Sixty years ago Tom Prather started hauling furniture out of his parents’ home near Glenwood Springs, Colo.
It was a pivotal moment for the then 16-year-old, a time to face his curious parents and articulate, with finesse, that emptying their living room of household furnishings was a strategic career move.
The Prather, chair, sofa and coffee table would work nicely in the Rifle High School’s junior class production of “Girl Shy,” a play for which Prather was set designer and prop master.
Sarah and Thomas Prather never quibbled with their son over his unwavering ambition to prepare for a profession that fosters creativity, collaboration and a collective vision of community betterment through the art of theater.
The essence of theater, he still believes, is community, and entertainment that can wreak joy and heartbreak, and at times, expose human weaknesses of prejudice, intolerance and bigotry.
“They were never condescending,” Tom said. “They were always agreeable with my career choice.”
Today, through his resurrection of a northeast Mesa supermarket-turned dinner theater, a venture that some of Prather’s business acquaintances urged him to forget, the 76-year-old patriarch of Prather Entertainment Group, is making a difference in the community. A big difference.
With a new look, a new business model, a new name and better food, the venue re-opened in October as The Palms Theatre, and is more than a makeover of its predecessor, The Broadway Palm Dinner Theatre that Prather opened in 2001 to positive reviews filled seats.
Prather closed the Broadway Palm in 2012 and sub-leased it to the Silver Star Playhouse which closed earlier this year after a short-lived run.
Once again, as the anchor tenant of a retail center that stretches along the southeast corner of Higley and Brown Roads, the Palms Theatre is bringing new life to the complex.
North and south of the center is Alta Mesa, one of several upscale housing developments within minutes of the theater and a plethora of locally-owned restaurants.
“I feel good about the parking lot filling up again,” said Walter Bergamaschi, owner of Gelato Dolce Vita and Dolce Vita Italian Grocer, as he stood behind a refrigerated case with glass walls that exhibited 48 varieties of gelato in an explosion of colors.
There’s another visual impact that the restaurateur likes — the visual impact of hundreds of vehicles in the sprawling lot just south of Brown Road getting lots of attention from passersby as if creating a message that the retail center’s businesses are worth checking out.
The theater has a minimum of 75 employees, attracts hundreds of theatergoers to its nightly performances and matinees, and employs scores of actors, dancers, stagehands and other theater production personnel.
Prather is an optimist, but he’s painfully aware of the gambles of owning and operating a small business, particularly a business that faces increasing competition and depends on disposable incomes.
Prather Entertainment Group, or PEG, also owns dinner theaters in Pennsylvania and Florida.
“I was so proud of this theater when we originally created it in 2001,” Prather said. “But when the challenges occurred I underestimated the individualism of each of these Southeast Valley communities.”
“All of a sudden all of these communities were building their own performing arts centers,” he said. “It seemed like the money was flowing and they wanted their own. That’s something we didn’t experience in Florida and Pennsylvania.”
But that didn’t stop Prather and his son, Will, from supporting the drive to build the Mesa Arts Center which opened in 2005.
Now, in his second time around with his Mesa theater, Prather is executing a new business plan with the help of several of staff members who worked with him at the Broadway Palm.
“I had to cut expenses to make it economically manageable,” Prather said. “We’re recruiting and auditioning local and regional talent and are using the theater for concerts by a variety of excellent performing artists. We’re not flying shows in from Florida and elsewhere like we used to do.”
The new business model appears to be paying dividends already.
The Palms current production, “Menopause,” is drawing big crowds, including sellouts. The show is in its final week at the venue.
The popular musical, with hilarious lines and lyrics, features an all-female cast that clicks as if its members had been performing with each other for decades.
Their harmony performing tunes with lyrics that parody popular songs from the baby boomer era is tight and balanced. The theater’s improved acoustics also helps.
After a performance last week, Prather followed the departing audience to the theater’s lobby and watched as they headed for the exits.
“I have a real thrill coming here and seeing people have such a good time,” he said. “I like to see the smiles on their faces. What else is there in life?”
Art Thomason has spent more than 50 years as a professional journalist, serving publications in Missouri, Illinois and Arizona as a reporter, editor and columnist. Thomason has been covering Mesa and the East Valley since 1995.