BAREFOOT IN THE PORKWHAT TO DO WITH THE FOLKS WHEN THEY START TO DRIVE YOU NUTS | News | Phoenix | Phoenix New Times | The Leading Independent News Source in Phoenix, Arizona
Navigation

BAREFOOT IN THE PORKWHAT TO DO WITH THE FOLKS WHEN THEY START TO DRIVE YOU NUTS

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...
Share this:

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.

Clearly, the Valley's revitalized dinner-theatre scene has entered a new stage. True, you and your beloved snowbird relatives will probably never see Macbeth, The Trojan Women, or Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at any of these places--but then again, who'd want to? Certain dramatic themes simply don't mix with pleasant dining. And local dinner-theatre operators seem to know their customers; they're well aware that an eating audience doesn't want heavy or spicy drama any more than it wants overseasoned food.

What follows is a run-down of some holiday offerings. There should be something on the menu to suit the tastes of almost any winter visitor.

IMPECCABLE PIG 7042 East Indian School, Scottsdale
423-8737

MDBUMurder at the High Noon Saloon
This audience-interactive dinner show combines three popular genres: the Western, the musical and the murder mystery. After being seated by hostess-character Miss Dolly, you sink your teeth into your own juicy role for the evening: You play a dinner guest at a saloon that boasts cancan girls, real period antiques and authentic-looking 1890s costumes. But just before you chow down on a four-course, sit-down dinner, a murder occurs. Clues are dropped, hints are melodramatically whispered by surviving cast members as they serve the courses and clear the tables, and everyone present gets a crack at solving the crime to win a prize.

Supercorny and tongue-in-cheek dialogue abounds, and some deliberately anachronistic in-jokes about Ev Mecham and Scottsdale add a wry twist. The older folks loved this one, but we saw a lot of middle-agers and yuppies having a hoot 'n' holler, too.

The meal, which is simple but excellent, consists of creamy corn chowder, a vegetable vinaigrette salad, a succulent half-chicken baked over mesquite, buttered cactus (it tastes like zucchini), potatoes and hot cherry cobbler with fresh cream. Coffee and tea are included, and a cash bar is available.

Murder at the High Noon Saloon is performed at 7 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays throughout the winter season in the restaurant's new Goldwater Room. (Note: Producers say the New Year's Eve show will feature At the Paradise Sweet

Club Fifth Avenue is popular with Scottsdale's gay crowd, though the audience attending any given performance will definitely be a mixed one. Though the management calls the place a "dinner theatre and cabaret," it's basically a nicely decorated cocktail lounge. The stage occupies the spot where the dance floor usually is; a dinner buffet is set up on a side bar.

The all-you-can-eat meal, consisting of roast beef, chicken, side dishes and salads, is commonplace. The cold foods are fine, but dishes that should be hot aren't.

Though the whole operation feels on the cut-rate side, the play is among the funniest we saw. John Lipp, the mastermind behind Lipp Service Productions, has written and directed this comedy--actually, more of an extended skit--about "lovers, dreamers and other narcissistic sociopaths." The scene is the Paradise Sweet, a strip joint, where a collection of oddly assorted characters has assembled for a movie-casting call. Instead of the promised Burt Reynolds opus, they discover the cheesy producer is actually working on a sleazy porno film. Suffice it to say it all works out--more or less--in the end.

A fun collection of character actors makes up the cast; their performances are uniformly brisk and energetic. At the Paradise Sweet might be just the right place to take your Uncle Ned who--wink--never married.

At the Paradise Sweet plays Sundays only in an open-ended run. Tickets are $20 for dinner and show.

CHEZ LOUIS 7363 East Scottsdale Mall
994-1520

MDBUMurder at Rutherford House
A floridly decorated banquet room at Scottsdale's chic Chez Louis restaurant is the scene for this audience- participation murder mystery by Tom Chiodo and Peter DePietro.

We are in attendance at the annual dinner given by Lady Rutherford to commemorate the death of her late husband. Lady R's cheeky maid Ruby Pinkbottom greets us at the door and assigns us character names for the parts we will be playing this evening. Even One for the Road

Elementary Penguin Productions presents this social comedy by British playwright Willy Russell (the man responsible for Educating Rita and Shirley Valentine). Tables with seating for about fifty are scattered comfortably about the long, narrow room.

The food--from the restaurant's extensive menu of Italian- and Greek-inspired dishes--is not your standard-issue dinner-theatre fare. In fact, it was the best we ate while working on this story. While what you Social Security

Max's, a busy Glendale sports bar that's been staging weekend dinner shows since 1982, holds the record as the Valley's longest-running play-with-your-food establishment. The in-house Copper State Players have come up with this fluffy confection that's a good example of the venue's offerings.

Broadway playwright Andrew Bergman's comedy concerns a couple of urbane New York art dealers whose serene lives become very complicated after the wife's elderly and cantankerous mother is suddenly dropped off for an unlimited stay. A pair of uptight suburban in-laws and an ancient millionaire artist also are on hand.

At Max's, you eat dinner first, then you sit back, shut up and watch the play. (None of that newfangled audience-participation stuff happens here.) For a single fixed price, you can select from seven main-course choices, including prime rib, steak, chicken and fish. You also get soup or salad, a baked Col 2, Depth P31.02 I5.19 The cuisine at your favorite Thai place might be a bit too spicy for your aunt's colitis.

The meals typically consisted of dried-out roast beef and greasy fried chicken accompanied by canned vegetables and pale salads.

Who played the colonel in TV's Hogan's Heroes, and was murdered in his Scottsdale motel room in 1978? Bob Crane.

She was near the edge of the stage when a mischievous lady dining at a ringside table reached out and tickled the bottom of her bare foot.

Certain dramatic themes simply don't mix with pleasant dining.

BEFORE YOU GO...
Can you help us continue to share our stories? Since the beginning, Phoenix New Times has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix — and we'd like to keep it that way. Our members allow us to continue offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food, and culture with no paywalls.