…. These days the founders and co-artistic directors of the New Theatre Restaurant in Overland Park are in a reflective mood.Twenty-five years ago this month they were involved in the manual labor of converting an old Main Street laundry into Tiffany's Attic Dinner Playhouse - with no thought at all about what they might be doing a quarter-century down the road.
``When you're young you just kind of do,'' Hennessy said recently. ``There's no long-range planning. No long-range goals. You just open the doors and then you take it one day at a time. You don't even think about the future. '' Indeed, as they describe it, preparing Tiffany's for its grand opening in 1972 was an ongoing emergency requiring round-the-clock work. ``Because we had such a limited budget to do the construction with, Dennis' and my families ... would go over and we would augment what the carpenters were doing during the daytime,'' Carrothers recalled. ``I jackhammered most of the sewage ditches because it was all concrete. ``On opening night ... 10 minutes before the doors opened we were wiping on and wiping off (floor) stain and working ourselves into the coat room, so that on opening night we weren't really part of it. We were in our old work clothes in the coat room and somebody brought us food. ``So you really just think of the moment ahead of you. At that particular time it was like: 'Are we gonna get the floor stained and get the audience in? ' '' The first show was Neil Simon's ``Last of the Red Hot Lovers'' and in the cast was a young actress named Patsy Calmes - who later made a name for herself on television as Morgan Fairchild.
There would be 121 productions at Tiffany's Attic during its 18-year history. Waldo Astoria, the companion theater Hennessy and Carrothers opened at 75th and Washington the following year, would be the site of 98 shows. New Theatre audiences have seen 26 productions since the showplace at 92nd and Metcalf in Overland Park opened in 1992. (New Theatre associate producer Joe Fox calculates that the impressive production history of all three playhouses somehow translates into more than 1 billion laughs.) What's for dinner?
Hennessy and Carrothers, both in their 50s, have known each other 30 years. Hennessy was born and raised in Kansas City. Carrothers was born in Iowa and spent his childhood and adolescence on a farm near Liberty. Both were theater students at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, but their professional relationship began in 1967 when Hennessy, who was running the old Resident Theatre at the Jewish Community Center, hired Carrothers as his assistant. By their account, the partners chose to open a dinner theater - as opposed to any other kind - because in the early '70s dinner theater seemed to be sweeping the country as a commercial phenomenon. At one time five such theater companies were in Kansas City.
``We had been reading about the success of dinner theater,'' Hennessy recalled. ``In fact, we hadn't even seen one when we opened Tiffany's Attic. '' Carrothers elaborated: ``When you were going out and pitching it to investors - and we were just kids - when you said, 'Yeah, but it includes a bar and a restaurant,' that made it salable to them. '' Many dinner theaters here and elsewhere fell by the wayside through the years, in part because many businessmen without backgrounds in theater got involved.
``They thought it was quick money, which it was in those days,'' Hennessy said. ``They were very popular and people made a lot of money with them. '' Hennessy and Carrothers prospered to the extent that they were able to take their profits from their original investment of $120,000 in Tiffany's Attic and put money into Broadway and off-Broadway shows - ``Tribute'' and ``The Elephant Man'' among them.
They also became Hollywood producers for about 10 years. The partners were involved in several made-for-TV movies, a couple of theatrical films and a miniseries about the battle of the Alamo. But during their 10 years in Los Angeles, they now concede, Tiffany's Attic and Waldo Astoria suffered from neglect. Hollywood really wasn't to their liking - too much deal-making, they said - and when they moved back in 1990, they decided to pump money they had made in the film-and-television business into the New Theatre.
``We're from the theater,'' Hennessy said. ``That's our background. We were lucky to be able to come back and do this. '' Starting over Carrothers said that in part because the programming at Tiffany's Attic and Waldo Astoria had grown stale, it was important to communicate to the public that the New Theatre was - well, really new. They called it a ``theatre restaurant'' and tried to persuade the local press to stop using the term ``dinner theater. '' ``The reason we closed down the other two and opened the New Theatre is that we had to make a commitment to the community that it wasn't business as usual, that we were going to do something new and different or better,'' Carrothers said. ``We literally had to close down those opera tions and start over. '' Hennessy said, ``I think maybe we took the audience for granted.
I think you always have to be ahead of the audience a tad. You always have to lead the audience. Once they lead you you're in trouble. And I don't think we did that in the late '80s. '' The familiar criticism of dinner theater is that it is simply too crassly commercial, that the goal of filling seats always takes precedence over artistry.
But don't tell that to Patricia McIlrath, Curators' Professor Emerita in the UMKC Theater Department and founder and former artistic director of Missouri Repertory Theater. If done well, she said, dinner theater is no less worthwhile than dinnerless theater. ``I love the idea of appealing to everyone with the arts , which means you must not rule out a form of theater,'' McIlrath said. ``There's nothing wrong with dinner theater. There are lovely things there. ``Of course, I love the classics. But there are people who will get to the classics, eventually, through other forms of theater. They have to get a habit of going. And that's what Dennis and Richard have done so beautifully. ''
Still, Hennessy and Carrothers, both of whom are talented directors, bristle a bit at the suggestion that somebody out there - critics, other theater professionals, somebody - considers their work to be inferior to the ``serious'' theater practiced elsewhere. To emphasize the new era, the partners took a lot of risks in their first couple of seasons at the New Theatre. They brought in a production of the nostalgic musical ``Forever Plaid'' at considerable expense in order to ensure quality; they tried a wild cross-dressing satire called ``Pageant,'' which, to say the least, was a challenge for the traditional dinner-theater audience. Most of the shows they tried had never been seen in Kansas City.
These days the programming is more traditional - the current production is Neil Simon's comedy ``Rumors,'' with TV star Karen Valentine headlining - but Hennessy and Carrothers have plans for the future. Although they remain vague about details, they insist that establishing a second theater company in Johnson County with no direct connection to the New Theatre is a real possibility. The idea would be to fill a niche no one else is filling in local theater, to offer material considerably more challenging than the typical Neil Simon play. Hennessy said Terrence McNally's ``Master Class,'' a play about opera diva Maria Callas, would be typical of the sort of material they would seek for a second theater. ``I think it's taking entertainment to another level,'' Carrothers said. ``It would still have the element of entertainment, but be more challenging. ''
'To entertain' Carrothers and Hennessy believe they have made an important contribution to the community by introducing professional theater to an audience that might not have experienced it otherwise. The audience, they say, has responded with remarkable loyalty. ``Well, I know this,'' Hennessy said, ``that there is an appreciation for the theater by our patrons. We have several thousand people for whom this has become a part of their life ... ``Some of these people have passed on their season tickets to their children. One thing we have noticed about our patrons (is) they take ownership in the theater. And they will let us know if they think something is not quite right. '' Hennessy added that while some of their patrons also attend productions at Missouri Repertory Theatre or other companies, many do not. ``A lot of our people probably don't go to the Rep because they find it intimidating, or maybe not interesting or they don't relate to it,'' he said. ``I'm n ot putting (the Rep) down, but what we do is entertainment. That's what our purpose in life is.
That is our mission - to entertain an audience. ''
From the 25th Anniversary article by Robert Trussell, Theater Critic, of the KANSAS CITY STAR dated May 29, 1997: