Ah, dinner and a show, what a great combination! With all the Orlando entertainment options for both locals and tourists, Orlando dinner shows are a very enjoyable option. And, there is a vast array of shows to choose from, with different themes, fun for the entire family! Be sure to check out our dinner show directory for a brief description of our local dinner theaters.
In the meantime, let’s take a look at the history of the dinner theater. Dinner theater (sometimes called dinner and a show) is a form of entertainment that combines a restaurant meal with a staged play or musical. The earliest dinner theater dates all the way back to the Middle Ages. The early theatres served dinner in one room and staged the show in another.
The first formal dinner theatre in the U.S. is the Barksdale Theatre, which was founded in 1953 in Richmond, VA. The theatre started out using an adjoining room to serve buffet dinners for groups attending the show, and this eventually became available to all guests, becoming a dinner theatre. However, Barksdale’s reputation is that of a theater that happens to have a restaurant; dinner is optional. They want to keep their reputation of a professional theatre more than their reputation as a restaurant.
Even before Barksdale Theatre, Tony DeSantis began producing plays in 1949 in a tent adjacent to his Martinique Restaurant. The success of these shows prompted him to build his first theatre, Drury Lane Evergreen Park, by 1958. This was the first of six dinner theatres he started, and it was a local entertainment landmark for 45 years before it closed in 2003.
Then, in 1959, theatre student Bill Pullinsi implemented the first facility where dinner and the show were together in one room, utilizing the Presidential Arms Hotel during spring breaks from college. After college, Pullinsi returned to his Chicago hometown and opened the Candlelight Dinner Playhouse. With the Candlelight, several new innovations were brought to dinner theater. Among these were the hydraulic stage, stage wagons on wheels, and lighting equipment located in the mezzanine.
Starting in 1961, Howard Douglass Wolfe created The Barn Dinner Theatre franchise, which included 27 theaters. These theaters were strategically located in New York, North Carolina, Virginia, Texas, Tennessee, Georgia, and Louisiana. All locations of the franchise featured Wolfe’s barn design and farm-themed decorations, and even his “magic stage”. The magic stage was Wolfe’s patented elevator in which at the end of an act or scene, the stage would disappear into the ceiling, then reappear, all ready for the next scene. Wolfe’s memorial cites him as the “Father of Dinner Theater”. Several famous actors reportedly acted at The Barn, including Robert DeNiro and Mickey Rooney.
The late 1960s and 1970s brought several more dinner theaters, as the popularity increased. These include the Alhambra Dinner Theatre in Jacksonville, FL; the Chanhassen Dinner Theatres in Minnesota, and the Carousel Dinner Theatre in Ohio. The 1970s were the heyday of dinner theaters, and in 1976, there were 147 professional dinner theaters in operation.
Read more in Part 2 – The History of Dinner Theater.