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Go! Enjoy: The Show Must Go On

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Photograph © by Tom Nutter

Walking into the Three Little Bakers Dinner Theatre is like popping in on a party at an Italian-American home—a 60,870 square foot home that seats 900.

Sinatra croons through speakers wired even into the bathrooms. To the right sits a steaming buffet of pasta in marinara sauce, hand-carved roast beef and salads. Annie Hadley, 91, wears a hair net and hovers over a dessert spread that could rattle the Jenny Craig empire.

To the left of the Italian rum balls, coconut macaroons, éclairs and tiramisu is a rust-colored wall graced with 1912 wedding photos of Grandmom and Grandpop Immediato. The couple, enshrined in mahogany antique frames, are the parents of Hugo, Italo (Al) and Nino (Nick) Immediato, the three men who earned international acclaim as the Vaudeville group The Acromaniacs, then founded this Delaware institution.

All eyes are on a tanned Hugo Immediato, who bounces in to catch a performance of “The Sound of Music.” Sitting at a center table on the lower level, his presence is bittersweet. His brother Al died of cancer in 1989. And Nick, referred to as “the baby” at 83, only visits occasionally.

The business Hugo and his brothers started in 1971 is more than dinner theater, more than the scratchy black-and-white video of The Acromaniacs that is shown before each performance, more than Vaudeville shtick, Hula-Hoop games and the “Electric Slide” during intermission. The Three Little Bakers Dinner Theatre is an idiosyncratic combination of all of the above, presented by a family that’s loyal to its heritage.

Until five years ago, the “Immediato package” consistently sold out. Now that there’s more competition, the second Immediato generation is scaling down to better serve audiences. The family plans to continue presenting this slice of Americana for years to come—even to the MySpace.com generation.

Today is opening day for “The
Sound of Music.” As a canned orchestra blasts the overture, patrons scurry for one last grab at the dessert bar. Hugo, the patriarch—“the glue,” as the family says—disregards his salad, reaching instead for a slab of banana-crème pie, both of which were set at his place the moment he sat. His daughter Lisa Immediato (title: waitstaff manager) wraps an arm around his shoulders and reprimands him quietly for skipping the veggies. Hugo’s other kids, Vicki Immediato Winton (theater president) and Hugo Jr. (emcee-public relations and sales director) stop by frequently. They warm his coffee and bring him fresh plates of bean salad and roasted chicken—neither of which he touches.

Hugo shakes his head. “They worry about me,” he says, “but I feel great. Would you believe I’m 85 years young?”

Before the show started, 40 fans, including a New Jersey state senator whose daughter is in the show, have already visited Hugo’s table. Wearing fitted jeans and a salmon button-down shirt opened to reveal a thick gold crucifix, Hugo is not as cut as he once was, but he’s fit. His diamond pinkie ring, a gift from his second wife, Anna, catches the light from the miniature Tiffany lamps that sit on immense lazy Susans at nearby tables. Hugo is transfixed by the show, but about the time the von Trapp children chant “Do-Re-Mi,” he reminisces. He misses performing. “Theater is always in you,” he whispers.

“We were just three young boys and we had such dreams,” Hugo says, talking only between acts. “We’d practice all day, every day. You name it, we did it, and everything was original.”

Between the 1940s and the ’60s, the self-taught Acromaniacs achieved worldwide fame. They were the first acrobatic team to perform at the Paramount Theatre in New York, a credential that led to gigs here and abroad. The brothers were TV fixtures, defying gravity for Ed Sullivan, Milton Berle, Kate Smith, Jackie Gleason, and Moe, Larry and Curly. The trio grew so popular that even Tommy Dorsey took a back seat. The trombonist, a legend in his own right, led The Acromaniacs’ “back-up” band.

“We never realized where we were,” Hugo says. “We were in New York City, the No. 1 spot in the entire country. We didn’t know it. But whenever you do something in New York at the Paramount, the whole world opens up to you. If you make it there, you’ve made it in show business.”

There was a bump in the road. During a gig at the Palace Theatre in Cleveland in 1947, Nick performed a back somersault, and, because of a curtain malfunction, no one saw or caught him. He went down in a sitting position and broke his vertebrae in four places. “It was the end of our national career,” Hugo says.

The accident brought the Immediatos home to Delaware, though the brothers toured sporadically for 20 more years. They inherited culinary skills from their father, Joseph, and started a bakery. Their new name came from a young female dancer who had spotted them in a local club. “She said, ‘Hey, here comes those three little bakers,’” Hugo says.

Starting a bakery was difficult, especially in 1948. World War II had just ended. Money was tight. Production was slow. Old performing pals from Long Island, New York, sold the brothers bakery equipment at a discount. The Immediatos expanded to seven retail outlets throughout New Castle County. In the late 1960s, when doughnut franchises and supermarkets cut into business, the family countered with a hugely successful catering operation.

“But it got to be a bore,” Hugo says. “This was not what we really wanted, so we bought a piece of property in Pennsylvania and started performing.”

The brothers set up a 450-seat dinner theater and bakery in a Sons of Italy building in

Kennett Square

in 1971, which they outgrew. In 1984 the Three Little Bakers moved to the current Pike Creek location, replete with a larger bakery, four kitchens, banquet rooms, an 18-hole golf course and pro shop, tennis courts and an in-ground pool. The 900-seat theater has a unique attribute: a proscenium stage with an added thrust (a ¾ stage, or theater-in-the-round.) The stage doubles as a dance floor for the audience and provides interesting ways for actors to enter or exit. Comic Tony Danza, a regular, calls the stage “a tongue.”

The Immediatos, along with Weber-Prianti Productions, have since produced more than 8,000 shows and welcomed celebrities such as Caesar Romero, Bob Hope, Kirk Douglass and Lionel Hampton to Delaware. A popular stop for bus tours, the theater draws 47 percent of its customers from Delaware, the rest from Pennsylvania, Maryland, New Jersey, Washington, D.C., and New York. The Three Little Bakers is Delaware’s first and only dinner theater where its family owners have operated and entertained daily for 30 years.

At intermission, emcee Hugo Immediato Jr. grabs a cordless mic and lures a couple celebrating their 40th anniversary to the stage. After they finish dancing to an Elvis ballad, Hugo Jr. hands them a traditional heart-shaped loaf of Italian bread.

Backstage, the actors are swigging from bottles of water. Longtimers Vicky Saunders and Martina Haw, who offer vibrant performances as Maria and Mother Abbess, respectively, both say the Immediatos are like family and that they’re grateful for the steady employment the theater has provided non-union actors. (For economic reasons, the Three Little Bakers never joined the Actors Equity Association, the labor union that represents more than 45,000 actors and stage managers in the United States.) Jennifer Quinn, who plays a suitably vindictive Baroness Shraeder, wonders what she’d do if the Pike Creek theater ever went dark.

As far as theater president Vicky Immediato Winton is concerned, the theater will never go dark. But change does lie ahead. The venue’s Vaudeville intermission shtick is a hemisphere away from the edgier fare today’s younger audiences demand—many have no idea of what Vaudeville is. Competition from local equity theaters (and one equity dinner theater) has also affected the Three Little Bakers’ bottom line. Tourists used to be dependable, but high gas costs are keeping them home. To add, well, fuel to the fire, a February newspaper article announced that the Three Little Bakers property was on the market. Locals assumed the theater was closed.

As a result, Winton was forced to cancel “The Wizard of Oz” in April, but the rest of the season remained intact. (The musical “Big,” plays through October 29.) The 2007 season will also be mounted at Pike Creek and looks stellar, featuring the top Broadway shows “Aida,” “Footloose” and “Jekyll & Hyde.”

The property is indeed for sale, but the Immediatos can guarantee a 2007 season at Pike Creek because they will have use of the theater for 18 months after settlement. The sale of the property, which includes the golf course, eight acres of land (where the theater sits) and 20 buildable lots, is in negotiations. The asking price is $8.5 million.

“It’s just real estate. The theater is alive and well,” says Winton. She wants to purchase a 450-seat venue, produce shows at various locations or do both. This month she’ll partner with Dover Downs to present Tony Danza and a country music show featuring the groups Little Texas, Blackhawk and Restless Heart.

Fortunately for executive pastry chef Vincent Immediato, baked goods will always be a signature offering. Vincent, the only third generation employee, resigned from the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa in Atlantic City for this post. “I wouldn’t have left the Borgata if I thought there’d be a problem here,” he says. “This is my dream job.”

The face of this family business, a legacy, is changing. And maintaining a balance between a new business model and a venerable tradition will be a juggling act. The 1970s were the heyday of dinner theaters across the country, but the boom ended in the mid-’80s. The Three Little Bakers managed to swim against that tide. But the family knows that without downsizing, the consequence could be failure.

The music swells into a final crescendo. The chorus belts a spirited “Climb Ev’ry Mountain.” Hugo stands to applaud. Onstage, as the von Trapps escape to freedom, he says, “Things work out in the end.”

Hugo’s eyes well up when he talks about leaving the lush property he built with his brothers. It’s almost as sad as the day he retired—at age 80. He sits, adjusts his glasses, folds his arms, stares into space for a few seconds. Then he smiles. “The children make the decisions now,” he says. Clearly, this formidable force understands theater—and the way theater audiences are changing.

“Show business will never, never, never die,” Hugo says. “But time moves on. And we’re moving with the times.”

DT

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