Three hours before the curtain rises at the Burn Brae Dinner Theatre in Burtonsville, actor Jeffrey Shankle is deep in preparation -- setting tables, pouring ice water and setting out tiny containers of cream.
Later, after he has served his audience beers and cleared their plates, the 28-year-old actor will trade his maroon apron for tap shoes, bound onto the stage in a tuxedo and sing Gershwin classics as the star of the show.
Shankle doesn't seem to mind. And he's not alone. The whole cast of Burn Brae's "Crazy For You" takes turns waiting tables to boost their pay. Tina DeSimone, the female lead, also teaches dance and works as the theater's director of sales and marketing. The sound engineer doubles as the chef.
In the world of dinner theater, the play is still the thing, but appetizers, entrees and dessert are pretty crucial, too.
The hustle and talent of Shankle and his co-stars help keep the seats filled night after night at Burn Brae, the oldest dinner theater in the Baltimore-Washington area and a survivor of tough times for dinner theaters around the country.
For years, these small theaters relied on a crowd-pleasing formula: a hearty meal and a popular musical for an affordable price. But the economics are far trickier these days, and the audiences are dwindling. While established dinner theaters like Burn Brae offer decent food and fairly elaborate musical productions, there's no shortage of others serving up meager entertainment and rubber chicken. Even a spaghetti dinner followed by a play in a church basement can call itself dinner theater.
"There's a lot of amateur talent and bad food" out there, acknowledges Burn Brae owner John Kinnamon. "We're trying to combat that stigma every night. I'll let you decide if we succeed."
Shankle and two other actors waiting tables on this Wednesday night arrive by 4: 30; the fourth is running late. After setting tables, the actors and some crew members eat dinner for free. Shankle, sick of dinner theater food, goes out for Burger King.
The group laughs over some classic dinner theater moments: the elderly woman in the front row singing loudly and off key; getting cast in one-line roles in drawn-out shows; the lady at the matinee who cried, "This is funnier than 'Seinfeld!' "
In the narrow lobby, a handwritten message on a blackboard welcomes the various groups, which always make up the bulk of the audience. Coming tonight is the Warrington Women's Club from Warrington, Pa., a senior center from Roanoke, Va., and an educational tour group from Apple Valley, Calif.
Doors open at 6 p.m. A handful of gray-haired early birds help themselves to the complimentary hors d'oeuvres on a table in the lobby: raw veggies with dip, crackers, cubes of Swiss and pimento cheese. Burn Brae veterans head straight for the buffet line, which will be 20 people deep in an hour.
Inside the 14,000-square-foot theater, placards of various musicals adorn the wood paneling. On top of the cornflower-blue plastic tablecloths, a note asks diners to tip 15 percent of their admission and bar bill.
The buffet rivals that of any Sizzler. Every salad bar fixing, steamed broccoli, stewed tomatoes, rolls, broiled salmon, veal parmigiana, Caribbean-style chicken, roast beef, turkey breast, make-your-own sundae, cheesecake, key lime pie, apple pie and two kinds of chocolate cake. The food is tasty, if not quite hot enough.
Diners take the all-you-can-eat seriously, some balancing three desserts on one arm as they make their way back to their tables.
"Too much food," grumbles one middle-age woman. "I hope I don't fall asleep during the show."
After their plates are cleared, the audience looks over the seven-page program. The actors' biographies reveal whole careers based in dinner theater, as well as day jobs in banks, real estate offices and dance schools. Other bios are more personal: "Stacie loves reading, learning about Native American
ways of thinking, country line dancing and chocolate ice cream." Or, "XXXOOO to my Scotty!!"
But the actors' accessibility, from their cutesy bios to gracious coffee refills, appeals to the audience.
"We're going to ask our waitress for her autograph," says David Shilling of Bowie, an engineer who comes to Burn Brae about once a year with his wife, Joyce.
The room is large, but the setting is intimate. Tables are within 50 feet of the stage, and no one has to go into serious debt for a seat. An evening for two here can cost as little as $75 -- compared to $200 or more for dinner, parking and tickets to Washington's Kennedy Center.
"You get a whole evening for a reasonable price," says Linda Ruby of Olney, who is here with her husband. "At the Kennedy Center, boy, you're going to spend some money."
At 7: 30, the buffet workers take away the food, and the crowd chews on complimentary Starlight mints while calculating the tip.
Backstage is as chaotic as a Loehmann's dressing room during a big sale, but co-ed. Men in tuxedo shirts and briefs. Women in bras and tap shoes. They swig water bottles, tuck small microphones into their costumes and expertly apply coats of lipstick.
"Why do I have Tina's wig hair in my socks?"
"Can I borrow a pair of tights? I had a busing accident."
"Are my eyelashes falling off?"
It's 8 p.m.: show time.
In 1968, when Burn Brae sold tickets for $7.50 a pop to its first production, "Brigadoon," professional dinner theaters were still a relatively new concept.
They peaked in popularity in the early 1980s, when perhaps 150 were operated around the country. These days, that number fluctuates as the industry shakes out, according to the National Dinner Theater Association. In the Baltimore area, theaters like Limestone, Bolton Hill, Petrucci's and Harlequin all have gone dark.
Some were done in by economizing couples choosing Blockbuster and Domino's over a night out. Others were closed by management troubles.
"They say the hardest businesses to run are taverns, restaurants and theaters, and we try to do all three," says Charles Carnes, president of the dinner theater association and the owner of a theater in Des Moines.
No one knows that better than Burn Brae owner John Kinnamon, who has watched the cost of putting on a professional musical skyrocket. He spends about $125,000 just to open a show. Half of that goes for royalties. Another big chunk is used to hire a 30-piece orchestra to record the musical score.
Kinnamon, a 58-year-old stage veteran who loves musicals, cringes when reviewers call the $20,000 studio recording he offers "canned music."
"I can't fight that snob appeal," he says. "Would they rather I
used a synthesizer that sounded like a roller rink?"
Business has dropped off 15 percent since 1991, but Burn Brae still earns a decent profit, Kinnamon says. The theater, just off Route 29 in Montgomery County, puts on eight shows a week, including Wednesday and Sunday matinees. On average, about 275 of the theater's 350 seats are filled for each performance.
"Welcome to 'Crazy for You!' " booms house manager Robert Biederman, who plays a singing and dancing cowboy in the show (and bakes cakes on the side). "We sure hope you are crazy for us by the time you leave here!"
Like a stand-up comedian trying to warm up the crowd for the headliner, Biederman welcomes the groups and notes a few important dates in the crowd. Tonight is Goldie's 87th birthday and Don's 70th. It's also Doreen and Walt's 29th anniversary, and Albert and Ana's 50th.
There are about 250 people in the audience, a mix of flannel-shirted teen-agers, smartly dressed couples and elderly folks in brightly colored suits.
At last, the overture swells and the red curtains open to "Crazy for You," a 1992-vintage boy-meets-girl musical featuring unforgettable Gershwin tunes.
Burn Brae's rendition is very good. Some of the voices aren't Broadway material; sometimes the tap dancing isn't totally in synch. But overall, the voices are strong, the choreography is excellent and the cast is exuberant, many of the performers revealing a talent for physical comedy.
Shankle makes the transformation from waiter to star look easy. He plays the lead character, Bobby, who dreams of performing in the Zangler Follies but finds his life complicated by a scheming mother and his pretentious ex-girlfriend. He's on stage for much of the show, dancing, singing and making the audience laugh with his well-timed pratfalls.
At intermission, the actors, still in gaudy stage makeup and costume (including tap shoes), emerge to wait tables again, mainly to refresh the audience's drinks. "You were just great!" says one woman to cast member Tina DeSimone, 28.
DeSimone, who started working the dinner theater circuit right after high school, gets a kick out of such instantaneous reviews.
"I actually enjoy the interaction with the audience," she says. "It's funny when one of the seniors in the audience smiles at you on stage and says, 'That's our waitress!' "
DeSimone shares a three-bedroom townhouse in Columbia with Shankle and Mark Minnick, who has a medium-sized role as a cowboy in "Crazy for You." Among the three of them, there is 26 years of dinner theater experience.
It's a circuit that allows them to earn a decent wage year-round and live comfortably in suburban Baltimore.
"Sure, I could live in a roach trap in New York and get jobs here and there," Shankle says. "Ultimately, I'd like to be in New York. I'm just not willing to starve for it."
Weekly salaries at Burn Brae range from $450 for a starring role to $160 for a chorus part. Waiting tables twice a week adds another $160 or so in tips. "None of us could make it without waiting tables," DeSimone says.
"People will say we're just as good as professionals," says Minnick, a "Melrose Place"-handsome actor who has toured with two musicals and is the resident choreographer at an Alexandria, Va., dinner theater. "We are professionals."
Still, these young actors aren't under any illusion that they're going to be "discovered" between the dinner theater stage and the buffet line.
"People in dinner theater don't get famous," says Kevin Laughon, a 27-year-old who has been performing in dinner theaters since he graduated from college. "You have to break out eventually."
By 10: 45, the show is over. The audience, stomachs full and hearts lightened by the feel-good musical, greets the cast with warm applause.
"I thought they did a great job, and I saw the same show on Broadway," says Janet Doyle of Warrington, Pa. as she leaves.
In the parking lot, the tour groups' silver buses rumble and cars glisten from the evening's rain as they wait to whisk away the departing crowd.
Backstage, Shankle and the other actors gather their costumes, put away props and scrub off makeup. They talk about why tonight's audience laughed loudly at a joke that usually draws only a giggle, about the prop that broke on stage.
Thankfully, someone else gets paid to do the dishes, and the cast heads home.
LTC It's more than 200 miles from Burtonsville to Broadway, but at the end of a good show, neither audience nor actors seems to care.
Pub Date: 12/02/96