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Get your fill at dinner theaters

“Act One, Too,” courtesy Chanhassen Dinner Theater

Dinner theaters help group leaders solve two problems at once — arranging for a delicious and satisfying dinner and a night’s entertainment.

“It’s a one-stop shop. You get your dinner and show in one place. You don’t have to rush from one place to another. It’s a very nice option for people traveling by motorcoach,” said Kris Howland, public relations director for the Chanhassen Dinner Theatres in Chanhassen, Minn.

Here are some long-established dinner theaters that have offered convenient one-stop dining and entertainment options for several decades.

Chanhassen Dinner Theatres

Chanhassen, Minn.
The Chanhassen Dinner Theatres, a complex of several theaters under one roof in the Twin Cities area, is one of the few remaining dinner theaters that use members of the Actors’ Equity, the New York-based professional actors union.

“You see the same actors you see on Broadway stages,” said Howland.

The Chanhassen, which opened in 1968, also produces its own plays, most of which are Broadway-style musicals, in its main 600-seat theater.

“We create all our sets, costumes and properties on site in shops on the campus,” said Howland.
“Jesus Christ Superstar” will conclude its current run July 30, to be followed by “Hairspray,” which opens Aug. 6 and runs through Jan. 29.

“Plaid Tidings,” a special holiday edition of “Forever Plaid,” will run Nov. 4-Dec. 31 in the 230-seat Fireside Theatre, Chanhassen’s second-largest theater and the only one where guests dine in a separate area. “Forever Plaid” will follow its spinoff in the Fireside Theatre Jan. 4-March 3.

In the other theaters, the audience eats at the same tables from which they watch the show and are served their meals by the wait staff.

A staff member gives a personal greeting on the motorcoach to groups, which make up one-third of the theaters’ annual business. Groups are recognized from the stage before the show.

“We have behind-the-scenes tours they can request that are only offered to groups,” said Howland.
There also is a comedy club, Stevie Ray’s Comedy Cabaret, at the Chanhassen on Fridays and Saturday nights in the Playhouse Theatre. “It’s a resident comedy improv. They take suggestions from the audience and create the comedy as they go,” said Howland.

Circa 21 Dinner Playhouse

Rock Island, Ill.
Brett Hitchcock of Circa 21 said the dinner theater in downtown Rock Island, part of the Quad Cities area, likes to mix the familiar with the new in selecting plays.

“We are looking for that combination of shows that have titles people know and new works,” he said. Although dinner theaters can have trouble getting the rights to new works, “we were lucky this year,” he said.

This spring, Circa 21 presented the Midwest premiere of the new musical “Happy Days,” based on the popular television series, and the area’s premiere of “Hairspray” is showing through Aug. 13.

Since both plays deal with the 1950s and 1960s, Circa 21 decided to stay with that theme this year and will feature “The Marvelous Wonderettes,” set in a 1958 high school prom, Sept. 30-Nov. 5.

Sandwiched in between will be the theater’s lone comedy, “Nana’s Naughty Knickers,” Aug. 19-Sept. 24.

“We have found over the years, that the majority of people who come to the theater prefer musicals,” said Hitchcock, whose father, Dennis, opened the dinner theater in 1977 after saving its historic building from being turned into a parking lot.

Circa 21 is in a 1921 vaudeville house and movie theater with lavishly carved walls and ceilings and decorated in Roaring ’20s decor.

Circa 21’s wait staff, the Bootleggers, present a 15-minute musical review before the main show.

“We are one of only two left that we are aware of that have a performing wait staff,” said Hitchcock. “They are a very, very talented group of people and one of the attractions for the theater.”

After the show, actors from the cast present each motorcoach group with a box of cookies to eat on the way home.
309-786-2667, ext. 305/306

Chaffin’s Barn Dinner Theatre
Nashville, Tenn.
Although Circa 21 sticks mostly to musicals, Chaffin’s Barn Dinner Theatre “leans toward comedies,” said Vanessa Wynn, the group sales director. “But we try to have one major musical a year. This year it is ‘Annie.’”

“Annie” runs from July 28 to Sept. 3 and is followed by “Writer’s Block,” “Southern Fried Funeral” and “Boeing, Boeing” in the 296-seat main-stage theater. “A Country Christmas Carol” will be performed in the more intimate backstage theater, which can be used by parties and groups and holds 60 to 70.

Chaffin’s presents nine to 10 shows a year, with runs of four to six weeks each.

One of the few survivors of a former chain of barn dinner theaters, Chaffin’s has a distinctive stage setup. “Our stage actually descends from the ceiling. We are a true theater in the round,” said Wynn. “It looks like a barn on the outside, but it is nice and warm and cozy on the inside.

“We are celebrating our 45th anniversary this year. We were the first professional theater in Nashville.”

Wynn said a staff member greets groups and shows them to their tables, which are located in the theater. Meals are buffet style.
800-282-2276, ext. 11

Crown Uptown Dinner Theatre
Wichita, Kan.
You could say the stars shine on the Crown Uptown Dinner Theatre, or at least, a reasonable imitation.

The dinner theater is in a historic 1928 vaudeville theater. “It was built by the Boller Brothers, who did atmospheric theaters,” said Mike Roark, group sales director for the theater. “It gives the impression of being outdoors. You can look up and see the Big Dipper and other constellations.”

The dinner theater was started in 1977 in the city’s Uptown area by Ted and Karen Morris, who had an actors group called the Crown Players; thus, the theater’s name.

“We do Broadway-style shows — musicals, revues and comedies — and a Christmas show,” said Roark. “We have done murder mystery.”

Currently running through July 17 is “The Odd Couple,” which will be followed by another comedy, “Squabbles,” from July 29 to Sept. 4.

The Crown Uptown features buffet meals at tables in its 400-seat, proscenium stage theater.

Following the show, a cast member gives a personal good-bye to groups and presents them with treats for the ride home.

Fanny Hill Dinner Theatre

Eau Claire, Wis.
Now in its 33rd year, the Fanny Hill Dinner Theatre presents around five shows a year, both comedies and musicals, in its 150-seat theater.

“We have a very unique setting,” said Lois Hodgins, group sales coordinator, who owns the theater with her husband, Don, the theater director.  “We are in a Victorian inn with nine bed-and-breakfast rooms on a bluff overlooking the beautiful Chippewa River Valley.”

The theater and inn are seasonally decorated, from blooming flowers in the spring to a wide array of jack-o’-lanterns and corn shocks in the fall.

“We are open year round,” said Hodgins. “You eat right in the theater. It’s a sit-down dinner, with the exception of our Sunday brunch.”

The complex also has the Riverview Grille, with views of the Chippewa River Valley through floor-to-ceiling windows, which are also great for bird-watching.

The Fanny Hill presents evening shows on Wednesday through Saturday; matinees on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday; and a Sunday brunch matinee.

The current show, “Church Basement Ladies,” runs through Aug. 21. It will be followed this season by “Unnecessary Farce,” Aug. 26-Oct. 30, and “A Very RUDYful Christmas,” written by Don Hodgins, Nov. 4-Jan. 15.