourists and special groups will revel in walking a red carpet as cameras roll and lights flash.

That may have seemed a surer bet two years ago, when Ogden Entertainment signed on and before themed restaurants ran into trouble. At celebrity-backed Planet Hollywood, whose restaurants are adorned with movie memorabilia, falling sales have driven the stock price from $32 to the $4 range--and raised questions about whether the public has swallowed all the glamour hype it can stomach.

Tinseltown's promoters believe they can overcome such problems with heavy audience participation that they hope will make ogling an ax from "The Shining" at a Planet Hollywood restaurant seem dull.

Tinseltown's $44.50-a-head guests will be greeted by "mogul" Cohnwarner Mayerwyn Selznuck, "autograph hounds" and "paparazzi" (photos can be purchased separately, along with alcoholic drinks and souvenirs). Video crews tape interviews, with choice responses replayed later on the giant screens flanking the stage.

The interviews also will help identify candidates for the awards capping the musical dinner show. Eight audience members per show become "nominees," spliced electronically into real movie scenes: Kevin Costner in "Field of Dreams," John Belushi in "Animal House," Jessica Tandy in "Fried Green Tomatoes," Janet Leigh in "Psycho."

In addition to those featured roles, virtually every guest at every show--twice nightly, six nights a week--will be on screen at least briefly.

"My wife swore she'd kill me if she has to say anything in front of a camera," said Lindquist, the former Disneyland president who conceived Tinseltown with another former Disney executive, Jim Garber.

"I told her nobody has to do anything they don't want to. But during the show, the cameras are going to pan the tables, so there'll probably be a shot of her sitting there."

It's Dinner Theater At a Whole New Level

Nora Lee, editor of the Urban Land Institute newsletter The EZone, said the intense interactivity "may be the very thing Planet Hollywood is lacking. There, you're on the outside looking in. And the food isn't very good."

Long-term success will depend on the quality of Tinseltown's 17-person cast, Lee said. "This is a bet on the people. If the people are very good, and the illusion works, that can overcome all kinds of other shortcomings."

Lindquist promises that the quality of the limited menu--top sirloin steak, Norwegian salmon, chicken piccata and vegetarian pasta--and of the entertainers will be top drawer.

"It's got to compare with things they can see in Las Vegas, on Broadway and on television," he said. "We're taking the dinner theater to a whole new level of sophistication. And if you're going to the Academy Awards, you don't find a pitcher of beer and a pitcher of sangria on the table."

History shows that when it works, interactive dinner theater can be a smash. "Tamara," a decadent whodunit in which the audience trailed cast members from room to room in search of clues, ran for nine years at an old Hollywood American Legion post decked out as an Italian villa.

And "Tony 'n' Tina's Wedding," which drops guests into a raucous Italian wedding along with a lecherous father-in-law, a tipsy priest and a pregnant bridesmaid, has played off-Broadway since 1988 and has spawned more than 50 productions worldwide.

Ogden officials said "Tony 'n' Tina" is one of several dinner entertainments that are models for what they hope will become a chain of Tinseltowns.

Others include Dixie Stampede, a Dolly Parton-backed Civil War show now battling it out at three locations, and Medieval Times, a jousting tournament whose seven locations include Buena Park. Etter said operating profit margins can run 50% at such venues.

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