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March/April 2008
Dinner and a Show
Love Live Performances and Great Food? Then Take Advantage of One of the Area’s Most Unique Entertainment Offerings — the Dinner Theatre.

by Gregory Yost + photos by Erick Gibson

• • •

Entertaining a family for an evening without spending a lot of money can prove to be a challenge. For years, movie theaters and chain restaurants have been the first choice when it comes to an evening out, but as the cost of movie tickets and concessions continues to rise, families are looking for new and affordable ways to enjoy a Friday or Saturday night together. That brings us to one of the best-kept local entertainment secrets — the dinner theaters of the Tri-State area.

As the name implies, dinner theaters provide guests with both live staged entertainment and a meal. Although they vary greatly in size and layout, a majority of dinner theaters share two common elements: the actors performing in the production also serve as the wait staff for the dinner, and the food is generally served buffet-style.

By providing both a delicious meal and several hours of live entertainment for one low cost, dinner theaters are perfect for a night out with the family. With prices ranging from about $17.50 to $44, it is really hard to beat the overall entertainment value of these establishments.

The Curtain Rises  
Dinner theaters are a modern American creation with a history that dates back to the early 1960s. Howard Douglass Wolfe, an enterprising businessman from Virginia, was dubbed the “Father of Dinner Theater” after he created the first dinner theater franchise in America. The Howard’s Barn Dinner Theater concept started in 1962 in Greensboro, N.C., and within a short amount of time the theater became so popular that independently-owned and operated theaters began popping up all across the country, including Maryland and Pennsylvania. Luckily, a few of these local theaters are still around today.

For almost 30 years, the Washington County Playhouse has been one of the cultural centers of Hagerstown. Located in the heart of the downtown shopping district, the theater has earned a reputation for producing family-friendly shows in a cozy setting that allows the audience to get up close and personal with the actors.

Most of the Playhouse’s cast, crew and staff members hail from Hagerstown and nearby towns, giving the entire theater a local flavor. As with most dinner theaters, many of the actors involved in the Playhouse’s productions are not professionals, but individuals with everyday jobs who share a real passion for performing. Kelly Jenkins Moreland, a retired professional dancer, has owned the Washington County Playhouse since 1998 and she is proud of the close bond and sense of community her staff shares with both the local community and each other. “We really are a family here, not just our actors and staff, but our audience, too.”  In fact, Kelly says that her guests have been so loyal over the years that they notice even the smallest of changes to the theater’s extensive buffet menu.

When it comes to scheduling a new season of performances, Kelly works hard to select shows that will appeal to a broad range of tastes. Not only does she try to find a nice balance between classic musicals and more contemporary productions, she also strives to schedule at least one show each year that is geared toward children — further emphasizing the importance of creating a family-friendly entertainment experience.  

It’s all about family at Frederick’s Way Off Broadway, the only live, year-round children’s theater in Western Maryland. Originally opened in 1990 as The Keynote Dinner Theater, Way Off Broadway adopted its current name in 1995 when new owners took over the operations. In 2002, the current ownership team of Bill Kiska and his family bought the theater and, under their watchful eye, it has blossomed into a multi-faceted entertainment center. In addition to the plays and musicals one might expect, Way Off Broadway stages interactive murder mystery dinners and nostalgic music revues, and offers acting classes and camps.

Even though owning and operating a dinner theater is a full-time job and a serious business undertaking, Bill and his family are first and foremost theater fanatics — a trait they say is necessary to being a part of the industry. “You really have to love theater to own a theater,” Bill says.

Magic of History  
The region’s smallest and most unique dinner theater experience is nestled in the shadows of Ski Liberty in the quiet borough of Fairfield, Pa.— a suburb of historic Gettysburg. Since 2001, the Civil War Era Dinner Theater at The Fairfield Inn 1757 has provided a uniquely memorable entertainment experience for guests through the unusual combination of magic, history and fine dining.

Proprietor Joe Kerrigan is a man of many talents — professional magician, storyteller, historical researcher, author, and creator and sole cast member in the theater’s only production, “Civil War Era Magic.” Combining his zeal for the history of the Civil War with his finely-honed skills as a magician, Joe put together a multi-layered, one-man-show that manages to both educate and entertain.

Throughout the 2 ½ hour presentation, patrons are treated to a mystifying display of magic from “Professor Kerrigan,” learn about civilian life during the time of the war and the many famous ghosts of Gettysburg from the “Old Time Storyteller,” and get to witness a theatrical re-creation of a Civil War era séance — all while enjoying a full-course meal from the Inn’s historic kitchen.

“Civil War Era Magic” is usually held in a small parlor on the Inn’s second floor.  Thanks to this intimate setting, audience participation is encouraged throughout the course of the evening, making this show one of the most up-close theatrical experiences available. In fact, Joe’s show has earned such an outstanding reputation that it has been profiled nationally on television, including a special on The Travel Channel.

Creating a family-friendly environment was one of Joe’s main concerns in designing the show, and even though “Civil War Era Magic” covers topics like séances and ghosts, he says it is appropriate for all ages. Joe sums up the ultimate goal of his show by saying, “I just want people to come out and have a good time.”

Mealtime Headliners
Since you can’t have dinner theater without the dinner, all three local theaters have put a real emphasis on the food they serve.  In fact, each theater considers their meal offerings to be just as much a star of the show as the talented actors that grace the stage.

Way Off Broadway and the Washington County Playhouse feature an extensive dinner buffet including fresh dishes prepared on-site. While both offer a variety of hot entrees prepared with beef, pork, chicken and fish, each theater boasts a signature dish that has helped define its buffet. Way Off Broadway’s renowned cream of crab soup has long been one of the most popular items on the menu, while the spinach soufflé at the Washington County Playhouse is so well loved that people will attend a show just to taste this dish again.

Although buffets are popular at many dinner theaters, audiences attending “Civil War Era Magic” are treated to a full-course meal of culinary creations from the talented chefs at The Fairfield Inn 1757 served directly at the table. One of the Inn’s most popular plates is the Chicken Breast St. Michael, a delightful dish that brings the distinctive flavors of chicken, crabmeat, shrimp and scallops together in a dill cream sauce that proves there is magic on the plate as well as in the show.

----

Need to Know ...
 
Washington County Playhouse
44 N. Potomac St., Hagerstown
301-739-7469
www.washingtoncountyplayhouse.com
• “Little Shop of Horrors” — through March 8
• “Oklahoma” — March 14–May 17
Tickets cost $30, adults; $26, students and senior citizens; and $17.50, children ages 12 and younger. Prices include dinner and show; beverages and gratuity not included.
 
Way Off Broadway
5 Willowdale Drive, Frederick
301-662-6600
www.wayoffbroadway.com
• “Lend Me a Tenor” — through April 5
• “The Sound of Music” — April 18–June 29
Adult tickets cost $42 for Friday evening shows, $44 for Saturday evening shows and $40 for alternate Sunday matinees. Children’s tickets cost $32 for Friday evening shows, $34 for Saturday evening shows and $30 for alternate Sunday matinees. Prices include dinner, show, taxes and $1 per ticket handling fee; bar tab and gratuity not included.

Civil War Era Dinner Theater
The Fairfield Inn 1757, 15 W. Main St., Fairfield, Pa.
888-246-4432
www.civilwartheater.com
Tickets cost $39.95 for adults and $19.95 for children ages 12 and younger.

   view more articles from the March/April 2008 issue >>

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