Flocks of snowbirds hover once again on the Arizona horizon. Jetting through the skies or trundling across the mountains in Winnebagos and large, late-model sedans they come, fleeing the Midwest's December chill to bask in the balmy warmth of our desert sunshine. The Chamber of Commerce tells us to love them--and we do. Not just because they bring dollars into our beleaguered economy, but because they're family.

They may be snowbirds, but they're also our moms and dads, aunts, uncles and grandparents. And just because we're so happy to see them all again during the holidays, we want to show them a good time.

"I know!" you think. "Let's treat them to dinner and a show!" But where does one take people whose Saturday nights are usually spent at home watching Golden Girls over a plateful of ground turkey meatloaf and Tater Tots? The cuisine at your favorite Thai place might be a bit too spicy for your aunt's colitis. And it's doubtful that Psycho Beach Party's wanton gender-bending would do much to tickle Grandpa's funny bone; after all, the last cross-dressing comic to make him laugh was Milton Berle.

So, what is the antidote for your "What-to-do-with-our-snowbirds" blues? The solution is simple, and all around you. It's that curious hybrid of hot entrees and histrionics known as dinner theatre.

Those who hunger for a little drama with their dining can choose from a smorgasbord of Valley establishments dishing up plate 'n' play combinations. The stage fare currently includes featherweight comedies and audience-participation mysteries, paired with dinner options ranging from buffet lines to full-service meals ordered from the menu. All these operations use only local actors and are performed in intimate, if somewhat makeshift, spaces--sometimes without any stage at all.

Such light-and-lean theatrical cuisine is now the order of the day. In years past, however, the genre had quite a different profile in these parts.

Dinner theatre first blew into the Valley in a big way in June 1971, when Scottsdale's Windmill Dinner Theatre opened with a comedy called Moll Flanders . . . or The Reluctant Virgin, based on the bawdy eighteenth-century novel.

A peppy resident troupe of song-and-dance types called the Barnstormers MD120 Col 1, Depth P54.02 I9.03 welcomed arriving guests, provided preshow entertainment and doubled as beverage waiters and buspeople. But the Windmill's food was less than grand. The meals, served buffet-style from all-you-can-eat steam tables set up at centerstage before the play, typically consisted of dried-out roast beef and greasy fried chicken accompanied by canned vegetables, boxed mashed potatoes and pale salads.

Audiences obviously came not for the fine dining, but for a chance to see famous professional actors--actually fast-fading stars of stage and screen--in tame, Neil Simonized comedies that usually played more like television shows than live theatre. Those actors' names could be answers in Trivial Pursuit. Who played Frank Nitti on TV's The Untouchables? Bruce Gordon. What Tinseltown tap dancer co-starred in the movie Kiss Me Kate? Ann Miller. Who played the colonel on Hogan's Heroes, and was murdered in his Scottsdale motel room in 1978? Bob Crane.

After the Windmill closed in 1981, dinner theatre in Phoenix has been a hit-or-miss proposition, but the formula has remained the same. Stage offerings tend to stick strictly to the tried and true; that is, mildly ribald comedies peopled by two to five characters and set in a modest living room or office. Countless versions of The Owl and the Pussycat, The Odd Couple, and The Nerd have been staged. Faced with such a steady, bland diet, discriminating playgoers surely wondered whether dinner-theatre producers were selecting their plays solely on the basis of their ability to aid digestion.

For an actor, dinner theatre contains a challenge, but it's not an aesthetic one. "The audience only half-listens. Most of the time you're acting to the tops of their heads. You look out and all you see are bald spots and blue hair." That's according to Joann Yeoman, a local actress and a veteran of the East Coast Chateau de Ville dinner-theatre circuit. She adds, "The women come to see the play and bring their husbands, but the men only come because there is food."

In dinner theatre, there's much less distance--both literal and dramatic--between the actors and the audience than in conventional theatres. Even in the best houses, the tables are usually jammed right up to the stage. Yeoman recalls one performance of The King and I. She was near the edge of the stage, busily kowtowing and salaaming, when a mischievous lady dining at a Col 3, Depth P54.02 I9.03 playing at Scottsdale's Club Fifth Avenue, is a raucous original work that, although conveniently set in a nightclub, sticks to a fairly conventional format.

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Paul Braun
Robert X. Planet