When Doug Stark got into the dinner theater business, 146 venues nationwide staged year-round seasons with union actors.
Nearly 30 years later, fewer than 15 of the country's 1,400 or so dinner theaters are union houses.
Indianapolis-based Beef & Boards is among them, surviving 3-1/2 decades by giving viewers what they want.
"We cater to our audience," said Stark, its owner and artistic director. "I have no artistic problem with that." Programs regularly include surveys giving patrons a choice of shows for the upcoming season. Perennial favorites, such as "Show Boat," "West Side Story," "Guys and Dolls" and "The Sound of Music" make the rounds every couple of years based on audience requests.
"If the audience said they wanted to see 'Oklahoma!' every year, we'd do 'Oklahoma!' every year," he said.
But Stark also brings at least one show per season that might push the boundaries, attracting new patrons and shaking up the lineup. The result: $6.1 million in annual revenue and a stability many admire.
"They've had the kind of staying power that's just phenomenal," said William Prather, executive producer and owner of Prather Entertainment Group, which owns and runs dinner theaters in Florida, Arizona and Pennsylvania. "It's because [Stark's] not afraid to dice it up and challenge the paradigms that have worked for many years."
Beef & Boards puts on anywhere from eight to 11 shows each season, plus children's productions on Friday and Saturday afternoons.
Ticket sales generate most of its revenue--$5.7 million last year. Tickets for evening performances range from $33 to $55 and include a pre-show buffet--usually featuring roast beef, chicken and fish--and non-alcoholic drinks. Alcohol, dessert and gift shop sales contribute the rest.
Winding road back to Indy
An actor by training, Stark grew up in Fort Wayne and studied theater at Ball State University. After graduation, he taught high school in Indianapolis and ran a summer stock theater on Lake Wawasee with college friend Robert Zehr from 1971 to 1976.
He left the Enchanted Hills Playhouse to go back to school, this time at Wayne State University in Detroit. There, he attended graduate classes during the day and performed at night at the Hilberry Repertory Theatre. The theater offered performances in rotation, meaning Stark was Willy Loman in "Death of a Salesman" one night and a Shakespearean clown the next.
"That was terrific training because you're under the gun," he said.
While Stark was getting experience, J. Scott Talbott, a Lexington, Ky., entrepreneur with coal mine and railroad holdings, was making his move into show biz. Talbott's daughter wanted to be an actress, so he built theaters near Louisville and Cincinnati. In 1973, he added a 450-seat theater in Indianapolis, on Michigan Road just south of Interstate 465.
By the time Stark got his master's degree and returned to Indiana in 1977, Talbott was looking to get out of the theater business. Windmill Dinner Theaters already had purchased the Indianapolis and Cincinnati venues, but Talbott met with Stark and Zehr over lunch in 1977 and agreed to sell them the Kentucky theater.
"The deal was all sketched out on a napkin," said Stark, 58.
But the 360-seat venue had a major setback--it was in a "dry" county, where it was illegal to sell alcohol. Though patrons would sneak in booze they'd hide on built-in shelves under the tables, that didn't do much for the theater's bottom line.
When Windmill put the Indianapolis and Cincinnati theaters on the block in 1980, Zehr and Stark sold the Kentucky venue and bought them in what Stark called "a heavily leveraged deal." He said he doesn't remember the purchase price.
After one season running both venues, they sold the Cincinnati theater to focus on Indianapolis.
Zehr handled the business side of the theater while Stark oversaw the creative element. In 1999, Zehr sold his interest to Stark and went to work at St. Luke's United Methodist Church. He's still a regular at Beef & Boards shows.
"I miss a lot of the benefits, but not the day-to-day management part of it," said Zehr, who after four years at the church bought The Mansion at Oak Hill, a meeting and catering venue in Carmel that he now runs.
Dinner theaters have had to adjust as audiences demand more expensive special effects and snazzier sets and costumes to compete with other forms of entertainment.
"They're used to movies with big pyrotechnics and effects," said Denise Trupe, production manager of Pennsylvania-based Dutch Apple Dinner Theatre. "Now we spend thousands of dollars on special lighting techniques. It's raised the bar but also made people a bit jaded for the simplicity that should exist in a theater experience."
Stark agreed, but said his answer has been to use simplicity as an asset.
"If an actor's worth his salt, he can be on a dark stage with only a down light and still captivate an audience," he said.
Theaters nationwide are dealing with shrinking margins as the cost for supplies, shows and wages creeps up. As a result, many venues gave up on union affiliation to save money, contracting occasionally with the Actors Equity Union to bring in one or two high-profile performers while paying the rest of the cast less.
Most smaller companies can't pay Equity rates for most of the cast, said Harold R. Mortimer, artistic director for Ball State University's Downtown Dinner Theatre, a seasonal group that started in 2005.
"We are lucky to have one or two Equity guest artist contracts ... but at this point in our early development, we can't afford any more," Mortimer said.
"A lot of theaters have given that up in order to save money," Zehr said. "But [staying union] has been a very positive decision for the theater."
Stark stuck with Equity because it means he can attract top talent with experience on Broadway and national tours. Though it's hard to generalize, an Equity actor's contract can cost Beef & Boards about $250 to $300 more per week.
"My audience is used to the quality," he said.
While the business has its ups and downs--mostly tied to how audiences feel about a particular season's lineup--Stark said the business is profitable most years. And Beef & Boards has averaged a 78-percent occupancy rate for the past two seasons, in line with the national average.
Although dinner theaters have a reputation for drawing older crowds, Stark said families are getting into the scene, too. When Beef & Boards did "Charlotte's Web" this year as part of its cheaper children's theater offerings, it added two shows to cover ticket demand--and sold 92 percent of the seats, on average.
Ten years down the road, Stark said, he hopes to be doing the same thing, pushing his audience to try new things on occasion but never losing the belief that the customer's taste and experience comes first.
"Our customers are not just another guy who bought a ticket," Stark said. "I always think, 'That guy put my kids through college. That one keeps my theater running.'"