Chesapeake Music Hall preps for final curtain call this month

December 02, 2004|By Phillip McGowan | Phillip McGowan,SUN STAFF

The Chesapeake Music Hall -- the only dinner theater in Annapolis -- will let the curtain fall on its last performance at the end of this month, succumbing to competitive pressure after 15 years.

The music hall, just off U.S. 50 a few miles west of the Bay Bridge, has been managed by Sherry Kay Anderson for the past five years after she and her then-husband, Doug Yetter, purchased it in 1995. The facility had two previous owners, both of whom declared bankruptcy.

Anderson was unavailable for comment yesterday. In an e-mail statement, she attributed the closure to "lack of support of the arts and circumstances beyond her control."

All performances through Dec. 26 will run as scheduled, said Heather Scheeler, the director of marketing and sales for the music hall. Scheeler said the theater began notifying ticket holders this week after Anderson informed the staff over Thanksgiving weekend of the impending closure.

Now, with the theater's run nearly done -- the last performance is Yuletide Cheers on Dec. 26 -- some in the local theater community are worried about what may be the end of dinner theater in Annapolis.

"When this goes down, it's going to be difficult to start another," said Robert Kauffman, a retired chairman of the performing arts department at Anne Arundel Community College. "It's tragic for the theater community and its audience."

The 250-seat facility put on six to seven shows a year, running primarily on the weekends, along with holding special events and a children's theater. The Wiggles, an Australian touring band popular with preschoolers, performed there in its early days, Scheeler said.

The music hall employs local actors for most of its acts, and because of budget confines, performers usually are asked to wait tables or serve drinks before going on stage.

Historically, "the Annapolis community has been very supportive," Scheeler said, adding that Chicago sold out last year and Swing did the same this year.

But Peter Kaiser, who has worked at Chesapeake Music Hall as an actor, director and bartender, said the location near the Bay Bridge was a mixed blessing. The high visibility and easy access of the site attracted an array of people, including tour buses. But others didn't have the patience -- especially in the summertime -- to wade through traffic to get there, he said.

Anderson initially overcame many of the challenges of luring an audience to the dinner theater, in part through her hands-on efforts. She acted, directed, choreographed, made costumes, built stages, bartended, cooked and sold tickets.

"She is the reason the doors have been open for as long as they have," said Kaiser, whose wife, Mary, has been a longtime actress there.

The theater faced stiff competition from nonprofit organizations such as Colonial Players, Pasadena Theatre Company and Annapolis Summer Theatre, and from AACC. None of them needed to pay a full staff or taxes.

Kauffman said when he ran shows at the community college, he was "in the wonderful position of not making money." He said that performance series usually ranged in cost between $20,000 and $25,000, with a good portion going to a play's royalties.

"Expenses for a show can be outrageous," he said.

As managing director of The Way Off Broadway Dinner Theatre & Children's Theatre in Frederick, Justin Kiska is well aware of the costs of keeping a dinner theater afloat. He also is aware of the aggravations of such a multifaceted job.

If there is a problem on stage, with a reservation -- or a problem with the rest rooms -- the person who runs the theater must step forward, Kiska said. "On any given day, you just don't know what's going to happen," he said.

Kiska's operation is thriving. He said his theater is pondering expansion.

But with the exception of Baltimore-area dinner theaters such as Toby's Dinner Theatre in Columbia and Lorenzo's Timonium Dinner Theatre, the allure of this type of entertainment appears to be fading.

"Theater is a business. It's not just about the fun of acting on stage," Kiska said.

But the actors who worked at the Chesapeake Music Hall said they also were grateful for an opportunity to display their talents.

"It gave people who wanted to act a chance to make money. ... Nobody got rich, but you could perform and get paid," Kaiser said.

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