Peformers in a 1976 production of “Paint Your Wagon” at Candlelight Theatre./Courtesy of Candlelight Theatre
For the artists and countless longtime patrons of the iconic Candlelight Theatre, walking into the place feels somewhat like coming home.
The former 19th-century horse barn has seen a few major renovations in its day, but it still holds onto its rustic, family rec-room atmosphere like a finely constructed wood-paneled wall.
“It’s like coming into a family,” says Max Redman, technical director. “You walk in and everyone instantly feels welcome. … It’s like walking into someone’s living room or dining room.”
Now a big homecoming is afoot at the old barn.
Shows over the years have included “Camelot” and “Spamalot,” “Lil’ Abner” and “Legally Blonde” and practically everything in between. In November, the small Ardentown theater celebrates its 50th anniversary. And it’s going stronger than ever before.
Candlelight opened in 1969 with a production of Stephen Sondheim’s “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” a show that became something of a staple over the decades. Tickets cost $7.
It was Delaware’s first official dinner theater, bolstered by the artistic community around Arden and a knack for unearthing nearby acting and directing talent. Under the ownership of Julian Borris and John O’Toole, the small team of theater junkies and volunteers ushered in a run that spanned decades, producing five shows each year and building long-lasting relationships with local and regional theater fans.
In 1974, University of Delaware student Susan Stroman was cast in a production of “Cabaret,” and later went on to win five Tony awards as an acclaimed Broadway director and choreographer. In 1977, a young drama student from south Jersey named Bruce Willis made his Candlelight debut in the ensemble of “Where’s Charley?”
“Dinner theater used to be known for heavy food and light fare, right?” jokes Susan Hornung, board member and longtime artist. “But I think people have become much more sophisticated. And I don’t think they’re looking down their nose at it like they used to because they’re seeing something close to what they would see if they went to New York. They’re seeing very fine quality.”
The state’s first dinner theater is also its last one standing. Fans travel from around the region to join the family fray. It’s tradition at Candlelight for the actors and crewmembers themselves to wait on audience tables for dinner, breaking down walls between performers and audience members.
“The recidivism rate of this theater is almost 100 percent. If you come to this theater for the first time, it is almost guaranteed that they will come back,” says Bob Kelly, creative director. “The big thing about this place is that it is like no other. You probably couldn’t name on one hand the [number] of theaters that [have] this type of ambiance—in the entire country.”
How does dinner theater stay relevant in the digital age? It doubles down on community engagement. This year Candlelight launched a Master Class Series with Broadway veterans. And in recent years, it began sharing the stage with standup comedy nights and Quizzo, helping to draw younger crowds.
Clearly, they are doing something right: For the third consecutive year, Candlelight will set a new ticket sales record. Season ticket sales subscriptions have increased by nearly 10 percent in each of last three years.
2208 Millers Rd, Wilmington • 475-2313