Can the Show Go On?
When the Three Little Bakers Dinner Theatre closed, it was the end of an era. Was it the end of a legacy, too?
A mountain of concrete rises on the 60,000-square-foot plot of land in Pike Creek Valley where Three Little Bakers Dinner Theatre once stood.
This is hallowed ground to the family who built and operated the icon. Founders Hugo, Italo (Al) and Nino (Nick) Immediato, the former Vaudeville stars known as The Acromaniacs, entertained there every day for decades.
The space may be nothing more than a construction site to those who never experienced TLB. But many of us remember the Broadway shows, kickin’ chorus lines, intermission spectacles—and those desserts. As one family member put it, TLB was “like Vegas in Wilmington.”
The business dissolved in August. The theater was demolished a month later. All that’s left of the 25-year-old complex is the pool, the pro shop and the golf course, now Pike Creek Golf Club.
Vicki Immediato Winton, Hugo’s daughter, still picks up TLB mail there. She gathers letters from out-of-state patrons and writes back to break the news. The strong Italian-American woman was more than TLB’s theater president. She was the glue that held the family together. She’s making another mail run today, navigating the same path she’s driven for years. She stares blankly at the road, showing no sign of any real emotion. “I learned to box up my feelings,” she says. “Tears are private.”
Her demeanor changes as she nears Three Little Bakers Boulevard. She parks in the empty lot, draws a heavy sigh, then climbs out of her Chevy. She walks slowly to the chain link fence that separates the public from the site. “We’re outsiders now,” she says as she grips the fence and gazes up at the crane. Her lips are pursed. The lines in her forehead deepen. “It just wasn’t possible to continue. And it needed to.”
The Immediatos, with Weber-Prianti Productions, produced about 8,000 shows. Bus tours were booked months—sometimes years—in advance. The recipe for success was simple. The founders taught, through example, the basic tenet of TLB service: Treat every customer, performer and employee with dignity.
Al died in 1989, leaving Nick and Hugo to lead the business. They had always planned to turn the complex over to the second generation, but they never expected it to close. When it did, they were devastated.
Rather than celebrating a successful enterprise, Nick and Hugo equate its ending with the shattering of its legacy. Closing the business isn’t about crumbled brick and mortar. It’s about broken dreams.
Whether there will be another production bearing the TLB logo, no one knows. But one family member has a shot at carrying on the show biz legacy. He has the talent. He has the experience. He has the charm.
The question is, does he have the stomach?
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The Acromaniacs were so famous in the 1940s that Tommy Dorsey led their backup band. Now, far removed from the spotlight, the two surviving stars choose to live in isolation.
Hugo, 88, slumps into his kitchen chair. He’s 10 pounds thinner than he was a year ago and his famous golden glow has paled. Shortly after the theater went down, he was blindsided with the death of his wife, Anna. She died two days before Christmas.
“I’m very sad,” he says. “I’ve lost my best friend and my business. When you spend your lifetime hoping there will be a legacy for your children, for their lifetimes, and it falls apart, it’s tragic.”
Anna’s wedding ring hangs on the gold chain around Hugo’s neck, and he tugs on it every few minutes. His Hockessin condo is a daily reminder of a good marriage. Hugo refuses to move away from it and, in essence, away from Anna. Her place setting at the kitchen table remains untouched. A flower from her funeral is tied to her chair. Her silk scarf covers a bedroom pillow that bears the couple’s monogrammed initials.
“We had a beautiful life,” he says, walking slowly from room to room, staring at walls covered in photos of Anna, their children, 32 grandchildren and 20 great-grandchildren.
Nick, 86, surrounds himself with TLB memorabilia in the same Fairfax home he bought in the 1950s. He sits alone, watching musicals on TV. His only relief from isolation comes from driving to the market or park to walk his dog, Winnie. Hundreds of snapshots surround him, detailing The Acromaniacs’ rise to fame. Photo albums overflow with pictures of his wife, Hazel, a former first lieutenant Army nurse he met while serving in World War II. Hazel died in 2005, about the same time the business started downhill.
“I sat with builders days and nights to help create that theater,” Nick says, picking up a yellowing photograph of the three Acromaniacs yucking it up with The Three Stooges. “I haven’t visited since they tore us down. I won’t look at the property.”
Hugo and Nick are equally sad, yet separate. As Hugo sits in his space, watching the daylight creep through the curtains in morning then disappear at night, anguished by the loss of his wife and his business, his brother sits in his recliner, brooding over what could have been.
“Ninety percent of family businesses fail when they’re handed down to the next generation,” Nick says. “Younger generations, people with great educations, don’t want to follow the same footsteps as the seniors. That’s OK. But in our case, it didn’t work out.”
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That’s debatable, says Tom Carper. “Three Little Bakers has been part of Delaware’s landscape since 1972,” says the U.S. senator, an old fan. “Tens of thousands of people enjoyed spending time there for weddings, Broadway shows, good times and good food.”
The success was earned. Like many children raised during The Great Depression, Hugo, Nick and Al grew up poor, but “worked hard and fought hard,” says Hugo Immediato Jr., TLB’s former entertainment director. “I watched my father work seven days a week and come home so tired, he’d fall asleep at the dinner table.”
The Acromaniacs started Three Little Bakers after achieving worldwide fame in the 1940s. They shared marquees with Milton Berle, Kate Smith and Jackie Gleason. The act tumbled in 1947 when Nick broke his vertebrae in four places.
The accident brought the brothers home to Delaware, where they started a bakery, expanded to seven retail outlets and created a successful catering operation.
The Acromaniacs put their hearts into the bakeries, but their souls were in show biz. In 1971 they built a 450-seat dinner theater and bakery in Kennett Square, which they outgrew in 10 years. In 1984 they bought the Pike Creek Valley Country Club, with its 18-hole golf course and pro shop, tennis courts and pool. They built the 900-seat theater building, which housed a proscenium stage. Its added thrust, which frequent performer Tony Danza called “a tongue,” doubled as a dance floor. All sorts of intermission spectacles happened on that stage. Couples celebrated anniversaries. The Acromaniacs doled out giant heart-shaped breads. Kids dictated wish lists to Santa.
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Admission included two performances: a live show and an intermission routine by The Acromaniacs. The buffet offered standard fare, but TLB desserts were legendary. All that cost about $11 in 1977. By the ’90s the package hit $50. Shows were sold out seven days a week. Buses rolled in from all over the East Coast. In a span of 20 years, tour bus business exploded from a few coaches a day to 20. TLB banquets boomed, too. The family catered two to four weddings every weekend.
The reason TLB survived the late ’80s, when dinner theaters crashed across the country, was its partnership strategy. The Immediatos aligned themselves with top Brandywine Valley destinations such as Longwood Gardens and Winterthur Garden & Country Estate. Travelers saw the attractions, then visited Pike Creek for dinner and a show. As Winton says, “We were the end of a beautiful day.”
About 47 percent of TLB’s customers were Delawareans. Governor Jack Markell visited the theater frequently, both as a child and as an adult. “Taking my kids to see shows and watching the amazing Hula Hoop contests before shows was so much fun,” Markell says. “It was always good entertainment, and so important to this community.”
His wife agrees. “For some of my friends, going to Three Little Bakers was their only exposure to live theater and the arts,” says Carla Markell. “It opened doors to learn to appreciate live theater in an intimate setting.”
Dave Revels, a member of the original Drifters, often performed at TLB. “The Immediatos were family,” he says. “Not just to us—to everybody who came. I travel all around the world. TLB was one of a kind.”
The theater earned respect on a national scale, as well. Bekki Jo Schneider, president of the National Dinner Theater Association, says the business helped fuel the community’s economic engine.
“Three Little Bakers was a tradition for several generations,” she says. “It brought in buses and kept dollars at home.”
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TLB sales declined in the late ’90s, then plunged after the 9-11 terrorist attacks. Tourism plummeted. Gas prices skyrocketed. Senior citizens, who made up a large part of TLB’s base, were too afraid or too broke to leave home. Audience numbers dropped from 900 one day to 200 the next.
In 2003 Nick and Hugo turned the business over to the next generation of Immediatos. Winton was named president of the dinner theater. Seven other family members continued to work banquets, the golf course and the bakery. Hugo Jr. surfaced as the front guy, the face of the theater, emceeing and booking talent. He’d studied dance and acting in New York, but his charm came honestly. Really good genes.
Hugo Jr. befriended tour bus drivers, who served as the line of communication between customers and tour management. Drivers knew who treated them and their riders best. When they talked shop with the bosses, TLB always came out on top, thanks largely to Hugo Jr.
“Like Dad always said, ‘Treat people with respect and dignity,’” he says. “When you came to us, you were treated like a king or a queen, whether you were a bus driver or a performer or a customer.”
In theory, generation two was in charge. “But there was no real taking over,” Winton says. “Dad and Nick were still in control.” (The elders were majority shareholders.) “I knew the type of entertainment my family had successfully offered for years. But I also knew times were changing.”
Shows like “The Sound of Music” had been dusted off and performed too many times. Young patrons hungered for edgier fare. Longtime fans wanted standards. Vaudeville’s time had come and gone.
Families were changing. Both parents had started working. Disposable income went to home theater systems, video rentals and computers. The TLB complex needed cosmetic improvements. Audience numbers were dwindling, but performers—and its 300 employees—still had to be paid. Debt accumulated.
The Immediato family continued to serve the public professionally and admirably, but behind the scenes, they were divided. Some wanted to transform TLB into a dessert-only venue. Others voted to close the theater but keep the banquet business. Winton wanted to buy a smaller, more intimate venue, like the original in Kennett.
Family members agreed that offerings should remain wholesome. They believed in family fare. They also tried to honor Hugo Sr. and Nick. What the elders didn’t realize was the effect pop culture was having on entertainment. The power of slasher films, Britney Spears and post-grunge music was formidable. Wholesome wasn’t cutting it.
Winton oversaw a major workforce reduction, which she says was “a horrible thing to do.” Ending the business was “surreal, a real life drama.”
On St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, 2007, after the annual Irish Night party, the Italian family served their last buffet.
Then the theater went dark.
“The place should’ve been made into a landmark,” Revels says.
“It was the end of an era.”
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Was it the End of a Legacy?
Barbara Colatriano, TLB’s former box office manager, says the family legacy is alive—and she saw the theater razed. “It was a very sad day,” she says. “But it was a building. The memories are still there.”
The sale of the property, which included the golf course, eight acres of land where the theater sat, and 20 buildable lots, was listed for $8.5 million. (The sale was private. No figures are available.) The Onix Group, a hospitality, healthcare and commercial real estate development company based in Kennett Square, purchased the complex. Currently under construction are two 9,000-square-foot medical office buildings that will stand adjacent to the Cadia Healthcare Skilled Nursing and Rehabilitation facility. The nursing home will sit on former theater soil.
Mike Gnade, director of business development for Onix, says the company hopes to honor the legacy of TLB. “Many nursing homes have themed rooms,” he says. “Vicki has great photos from the theater. We’d like to use them as decorations, which we’d place throughout the facility.”
The culinary legacy is sizzling. In 2005 Al’s grandson, Tony Immediato, opened Immediato’s Subs and Steaks in Middletown. The business was such a hit that Tony added a catering arm called Immediato’s Italian Specialties, complete with a state-of-the-art bakery. In April he opened Immediato’s Bistro next door to the sub shop.
One family member is poised to keep TLB’s show biz legacy alive. Hugo Immediato Jr. is already moving toward the spotlight, in fact.
In 2008 he was named executive director of the Rehoboth Beach Theatre of the Arts in Celebration Mall, the former home of Epworth United Methodist Church. As an employee of the center, he is prohibited from using the TLB name or logo. Yet there are more similarities to TLB at the complex than there are differences.
Unlike TLB, the center features art galleries and working artist studios. Art enthusiasts can see an exhibit, buy art or watch multimedia artists at work.
Like TLB, theater season lineups feature diverse musical and comedy acts, one-man shows and full-fledged musicals. (“Satisfaction: A Tribute to the Rolling Stones” plays July 16.) Hugo Jr. hired Weber-Prianti Productions to design the stage in the sanctuary. He employs TLB’s former sound and production technicians. On the lower level is Ovations Restaurant, which is open most evenings, has a nice bar, and offers pre- and post-show deals. It’s not dinner theater per se, but food service is integral to the mission. And as TLB did in Pike Creek, the center functions in a town that’s been, save for performances by Clear Space Productions, bereft of professional theater.
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Carol Everhart, director of the Rehoboth Beach-Dewey Beach Chamber of Commerce, says the theater has already enhanced the town. “The visual and performing arts always do,” she says. “I can’t imagine a better leader than Hugo Jr. He comes from Three Little Bakers, and who could ask for a better résumé than that?”
As a leader, Hugo Jr. is a work in progress. “Our father and uncles were the types of leaders I want to be,” he says. “They knew we were all talented in individual ways. What I lacked, somebody else made up. Whatever my strength was, that was what I did.”
Hugo Jr. spent 34 years working at TLB, doing the same things he’s doing now: booking talent, negotiating deals, emceeing, greeting guests. When buses roll in, he befriends the drivers.
He’s also putting together another concept for a separate company called Hugo Jr. Presents. His goal is to blend the tourism and entertainment industries and, possibly, to present shows under the TLB name.
For years he’s dreamed of a TLB by the Sea—a possibility given his connections. But he has big shoes to fill. Only he knows if he has the knowledge and the stomach to create a comparable venue.
“Well, it’s a big legacy,” he says. “My dad and his brothers were hugely successful. But for the hospitality, food, tourism and theater businesses, TLB was a Harvard education. I inherited tenacity, pride and diligence. I take that with me.”
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The Family Moved On.
Some family members have retired. Some have left the state. All of the Immediatos struggled to adjust to a universe outside the Pike Creek complex, a place they never thought they’d be.
Winton works at Sweet Christine’s Bakery in Kennett Square. Her younger brother, Carl, has his own IT business. Her husband, Bob Winton, ran banquets at TLB and does the same at Dover Downs Hotel & Casino. Nick’s daughter, Eva Rose, and her husband, Jim Rose, the former golf course manager, live in Tennessee. Jim manages a school cafeteria. Eva is starting a culinary mail order business.
“Life goes on,” says Winton.
So does the legacy, says Carla Markell. “It stays with all of us who grew up enjoying shows at Three Little Bakers.”
That’s part of the message the second Immediato generation wants to express to the first. The other part is that success is measured many ways.
“You don’t find happiness in a job or in a building or in a bank account,” says Winton. “A legacy is measured by the number of people whose lives you made better. It’s measured by having a family that respects you and loves you. My father and Nick have that in spades.”
Repeat those words to Hugo Sr. and he manages a smile. He may be riding a roller coaster of emotions these days, but he’s trying to see the silver lining.
“We just want our children to lead good lives like we did,” Hugo Sr. says. “I guess by comparison, when you realize how blessed we are as a family, the theater isn’t as important.”
Then he pauses.
“But we did have a pretty good run.”