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Dinner and a show

Courtesy Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater

Dinner and a show: The combination has been a staple of date night for generations, and it’s also among the most popular itinerary combinations for travel groups.

Live theater makes us laugh, sing and sometimes cry, and a good show can be one of the highlights of a group tour. Great theater isn’t limited to New York, however. In cities and towns around the United States, theater professionals and dedicated enthusiasts gather to put on high-quality shows in local theaters.

Some of these establishments are dinner theaters, which bring an added layer of value for group travel planners. At a dinner theater, patrons get a full lunch or supper before the start of the show, and planners can cover a meal and entertainment with one itinerary item.

Many of America’s dinner theaters specialize in group business. Here are six dinner theaters that have made names for themselves as leading group travel destinations.

Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater
Claremont, California
In 27 years, Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater has grown from an idea sketched on the back of a cocktail napkin to one of the most popular dinner theaters in southern California.

“The operation started in 1985,” said general manager Mick Bollinger. “It was a marriage of Sandy Sanford, who owned a restaurant, and my father, who was head of a college music department. Sandy went to see one of my dad’s shows and loved it. On a napkin, they drew out the idea of Candlelight Pavilion.”

The two used their expertise in food service and entertainment to create a dinner theater that would deliver both high-end food and theatrical productions that would make the most of Southern California’s rich talent pool. The theater specializes in musicals, but it also does a summer concert series and hosts a repertory theater company for a series of dramatic plays.

No matter what show they come to see, groups can look forward to a great dinner served a la carte.

“It’s fine dining,” Bollinger said. “You have salad and four items to choose from on the menu. There’s always tritip beef, and chicken, fish and a vegetarian entree done different for every show. We do all our own desserts — we even make our own ice cream and use fresh berries.”

Later this year, Candlelight Pavilion will present “Sin City 5,” a Las Vegas-themed musical written by the theater staff. The theater will round out the year with “Miss Saigon,” “Anything Goes” and another original Christmas show.

The Fireside Dinner Theatre
Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin
One of the most popular dinner theaters in the country among bank travel groups, the Fireside got its start serving meals almost half a century ago.

“The Klopcic family opened the Fireside as a restaurant 48 years ago,” said Jackie Brisko, the company’s director of audience development. “Thirty-five years ago, they opened a professional dinner theater.”

That restaurant and theater have grown to become one of the leading group travel attractions in Wisconsin. The Klopcic family prides itself on its high-quality food, which patrons eat in a dining room before the show. Visitors can choose a la carte menu items or eat from the buffet that is available with certain performances.

After the meal, guests enter the theater for a show put on by professional directors and Equity actors.

“We do theater in the round,” Brisko said. “We use all four sides of the stage. Our first rows are only three feet from the stage, so it’s a very intimate setting. Because the guests are so close, they can really feel a connection with the actors.”

For 2013, the Fireside has a season of seven productions planned. Those will begin with a live-band review called “Sizzlin’ ’60s,” followed by “Footloose,” “Annie Get Your Gun,” “Run for Your Life” and “Once Upon a Mattress.” The year will wrap up with the company’s original show, “A Fireside Christmas.”

Groups can also browse four gift shops at the Fireside and sample cookies, cakes, breads and pies created in the on-site bakery.

Dutch Apple Dinner Theatre

Lancaster, Pennsylvania
Dutch Apple Dinner Theatre resides in Lancaster, an area of central Pennsylvania known for its large Amish communities. But groups shouldn’t expect an Amish experience at this theater; the company focuses on modern cuisine and high-profile musicals.

“Everyone thinks that we do an Amish dinner, but that’s not what we do,” said general manger Denise Trupe. “We think that groups are already getting that at another venue they’re visiting in our area, so instead, we try to match the menu with the show that we’re doing.”

The theater traditionally serves a buffet dinner before the show tailored to meet the tastes of the audience that will be attracted to that particular production. For next year, they are also offering an a la carte option for groups one night a week that will feature salad, a variety of entrees and an upscale dessert.

After the meal, groups can sit back and enjoy the show. Each year, Dutch Apple presents three classic musicals, three contemporary shows and a Christmas show. Next year will feature “The Rat Pack Lounge,” “Run for Your Wife,” “Brigadoon,” “Cats,” “South Pacific” and “Menopause: The Musical,” among others.

In addition to dinner and the show, groups can arrange to have a special workshop with the cast.

“We do a Broadway Bound workshop series,” Trupe said. “People of all ages enjoy it. They can pick acting, dancing or comedy workshops with actors from the current show. We can also do cast meet-and-greets or question-and-answer sessions with the company.”