The cards were stacked against Will Prather from the get-go.
It was 2001. Prather had expanded his family’s 15-year-old Lancaster, Pa., dinner theater into a second playhouse in Fort Myers, Fla., eight years later. He was now eyeing a new one further west, in the East Valley.
Prather was hoping a onetime strip mall supermarket in Mesa could become a 505-seat playhouse with its own chef-led kitchen and buffet service. He was hoping to sustain a 52-week-a-year schedule in an area known for its fleeting winter residents. He was hoping he could juggle three theaters across the country, doing 30 shows a year, overseeing 350 employees.
And he was willing to bet $3 million on it.
There were bad signs in that first year — setbacks from the city, cost overruns, having to cancel the Christmas show and delay opening for a month, plus the not-so-little specter of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks looming — but one resounding good sign: He signed up an astounding 2,000 season subscribers the summer before his first show.
Two and a half years into it, the Mesa theater has 10,000 subscribers, double what he’s accomplished at his other two theaters. The Broadway Palm Dinner Theatre West hasn’t quite hit the profitability point yet, but it’s close, Prather says. In 2003, the Broadway Palm played to an average 70 percent occupancy; 80 percent is the break-even point.
But with the announcement of the 2004-05 season last week — a lineup that includes solid Broadway musicals like "The Sound of Music" and "Guys and Dolls" — Prather is confident that he made the right bet all along.
"I don’t think there are too many theater companies that could have gone through 9/11, then the economic downturn," he said, "and still be standing very, very strong, experiencing 10 to 15 percent growth in customers and revenues. I’m very pleased, and I’m very focused."
His betting has been based on solid logic matched with some inventive risk-taking.
It’s notable that Prather comes from a background in hotel and restaurant management, not just theater. (His parents, who opened the Pennsylvania theater and now are retired but serving as consultants, were the ones with theatrical experience.) An all-encompassing approach has allowed Prather to consider the entire experience of going to a dinner theater.
For one thing, Prather knows enough to not work from the stage.
"I know my strengths and weaknesses," Prather said. "I’m terrible at casting. I’ve taken a step way back from all of that." He hired artistic director Seth Raines to oversee stagework at the Mesa theater.
But Prather did take control of the kitchen. While most dinner theaters concentrate on what’s on stage — Peter Hill’s smaller-scale Copperstate Dinner Theater in Phoenix, for example, contracts out its food to another company, allowing Hill to concentrate on putting his plays together — Prather hired executive chefs for his theaters, crafting buffet menus around a particular show’s theme.
(Some experiments, like a $10,000 Sunday brunch buffet in an adjacent banquet room, have been less successful; "Sometimes our company fails when we get away from what we do best," Prather said. The banquet room, which the theater offers to rent for gatherings, might go the route of a similar side room in the Fort Myers dinner theater, and be used as a smaller theater for late-night cabarets.)
The Broadway Palm works with senior centers across the Valley to bus in large groups of seniors — many of whom aren’t bothered by taking an hourlong trip in a motorcoach for dinner and a play. In the summer, when attendance dips, Prather brings in more family-oriented shows — children’s theater shows, with kidfriendly meals, are also a hit — because those are his "breadand-butter" audiences when the heat goes up and other residents skip town. (Prather refers to September, when audience occupancy drops to 50 percent, as "Deathtember.")
Meanwhile, operating a small chain of theaters has amounted to considerable cost savings for Prather’s company. A $50,000 to $60,000 production can be established at one playhouse and toured in a 24-week run across all three theaters. (A production of the Broadway smash "Cats," for example, is opening in Mesa in late April, but its sets are being constructed right now in the Dutch Apple Dinner Theatre in Lancaster, Pa. Principal actors can be hired for yearlong contracts with health benefits to work in multiple shows.
Prather is also looking into largerscale food buying across his three theaters.
If that sounds like the closest thing to the Wal-Mart-ization of dinner theater, well, it’s not far from Prather’s goal — to become the premiere family operator of dinner theaters in the country.
Don’t count on the Broadway Palm in Mesa to be the last of his company’s chain.
"I’m 34 years old. I know myself too well. I go through what I call a five-year cycle," said Prather, who resides in Fort Myers and travels to his other theaters regularly. "Every five years or so, I get a little itch, a little excitement."
First, though, he’ll have to get through a next season at the Broadway Palm.
It opens Sept. 30 with "Miss Saigon," a musical that involves a Vietnam War-era cross-cultural romance. It’s a risky move for a chain of theaters that takes its motto from Prather’s mother, Deborah: "She says, ‘We’re in the happy business,’ " Prather said. "We’re not going to do shows that rock the boat." But Prather sees "Saigon" as not only a risk — "My entire family is petrified," he said — but as a challenge.
For now, Prather is glad to see that doubt has turned to envy.
Said Copperstate’s Hill: "I won’t lie. I wish I was doing as well as he is. He’s pulling in 500 people a night, six days a week. I’d love to be able to do that."
By the numbers
What started as a small family business in Pennsylvania, the Prather Family of Theatres has rapidly grown into a $15 million company with 350 employees.
Remaining third-season shows:
"Annie Get Your Gun," now playing through April 17 "Cats," April 22 to June 12 "The Music Man," June 17 to Aug. 7 "Forever Plaid," Aug. 12 to Sept. 11 Youth theater: "The Little Mermaid," May 14 to June 11; "Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory," July 2 to Aug. 6
Fourth season lineup:
"Miss Saigon," Sept. 30 to Nov. 13 "Sounds of Christmas," Nov. 18 to Dec. 25 "Gypsy," Dec. 30 to Feb. 12 "Guys and Dolls," Feb. 17 to April 9
"Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story," April 14 to June 4 "The Sound of Music," June 9 to July 30 "Nunsense," Aug. 4 to Sept. 17 Note: Tickets range from $33 to $45, and include meals; nonmeal tickets are available.