Three hours before the curtain rises at the Burn Brae Dinner Theatre in Burtonsville, actor Jeffrey Shankle is deep in preparation -- setting tables, pouring ice water and setting out tiny containers of cream.
Later, after he has served his audience beers and cleared their plates, the 28-year-old actor will trade his maroon apron for tap shoes, bound onto the stage in a tuxedo and sing Gershwin classics as the star of the show.
Shankle doesn't seem to mind. And he's not alone. The whole cast of Burn Brae's "Crazy For You" takes turns waiting tables to boost their pay. Tina DeSimone, the female lead, also teaches dance and works as the theater's director of sales and marketing. The sound engineer doubles as the chef.
In the world of dinner theater, the play is still the thing, but appetizers, entrees and dessert are pretty crucial, too.
The hustle and talent of Shankle and his co-stars help keep the seats filled night after night at Burn Brae, the oldest dinner theater in the Baltimore-Washington area and a survivor of tough times for dinner theaters around the country.
For years, these small theaters relied on a crowd-pleasing formula: a hearty meal and a popular musical for an affordable price. But the economics are far trickier these days, and the audiences are dwindling. While established dinner theaters like Burn Brae offer decent food and fairly elaborate musical productions, there's no shortage of others serving up meager entertainment and rubber chicken. Even a spaghetti dinner followed by a play in a church basement can call itself dinner theater.
"There's a lot of amateur talent and bad food" out there, acknowledges Burn Brae owner John Kinnamon. "We're trying to combat that stigma every night. I'll let you decide if we succeed."
Shankle and two other actors waiting tables on this Wednesday night arrive by 4: 30; the fourth is running late. After setting tables, the actors and some crew members eat dinner for free. Shankle, sick of dinner theater food, goes out for Burger King.
The group laughs over some classic dinner theater moments: the elderly woman in the front row singing loudly and off key; getting cast in one-line roles in drawn-out shows; the lady at the matinee who cried, "This is funnier than 'Seinfeld!' "
In the narrow lobby, a handwritten message on a blackboard welcomes the various groups, which always make up the bulk of the audience. Coming tonight is the Warrington Women's Club from Warrington, Pa., a senior center from Roanoke, Va., and an educational tour group from Apple Valley, Calif.
Doors open at 6 p.m. A handful of gray-haired early birds help themselves to the complimentary hors d'oeuvres on a table in the lobby: raw veggies with dip, crackers, cubes of Swiss and pimento cheese. Burn Brae veterans head straight for the buffet line, which will be 20 people deep in an hour.
Inside the 14,000-square-foot theater, placards of various musicals adorn the wood paneling. On top of the cornflower-blue plastic tablecloths, a note asks diners to tip 15 percent of their admission and bar bill.
The buffet rivals that of any Sizzler. Every salad bar fixing, steamed broccoli, stewed tomatoes, rolls, broiled salmon, veal parmigiana, Caribbean-style chicken, roast beef, turkey breast, make-your-own sundae, cheesecake, key lime pie, apple pie and two kinds of chocolate cake. The food is tasty, if not quite hot enough.
Diners take the all-you-can-eat seriously, some balancing three desserts on one arm as they make their way back to their tables.
"Too much food," grumbles one middle-age woman. "I hope I don't fall asleep during the show."
After their plates are cleared, the audience looks over the seven-page program. The actors' biographies reveal whole careers based in dinner theater, as well as day jobs in banks, real estate offices and dance schools. Other bios are more personal: "Stacie loves reading, learning about Native American
ways of thinking, country line dancing and chocolate ice cream." Or, "XXXOOO to my Scotty!!"
But the actors' accessibility, from their cutesy bios to gracious coffee refills, appeals to the audience.
"We're going to ask our waitress for her autograph," says David Shilling of Bowie, an engineer who comes to Burn Brae about once a year with his wife, Joyce.
The room is large, but the setting is intimate. Tables are within 50 feet of the stage, and no one has to go into serious debt for a seat. An evening for two here can cost as little as $75 -- compared to $200 or more for dinner, parking and tickets to Washington's Kennedy Center.
"You get a whole evening for a reasonable price," says Linda Ruby of Olney, who is here with her husband. "At the Kennedy Center, boy, you're going to spend some money."
At 7: 30, the buffet workers take away the food, and the crowd chews on complimentary Starlight mints while calculating the tip.