Ask Robert and Jody Miller how the dinner theater business has been since they bought Ardentown’s Candlelight Theatre in 2003, and they’ll say, “It’s the same with us as with Bakers. We are struggling.”
Indeed. Candlelight is, with Three Little Bakers, one of the last remaining dinner theaters in a region that, just a few decades ago, had nearly a dozen within a two-hour drive of Wilmington.
Ask the Millers about their personal life, and they’ll tell you they don’t have one. Just about every day has brought them drama, but not the kind that works on a stage.
After spending $250,000 to extend the theater’s stage outward, add a new sound system, refurbish the washrooms, renovate the lobby, bar and buffet area, and upgrade the air conditioning and heating system, the Millers have had to build sets and make costumes, run the lights and sound, tend the bar, wait on the tables, cook the food, wash the tablecloths and handle innumerable crises that, thankfully, have been solved. For the Millers, the show has always gone on.
Struggle brings change. A few months ago, the Millers made two important ones that may have far-reaching implications, not just survival of a historic theater with deep roots in the local cultural community, but to the region as a whole.
The first change was in the theater’s tax status, from profit to non-profit, in order to qualify for grants, contributions and sponsorships from businesses, foundations and arts funding institutions. This move wasn’t a surprise: Most regional playhouses operate as non-profit entities.
The surprise came when the Millers decided to go equity.
“We became an equity playhouse because the one thing we didn’t expect was a decline in the number of actors we were getting for auditions,” Robert says. “That really scared me.”
Born in Wilmington, Robert Miller was 15 when he took a bus up Harvey Road, got off at the Arden stop, then wandered the narrow, twisting stretch of a pavement that had his name on it: Miller Road. He finally arrived at what still looks more like a barn than a playhouse, where he auditioned with several hundred hopefuls for the Candlelight’s production of “Lorelli,” a musical based on the movie, “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.”
Miller scored a part in the chorus. He credits his experience at Candlelight, especially the gruff but sound artistic advice he got from the theater’s late artistic director, Julian Borris, with giving him the determination to go to New York to work for more than a decade as a professional actor.
Miller found he could go home again, to the theater where he got his first big break, after he married choreographer Jody Anderson. The two then began staging shows at the Candlelight for owner Kathleen Nadolny.
That’s when Miller noticed that the number of actors auditioning at the Candlelight had declined.
“For some of our auditions this past year, we got as few as 40 actors,” Miller says. “Jody and I know a lot of very good, very talented actors locally, and some from New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Maryland who work regularly for us. But no actor can do every role, and there are some shows that we want to do where we just might not be able to find the right actor for the role locally.”
And so, Candlelight became the second Wilmington regional theater, after the Delaware Theater Company, to operate in accordance with the Actors Equity Association, the New York-based national union of actors and stage managers. Because Actors Equity imposes higher pay scales and stricter work rules on theaters, this move immediately increased the Millers’ operating expenses.
Miller believes the money is worth it.
“Before we went equity, we were limited to using actors who weren’t in the union,” Miller says. “Now, if we have the right role, and we get sufficient financial backing, we have the potential to cast any stage actor in the country. An actor with name recognition could increase our audience, but it will also make regional actors want to drive that extra mile to audition for us, so they can work with someone they respect and admire.”
Such as a big-name star?
Miller dismisses that.
“The theater has already had plenty of those.”
Of course, you may not have known the stars when you saw them on the Candlelight stage. If you saw any shows in the mid-1970s, you probably wouldn’t recognize in the chorus line Susan Stroman, who would go on to become the reigning queen of Broadway, having directed and choreographed the hit musical and film versions of “The Producers.”
While majoring in theater at the University of Delaware, Stroman ventured north of Wilmington to the little village of Ardentown to audition for, and ultimately get, a part in the chorus line of the Candlelight’s production of “Cabaret.”
Though Stroman had performed in other musicals with The Brandywiners and elsewhere, the mood she found at the Candlelight was different than at any place she had performed before.
“On Saturday nights, after the audience left, Julian Borris and John O’Toole would put out a spread of snacks and desserts,” she recalls. “The cast and crew would hang around and talk about the show, about ourselves, about anything on our minds. We got to cool off and talk about the performance in a non-threatening way. John and Julian created a very close, family kind of atmosphere that you don’t find in most theaters. We could learn from each other, give each other artistic and emotional support.”
Stroman later found herself becoming “part of an informal company. Julian and John would call me when they had a show coming up that they felt I would fit in just right. There isn’t much continuity in professional theater; with each show, you’re working with new people in new situations. At Candlelight, you got the opportunity to be on stage with people you already knew, which helps your growth. Because you’re familiar with your fellow actor, you can build on your relationships and try new and different things.”
Though she never got a starring role at Candlelight, she crossed an invisible line there, from being just another member of the chorus, to choreographing shows.
Nearly 30 years later, Stroman still keeps in touch with John O’Toole and other members of the extended Candlelight family. Ten years ago, she visited the theater. “My years at Candlelight were very happy in my life. Going back was magical. It was like finding your own little Brigadoon.”
Way back to the beginning of the last century, the barn on Millers Road was just that. When residents of Arden acquired the land and buildings of two farms to expand their village in 1922, they transformed the barn into a community center.
Established in 1900, Arden has a strong tradition of theater. The original village was named after the forest mentioned in Shakespeare’s “As You Like It,” and the founders took their motto, “Ye are welcome, hither,” from Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale.” In 1908 sculptor and Arden founder Frank Stephens started the Arden Club, an organization of arts and education groups called “gilds” (Stephens preferred the odd spellings of Esperanto, an invented language, rather than the English word “guild”). Among them are the Shakespeare Gild, which presents the Bard’s plays in an outdoor theater on Woodlane Road, and the Arden Singers, who perform Gilbert & Sullivan operettas in Gild Hall, a former barn off Harvey Road that is now Arden’s town hall.
The Robin Hood Theatre began when a group of Ardentown residents decided to mount summer stock plays in their town hall, importing actors and directors from outside the community.
So in 1953, one of America’s greatest playwrights found himself standing on a street with his name on it. Arthur Miller, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of “Death of a Salesman,” went to the Robin Hood Theatre. In “Timebends,” Miller’s 1987 autobiography, he writes that he “accepted, despite misgivings” the offer to direct his first Broadway hit, “All My Sons,” starring Kevin McCarthy and Miller’s sister, Joan Copeland. At the time, Miller was depressed because what is now considered to be his second-greatest play, “The Crucible,” bombed on Broadway despite winning a Tony Award.
Instead of gaining much needed confidence in himself, Miller decided that directing wasn’t for him.
What happened to Miller was the opposite of what happened to Anthony Perkins, Jack Klugman and Barbara Bel Geddes, who took their bows at the Robin Hood, then, later, during the Candlelight era, Stroman, Robert Miller and a South Jersey boy named Bruce Willis.
Lena O’Toole remembers Willis as “a man in a hurry.”
“He came over the bridge from Pennsgrove and had a walk-on in ‘Where’s Charlie?’” O’Toole says. He had a second job as a bartender, so we couldn’t use him on nights when he was tending bar. He seemed more interested in being in a rock’n’roll band. After we closed the show, he took off for New York. The next time we saw him was when we turned on the television and saw him with Cybill Shepherd in ‘Moonlighting.’”
Lena became office manager of the first Candlelight when her husband, John O’Toole, hooked up again with his Wilmington high school buddy, Julian Borris, and bought the old Robin Hood in 1969. They removed the 300 auditorium-style seats and put in family-style tables and chairs for 220.
“Julian had heard of what was called back then cabaret theater,” says John O’Toole, who managed the theater while Borris produced, directed and occasionally starred in the shows. “At those places, you’d have a meal and see a show. Julian thought calling it Candlelight would suggest romantic dining by candlelight. At first we called it the Candlelight Music Theater, but people thought we had concerts going on, so we changed it to ‘dinner theater.’ Bakers opened three years later.”
Thus began Delaware’s golden age of dinner theaters. Most offered buffet-style cuisine and, at some theaters, actors in full makeup and costume took drink orders and socialized with audience members during intermission. Shows were drawn from a repertoire of about 40 well-known musicals and the occasional Neil Simon comedy.
John O’Toole and Borris started the tradition of the post-show party at Candlelight “as a way of being good to the actors and people who helped us,” John says. “The great thing about being in Ardentown was the support we got from the residents. They have their own Shakespeare and musical companies, and we would cast people from the town as often as we could. Some of our regular performers moved to Arden. If you needed anything made, fixed or mended, there was somebody in Arden who could probably do it, and they were so happy to help out. Half the time, they were willing to work for free.”
At its peak the original Candlelight offered meals and shows five days a week and had a 20,000-name mailing list of patrons living as far away as Connecticut and Virginia. It offered a children’s theater school and children’s theater matinees.
Then, in the 1980s, the audiences began to decline, thanks to competition from TV, sporting events, rock concerts and the casinos in Atlantic City, which took much of the Candlelight’s bus tour business.
The nature of the Broadway show also changed. Sentimental romances, rags-to-riches tales and backstage melodramas with toe-tapping melodies gave way to cynical shows with strong language, stronger sexual content and elaborate staging effects beyond the capability of most dinner theaters.
“We did ‘Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,’” John O’Toole says, “but people stayed away. We actually had someone call us to complain that we were putting on a show with the word ‘whore’ in the title.”
Borris died in 1996. The O’Tooles, then in their 70s, sold the theater to Kathleen Nadolny in 2000. (The O’Tooles now manage the Delaware Children’s Theater.) Nadolny brought the Millers down from New York to stage musicals.
“When we were doing shows for her, Kathleen would talk about selling the place, and that got us thinking,” Jody Miller says. “Robert’s roots were here. We wanted a more settled life. When Kathleen was ready to sell, we bought it.”
In 2004, the Millers opened the New Candlelight with “A Chorus Line.” They revived the children’s theater matinees and a summer children’s theater camp.
And they gave the food operation to John Preece, who, in addition to being executive chef for a dozen dinner theaters from Maryland to Pennsylvania, has done more than 3,000 performances in various productions of “Fiddler on the Roof” and was most recently seen as Don Quixote in the Candlelight’s production of “Man of La Mancha.”
“I’ll tell you what killed the dinner theaters,” Preece says. “This is a very hard business to run because it combines two of the most risky businesses there is, and most of the people who opened up dinner theaters had no idea what they were getting into. As soon as they ran into problems or their expenses got out of hand, they would cut back on the food quality and the production values, and people didn’t return. So dinner theater developed a reputation that’s been like a weight around our necks. It’s been an incredible uphill battle for us because we’re small. We’re not easy to find. We’ve been ignored by the Philadelphia papers so far, but we’re hoping that they’ll begin to pay attention.”
To gain distinction for the Candlelight, the Millers joined the Philadelphia Theatre Alliance, an organization of more than 100 playhouses and theater companies, including the Delaware Shakespeare Festival and the Delaware Theatre Company. In October of each year the Theatre Alliance hosts the Barrymore Awards, and the Millers want to be in the running in 2007 for Best Musical.
Says Robert, “We’ve gone to Philadelphia, and we’ve seen what the bigger theaters do, with more money, and we think our shows, and our actors, are as good, if not better. We can say that because Jody and I are actors. For us, it’s always been about the artistry, which, for an actor, is having each performance be the absolute best you can do.”
This, Stroman agrees, is what a life in the theater is all about.
“If someone has a performer inside of them, they’re going to give it their all. The people who are real performers will play to a Candlelight audience as they would play to the audience at Madison Square Garden. Every show I performed at Candlelight, I felt the same as when I started performing on Broadway. Once you get that bug to live and die in the theater, it never leaves you.”