After 38 years in operation, Summit, IL's beloved Candelight Dinner Playhouse Forum Theatre & Restaurant has suspended production and will close its doors shortly, due to financial difficulties.
The just-opened farce, Cash On Delivery, by Ray Cooney's son Michael, ran two performances at the Forum and closed after the June 4 matinee.
"This comes as a shock to us," said artistic director Bill Pullinsi in a written statement. "We've been a family-run operation for 38 years. Our customers and staff have become like a family to us. Candlelight's closing is a commentary on the difficulties of producing live theatre today."
The Candlelight has two theatres in its space: Candlelight Dinner Playhouse, known for its musicals, and the Forum Theatre, for premieres and new comedies.
Candlelight spokesperson Dina Travis Sanchez told Playbill On-Line, "Unless we get a benefactor, our doors are closed until further notice. Do you know any angels?" "Luckily, the theatre community's very tight, so we're working with numerous other theatres to exchange tickets," Sanchez said. "Our first priority these couple of days is reaching ticket-holders by phone and notifying them. We're all here on a voluntary basis now."
In a press release dated June 9, Candlelight thanked 16 other Chicagoland theatres that stepped in to exchange tickets, sans additional fees. League of Chicago Theatres President Robert Perkins was quoted as saying, "It's important for the industry to stand by the audience when there is an unfortunate situation, but especially when it's Candlelight."
Honoring Candlelight's tickets will be: Apollo Theatre, Arts Center at College of DuPage/Buffalo Theatre Ensemble, Dream Street Tehatre, Drury Lane Evergreen Park, Drury Lane Oak Brook, Illinois Theatre Centre, Ivanhoe, Marriott's Lincolnshire, Mayfair, New Tuners/Theatre Building; Northlight, Pegasus Players, Pheasant Run; Royal-George; Steppenwolf; Theatre at the Center Individuals; Victory Gardens. AlphaBet Soup will accommodate children's theatre ticket holders at other locations.
Asked about difficulties facing Candlelight, Sanchez said Pullinsi attributed the closing to the lack of new shows, which are either on tour or unavailable. Also, there's a lot of gambling boats in the area, especially in Joliet and Gary, IN on Lake Michigan, that takes a lot of business. There's just more competition and not necessarily more theatre. After 38 years, there's not a lot we haven't done."
Shocked by the closing, Chicago critic Mary Shen Barnidge (The Reader, This Month ON STAGE) told Playbill On-Line, "This is the first I've heard... Candlelight was the first dinner theatre. The one that started them all. There would be no others if it weren't for Candlelight, and it would be terrible to see this pass away. The Kopit/Yeston Phantom wouldn't be all over the country now if it hadn't been for the production at Candlelight [which ran 54 weeks]."
The theatre wouldn't disclose financial information, but co-producer Anthony D'Angelo told the Chicago Tribune, "[We] are looking at various options to restructure and may pursue outside investors." According to the Trib, Candlelight has been affected by the changing demographics of Southern Illinois, as well as the paucity of new, old-fashioned Broadway musicals. Opera-style shows, such as Les Miz and Titanic are too expensive; shows like The Life have subject matter that makes them off-limits to family audiences. Candlelight also had to face increased competition from the similarly-themed venues, Marriott's Lincolnshire Theatre and Drury Lane Oakbrook. Kary Walker, producer at the Marriott, told the Tribune that after record subscriptions two years ago, his theatre, too, has seen a leveling off: "My company's not worried, but we haven't enjoyed the growth in the past two years we had been enjoying for a long time prior to that."
Pullinsi and D'Angelo joined forces as college students at Catholic University in 1959, opening the first Candlelight in Washington DC. After moving to Chicago, they staged typical musical fare -- alongside such controversial shows as Macbird, Mike Royko's Boss and the American premiere of Peter Nichols' The National Health. Stars who got their start at Candlelight include Mandy Patinkin, Shelley Long and Mark Jacoby (Nine).
Why would such a venerable theatre be struggling? "Sweeney Todd changed the whole fashion in musicals," replied Barnidge. "They could be darker and more serious, but that doesn't go down well with dinner. All around lately I've noticed that places out in the suburbs -- that have to have a well-known musical because suburban audiences want something they've read about from New York -- do the same ones over and over. I've seen God knows how many Crazy For Yous. This year, at least, Candlelight attempted to go a little darker and more solemn. Their production of Cabaret did get darker, featuring the emcee at the end wearing a concentration camp uniform that features both a yellow star and and pink triangle. Try to imagine seeing that after dessert."
"In general," Barnidge continued, "people have a lot of other things to do now besides go out to the theatre. Going out for dinner and a nice fluffy play isn't what it used to be, and there are fewer tired businesman entertainments. If Candlelight is closing, the fault is not so much with Candlelight but the changing face of the American musical."
"Speculation also has it," said Barnidge, "that when Candlelight ran the Yeston/Kopit Phantom for a year, that angered subscribers expecting five shows, who got out of the habit of coming to Candlelight. Apparently Pullinsi took out a big loan to refurbish the theatre."
As for a potential resurrection of the theatre, Barnidge says, "Since they were closing down for reorganization, it's possible they'll reopen either doing non-Equity shows, or doing straight plays in the Forum and the mainstage with only the occasional musical."
--By David Lefkowitz