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More than 3.6 million people
to Fort Myers
Broadway Palm Celebrates 25 Years
by Carol DeFrank
ANNIVERSARIES ARE ALWAYS exciting. But theyre especially cool when you have prevailed where others have failed. Thats when you know youve earned the right to celebrate.
The Broadway Palm Theater has survived where many others have failed and, as a result, are celebrating their 25th anniversary. When it was founded in 1993 there were 30 dinner theaters in Florida. It is one of four that have survived.
The milestone was celebrated recently with county dignitaries, local officials, advertisers, media and friends of the theater, at a cocktail reception and dinner before enjoying the award winning musical, Pippin.
To appreciate Broadway Palms success only takes a quick review of some impressive numbers. More than 3.6 million people have enjoyed 183 main stage musicals, 72 childrens productions and 81 off-Broadway shows. Annual attendance has grown from 92,000 to more than 182,000. Initially there were 25 employees, now it takes 150 to run the 36,000 square foot venue located in the Royal Palm Plaza in Fort Myers. It has truly earned its title as Southwest Floridas Premier Dinner Theatre.
The theater is owned and operated by Will Prather, who according to Melissa Vogt, Director of Sales & Marketing, was literally born into the business. His parents, Tom & Deborah, produced plays and musicals for more than 50 years. They have owned and operated the Dutch Apple Dinner Theater in Pennsylvania since 1964. Will expanded the business with the opening of the Broadway Palm theatre, then added two national touring companies.
For years Prather wore many hats. In addition to owning and operating the business he was the general manager and executive producer. After ten years he passed the general manager duties onto Susan Johnson, then to 20 year veteran and current General Manager Mary Lawton.
Giving the audience what they want rather than relying on the status quo is one of many reasons for their continued success. We are constantly evolving to meet the needs of our patrons. It goes without saying that offering good food and good theater is always at the forefront of our thinking, Vogt says.
For example, our main theater seating arrangement consisted mostly of tables for eight. Audience input indicated that many attended as couples or groups of four. To provide a more intimate atmosphere, many eight-tops were replaced with tables for two and four. We also included 52 show-only seats.
Several other areas received attention in the last two years. New hardwood floors, carpeting and wallpaper are among the renovations.
Even though the word dinner was dropped from the name several years ago, quality and selection of food is still a priority. Some menu items are so popular that the recipes appear on the website. Executive Chef, Ted Jenkins, is known for his pineapple casserole and prime rib, among other favorites. Vogt says, If these items fail to appear on the buffet we have some disappointed patrons and they let us know about it.
In an effort to entertain a variety of audiences, Prather utilizes every inch of the facility. He divided the floor space into different venues. The largest and most popular room houses the main theater and has a 448 seat capacity. This theater features eight full-scale Broadway musicals and five or six concerts every year. This years musicals include: A Christmas Story, Chicago, Mamma Mia, My Fair Lady, Ring of Fire, and Annie.
The Concert Series begins in January and will feature; Yesterday: The Beatles Tribute; One of These Nights: A Tribute to the Eagles; The Rave-Ons: Tribute to Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens & The Big Bopper; The Piano Man: The Music of Billy Joel & Elton John; and Dwight Icenhowers Tribute to the King.
The main room is also home to The Childrens Theater that features four shows annually. This venue caters to youngsters, with a the menu is a childs dream: pizza, chicken nuggets, pasta, french fries, and so on. This season kids can enjoy: Curious George and the Golden Meatball, Jingle Arrgh the Way, and Seussical.
Vogt explains that their school involvement is focused on a special production. Every year we have a new-teacher orientation to introduce our program. This years musical is Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.
In 1996, the Off-Broadway, a 100 seat black box theater, opened to showcase smaller scale musical revues and comedies. This seasons five productions are A Tuna Christmas, The Hallelujah Girls, Church Basement Ladies:Rise Up, O Men, and The Savannah Sipping Society are on the agenda.
Leoma Lovegrove, an eclectic, local and internationally-recognized artist, will perform at a special engagement. Lovegrove paints original art on stage while enjoying her favorite music, completing pieces in minutes.
Another important space is the Royal Palm Room, designed for main stage overflow dining. It was recently renovated and features a small stage with lighting and sound system.
Also located in the facility is the Palms Gallery, a great place to gather for cocktails; the Sabal Palm Room, a new, intimate room; the Playbill Bar, the lobbys full-service bar; and a gift shop.
The seasons program is decided by teams led by Prather. Decisions are made after connecting and checking availability with royalty companies. Vogt says they were excited to retrieve the rights to Chicago and Mama Mia. Big musicals attract a big audience. Its difficult for regional theaters to get the rights to popular, current plays so we work hard to keep the program fresh.
Paul Bernier is the Artistic Director for the Off-Broadway and Childrens Theaters. All other Prather Entertainment Group productions are under Artistic Director, Brian Enzman, who selects the principle actors and ensemble from auditions held in Fort Myers, Chicago and in New York.
More than 300 young local performers have appeared on our stage, as well as many adult actors and musicians, Vogt says. We hold local auditions once a year, but we require so many performers and musicians for each show, the area talent pool cant always accommodate us so we have to explore other options.
To ensure continued success, the staff participated in a five day retreat. Committees were appointed to take on much more than next years shows. Each committee had a different initiative. Vogt explains, We discussed 5, 10, 20 and 25 year plans. We researched and debated issues like what our future audience will look like and what type of shows and food will be popular. We discussed how to acquire the best shows and how to be the first in the area to achieve the rights to them. This kind of planning helps us stay ahead of the curve. We strive to live up to and even improve upon our current standards.
We also take advantage of every resource we have. For instance, Tom [Prather] is retired, but he still serves as artistic consultant and participates in monthly conference calls, explains Vogt. When in town, we get together and brainstorm. Everyone here considers him a great asset and feels privileged to benefit from his experience and wisdom.
In addition to everything else it takes to run a major operation, provisions have been set in place to accommodate health issues. There are ramps for wheelchairs and staff available to assist with the buffet. Infrared hearing devices that can be used in tandem with hearing aids are linked directly to the sound system and available at no charge.
For special dietary needs Chef Jenkins provides heart healthy, low fat foods, at least one gluten-free item, and an extensive salad bar. Hes happy to honor extreme dietary needs if notified in advance.
The Broadway Palm is proud of its community and business involvement. We help the local economy by hosting approximately 1,000 motor coaches annually, half of which originate from outside of Lee County and more than one-third include overnight stays, Vogt says.
We are active in the local chambers and are a sanctioned Florida attraction. We support local charities, not only monetarily but by donating goods, services, and volunteer hours.
The Broadway Palms mission is Providing exceptional entertainment and customer service that creates a fun and memorable experience while enriching the communities we serve. Obviously they practice what they preach.
Broadway Palm is located at 1380 Colonial Blvd. in Fort Myers. For informtion, call 278-4422.