The Endurance Race from Heyday to Hear and Now
The Endurance Race from Heyday to Hear and Now
The quaint, 262-seat Barn Dinner Theatre in Greensboro, South Carolina, has learned the business of adaptation earning it the title of oldest continually operating dinner theatre in America
By Joel M. Dorr
As is the case for many of us involved in the theatre world, we jumped into this crazy business because it was fun, exhilarating and gave us a sense of belonging. Such is the case for the Barn Dinner Theatre these past 47 years.
Located Greensboro, but part of the Triad of Winston-Salem, High Point and Greensboro, the Barn Dinner Theatre and its community has shared the same sense of kinship since 1962. Greensboro is known as the Gate City, because of all the major highways that pass through or near the city, located centrally in North Carolina and the East Coast.
Conceived during the heyday of dinner theatre, the Barn Dinner Theatre was the second property built in a chain which grew to an impressive 27 in number. And never really a working barn, the concept was developed as a barn theme to play to its audiences. At that time, each show was cast out of New York with actors traveling with their show from one Barn Dinner Theatre to the next, all across the country.
Reminiscent of a Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland movie with young actors running around trying to mount a summer stock musical, these traveling actors were housed in living quarters equipped with bedrooms, showers and kitchens in the upstairs of the barn theatres.
But if there is one thing that is certain in life, besides death and taxes, it is change which dictates things must adapt to survive in an evolving world. The Barn learned to do exactly that, adapt, and survive. Over the decades, the remaining locations were either sold off or shuttered, but this Barn endured and is the only remaining property from the original chain of dinner theatres.
Roll with the changes
And dinner theatres have gone through a series of upstarts and declines over the years straddling that line between a restaurant and a theatre. And perhaps that is why Conley Jones, original owner of the Barn Dinner Theatre placed a bet on hiring a seasoned restaurant manager, Ric Gutierréz, over a decade ago.
“After being in restaurant management for twenty plus years, I was looking for a change of pace,” recalls Ric Gutierréz, general manager and executive producer of The Barn Dinner Theatre for the past 13 years. Gutierréz was soon the man in charge, when in a few months time, Conley Jones, passed away.
“I was running the theatre for Mr. Jones and his widow wanted out and was ready to close the theatre,” remembers Gutierréz. “Not wanting to see that happen, I went to William Baldwin, for whom I had managed other restaurants, and Charlie Erwin, and made them aware the theatre was on the market. They made the investment and The Barn Dinner Theatre was able to stay open and become the longest, continuously operating dinner theatre in the country.”
A gutsy move for a restaurant veteran with little theatre experience, but Gutierréz decided the possible rewards of a career in theatre out-weighed the fear of failure. He held his breath and jumped in with both feet.
The journey has been a learning experience for Gutierréz who understood early in his new theatre career the importance of change and adaptation. Over the years, Gutierréz and his staff have effectively tailored their season to the likes and dislikes of their clientele.
Give ‘em what they want
The Barn Dinner Theatre’s audience is largely comprised of long-time local patrons generally 50 to 70 years old in age, transplanted population and tourists brought in via motor coach. Gutierréz, like many other theatre managers, dinner or otherwise, still seeks that elusive younger demographic.
Generally, Gutierréz has found a season planning performance that works for locals and tourists alike. “I try to stage a comedy, an adult farce, a Gospel musical, and an African-American based show during the planning of a season,” explains Gutierréz. “There is a very loyal band of theatergoers who love those genres, but it is an increasingly small group.”
This season he plans to fill his tables with lots of musicals including a Northwood’s favorite, “Church Basement Ladies,” the internationally popular musical “The Buddy Holly Story,” and teaming them with the new works like “One Mo Chance – A Hitsville Romance” and the musical drama “Dreams of a King.”
“Church Basement Ladies” has already been a hit right out of the gate for the Barn. “I knew it would be a show that would really appeal to our audience,” beams Gutierréz. “In fact, that show was so popular we’re bringing it back in 2009 in unprecedented back to back seasons due to the overwhelming popularity of the production.”
Says Gutierréz. “The public’s interest in dramas and mysteries in dinner theatre has all but disappeared. The masses really show up for musicals and comedies these days. The sales and the support from the community have been increasing dramatically over the last few years especially as the word of mouth continues to grow about our extremely popular mix of shows.”
To better understand the expectations and preferences of the public, The Barn staff effectively monitors their own business performance by reaching out to their audiences.
“We listen to patron’s feedback on our comment cards and Web site emails, and in person during our nightly table checks. We read these cards and emails religiously and discuss them as a management team,” says Gutierréz.
He also points out the support they have received from NDTA (National Dinner Theatre Association) members and various arts and management conferences providing helpful discussions on subjects such as retaining old and cultivating new audiences.
“We had received feedback from the NCMA (North Carolina Motorcoach Association)
conference and from NDTA members that retirees wanted a mid-week destination. We added Tuesday matinees and they now consistently outsell every other day with tour busses lined up in the parking lot each week,” says Gutierréz. “Tour groups can bring that same busload of patrons back to the Barn several times a year for a different experience each time.”
Business practices have had to evolve over the years as well. Actors, once only brought in from New York City, have been replaced by local talent which has grown in numbers and quality through the generations, according to Gutierréz. “With the University of North Carolina – Greensboro and North Carolina A&T State University nearby, we are blessed with a wealth of talent in the central North Carolina region. Also, there are many theatres in the area, so there is a good bit of work for full-time performers here.”
Gutierréz firmly believes theatres must connect with their customers, whether its through comment cards, emails or person-to-person chats on the night of a production, for a barometer of how they are doing and what they can do better. Understanding what the patron is interested in seeing and the experience they are expecting to have, is vital in retaining a strong customer base.
To help them keep track of their patrons, Gutierréz uses Arts Management Systems Theatre Manager box office software for its 52,000 patron database. “I can’t express what a tremendous change it was to go from antiquated and clunky, DOS-based database software to the fully developed point and click Windows-based Theatre Manager system,” explains Gutierréz. “We can now train a new hire to take basic reservations in their first hour.”
The Barn staff has some very clever repositioning of dinner theatre adding a whole lot of fun to an evening experience. Marketing materials pop with the catch phrases “Play with Your Food” and “Dinnertainment,” all meant to push out their business philosophy of offering a fun night of quality entertainment and food.
Gutierréz also pulls specific mailing lists to do more direct marketing and has found a pre-season calendar to be especially effective along with their “Fan Club,” an email newsletter of 10,000 in circulation.
Gutierréz boils down their success as follows, “Consistent quality of food, tuxedo service, well-produced and directed shows with great actors. Focusing on enhancing the patrons overall experience at every chance promoting great word-of-mouth, which is our number one source of revenue in our response code reports. Giving our patrons an exceptional experience so they talk about the Barn is the best way to sell dinner and a show to the community.”
Since the opening of the facility back in 1962, audiences at the Barn have been treated to the wonder of their one-of-kind “magic stage” which was constructed and mounted on a hydraulic lift which rises high above the audience with the buffet set up below it. To this day, after dinning the audience sits in amazement as the entire buffet, which serves over 250 patrons, is quickly dismantled and removed in less than five minutes, an undertaking fondly referred to as “ACT 1”. With wonderful theatric flair, the stage and set are lowered for the beginning of the night’s production.
Operations Manager David Garrison also feels their long held tradition of applauding anniversary couples continues to be a crowd pleaser. During the warm-ups for every show, each anniversary couple is singled out for recognition. “We ask them the stand up (and wait till they do) and then ask the gentleman to kiss his bride like he did back on their wedding day XX years ago!” chuckles Garrison. “The crowd loves it. If the kiss goes a little long, we can joke with them that we meant the wedding kiss, not the honeymoon kiss, which gets another roar from the audience.”
No doubt the success of The Barn can be attributed to the sense of community they have developed with the surrounding audience base which encompasses loyal patrons willing to drive one-to-three hours away from Virginia.
Gutierréz has no false pretenses regarding the reasons for the longevity of the Barn. “The community has kept the Barn thriving through all kinds of economies since 1962, and we’re extremely grateful for the thousands and thousands of loyal patrons that sustain us by coming several times every year for decades now.”
The Barn Dinner Theatre has seen a lot of change over the past 47 years but Gutierréz has found his most inspirational experiences have been brought about by our countries recent turmoil. A few years ago, they hosted a National Guard unit and their families before the deployment to Iraq. Two years later, they hosted another event to welcome the unit home. Unfortunately, some seats remained empty, missing those who did not come home from the War.
Since that time, the Barn hosts the Annual Awards banquet for the Marine Corp. League Detachment 260 giving them the opportunity to pay tribute to those who gave their lives to protect our country.
“Part of the event each year is to ask the attendees to file out of the back of the theatre to the rear parking lot, wear the fallen are honored with the playing of Taps and a 21 gun salute, complete with the traditional Marine memorial of rifles, helmets, and boots gathered together,” recalls Gutierréz. “Each of these events was very somber, while at the same time celebrating the spirit of the American Military and their families.”
Says Gutierréz, “Honoring the fallen and remembering the ones still in harm’s way is very important to our team at the Barn.”