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?
(page 5 of 8)
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.”
Page 6: Can the Show Go On?, continues...