Derby Dinner Playhouse Celebrates 45 Years
BY LAURA ROSS | PHOTOS COURTESY DERBY DINNER PLAYHOUSE
LEE BUCKHOLZ, producer and artistic director at Clarksville’s Derby Dinner Playhouse, surveyed the darkened theatre-in-the-round he’s called home for more than 30 years. “Forty-five years is a long time for any theatre to succeed,” he mused. “But we have not only succeeded, we’ve thrived.”
Derby Dinner Playhouse opened its doors in 1974, as part of a plan by area businessmen who wanted to build a convention, sports, and entertainment complex in Southern Indiana. Today, the sports complex is long gone, but Derby Dinner Playhouse remains and is more popular than ever.
We want to celebrate our 45th anniversary,” said Buckholz. “It’s exciting to think about the fact that of all the theatres that have closed in the last 10 years, it’s really remarkable how well we’re doing here.”
Derby Dinner Playhouse entertains approximately 220,000 people a year with a budget of nearly $7 million. With a record 10,500 season subscribers on the main stage and over 3,000 children’s theatre subscribers, Derby Dinner is now one of the most successful dinner theatres in the country.
While dinner theatre as a concept is more limited these days, in itâ€™s heyday, dinner theatres drew large crowds, eager to see former stars in shows that featured light comedies, tried-and-true musicals and inexpensively produced shows.
In the late 1970s, Derby Dinner began the “Star System” – using retired TV and movie stars such as Mickey Rooney, Van Johnson, Dorothy Lamour, Jerry Mathers, Bob Denver and Sid Caesar as cast members.
Those days are gone. Today, Buckholz and his company produce eight main stage shows, four Children’s Theatre shows, 12 concerts and offer a Performing Arts Academy and summer camps each season.
MAKING IT WORK
A key to the theatre’s success is how it adapted to the times and listened to its audience. “Things have changed,” said Buckholz. “In the last 10 years, we’ve doubled our season ticket subscriptions, and the show selection and production quality has gone up. I travel to New York, Atlanta, Charlotte and Chicago to bring in talent, and we utilize the incredibly strong arts talent base in Louisville.”
“This area is an attractive draw for performers,” he added. “It’s not uncommon for someone to come in and do a show and still be with us ten years later. It’s a surprise to them. They’ll sign a contract out of New York, then arrive here and like it and want to stay in the area. That’s an amazing opportunity for them because, as an actor or singer, the minute you start a show, you’re looking ahead to the next show and next paycheck. The fact that we’ve kept a lot of our talent shows we’ve found a nice balance between our performers, our audience who gets to know them, and the high quality of our productions.”
Cary Wiger should know. He arrived at Derby Dinner Playhouse as a young actor and “Barnstormer” singer in 1985 and never left. A fledgling career as a high school biology teacher quickly faded away once Wiger dove into his Derby Dinner life, which now includes acting, singing and working in corporate sales.
Dinner theatre in general has changed over the years,” Wiger said. “When it started it was a lot of the silly comedies, and smaller shows, but it built our audience. The joke was if a theatre was struggling, throw in ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ because it draws an audience and fills the coffers.”
But over the years, Derby Dinner built that audience into a large subscriber base that allows the theatre to be more adventurous with its shows. “The audience knows us and trusts us to entertain them with quality shows,” said Wiger.
The intimate in-the-round setting and pre-show Footnote musical program (formerly called “Barnstormers”) allow actors to interact with patrons and get to know their audience. Wiger laughed, “A few years ago, I had Lasik surgery. When I’d take my glasses off on stage it was just a blur, but when I came back for the first performance after surgery, I could see faces and it scared me! It changed my perspective. Seeing and getting to know them made a difference.”
Many of the positive changes at Derby Dinner came under the guidance and leadership of Bekki Jo Schneider and Carolyn Thomas, who purchased the theatre in 1985. The pair worked tirelessly to build the theatre into the success it enjoys today. Thomas retired about a decade ago, and Schneider died in 2018 after a long battle with cancer. The theatre is currently run by Buckholz, and Cynthia (Cindy) Knopp, general manager and co-owner. Knopp is also Thomas’ daughter.
I’ve been here since I was 13 and I’m nearly 60 now,” Knopp said. “I followed in her footsteps through high school and after, then later came back when my mom was ready to retire. You can always find ways to do things more efficiently, but the basic principle works here, and we are good at it.”
Knopp is not sure what the magic potion is, but points to the family atmosphere among employees and even customers. “We genuinely care for our customers, our employees, and our community. One of the things my mom taught me was you always should learn as much as you can in every opportunity you’re given, and I try to do that. That’s what brings me joy.”
THE SHOW MUST GO ON
The 45th anniversary season kicks off in May with the southern comedy of manners, “The Savannah Sipping Society,” and includes special performances of “Shrek The Musical” in July, “Million Dollar Quartet” in August and a Christmas treat of “Elf the Musical” in November and December. Derby Dinner’s traditional mystery slot includes a new take on the classic “Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery” in October, and the hit Broadway comedy “Boeing, Boeing” will tickle audiences in January 2020. Buckholz is thrilled to round out the beginning of 2020 with “Saturday Night Fever” in February, and the well-loved “Anything Goes” to end the season in April 2020.
“We’ve wanted to do ‘Saturday Night Fever’ for years,” said Buckholz. “It is already selling like crazy, and sales for ‘Million Dollar Quartet’ are off the charts as well. Our 45th anniversary season is so exciting. There isn’t one show in it that’s ‘the’ show to see. They are all such blockbusters in their own way.”
The season will also include shows in the popular children’s theatre, summer classes and the Performing Arts Academy. Tina Jo Wallace, another long-time actor, singer and now Children’s Theatre director, sees the results of decades of community support.
“These are often the children of our subscribers, who were themselves the children of our original subscribers. These kids have grown up around us and who knows what it could spark in their lives,” said Wallace. “We’ve had many children come back later as actors or staff, and we’re grooming the next generation of patrons and performers.”
“We show them what theatre is,” added Wallace. “So, if we show them non-professional schlock, then we’re failing them. If we show them great, focused, exciting work, they realize that and appreciate it. We might be a child’s first exposure to theatre, and that’s a great responsibility.”
Buckholz knows Derby Dinner Playhouse is one of many competitive players in the talented Louisville and Southern Indiana arts scene. “It’s not so much about being super competitive, because. we’ve all sorta found our niche and we fill that well,” he said. “The amount of theatre options we have for people in a city of this size is amazing. But, there are things that set us apart from the Louisville arts scene. Of course, we are proud to be in Southern Indiana. We have free parking. We feed you. We entertain you. Our price point is so remarkable and a great value. Derby Dinner Playhouse offers a complete experience and is a full evening for less than you’d pay just to see a show in downtown Louisville.”
“I’d put the quality of our actors, professional staff and shows up against anyone,” he added. “We’ve reached the point now that the quality you see at Derby Dinner Playhouse is the same as the quality at the Kentucky Center for the Arts, Actors Theatre, Pandora or anywhere in the area.”
The anniversary season will be bittersweet, following the recent passing of Bekki Jo Schneider. “One of the things she said to me before she died was, ‘I want you to take this theatre and move it forward,’” said Buckholz. “I took that to heart. While the 45th anniversary will be a love letter to Bekki’s life, it’s also Derby Dinner’s new steps forward. It will be easy to celebrate her instead of being melancholy. She would want a good show. We’re not looking to change the world, we’re looking to entertain. And, that’s what we are going to do.”
JUST A MINUTE
A minute with Lee Buckholz, producer and artistic director, on the 45th anniversary season at Derby Dinner Playhouse.
“THE SAVANNAH SIPPING SOCIETY”
LEE BUCKHOLZ: “This show is so funny and harkens back to good, old southern women.”
A laugh-a-minute comedy about four Southern women, all needing to escape their day-to-day routines, who are drawn together by fate – and an impromptu happy hour.
MAY 22 – JUNE 30
“SHREK THE MUSICAL”
BUCKHOLZ: “How fun is this? This is a show for kids and kids at heart. Everyone loves Shrek.”
Everyone’s favorite ogre is back in the hilarious fairy tale adventure based on the Oscar-winning, smash hit film.
JULY 3 – AUG.18
“MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET”
BUCKHOLZ: “This will be fantastic. It’s a bit of a jukebox musical but plays so well and brings back so many great memories.”
Broadway’s hit rock n’ roll musical inspired by the electrifying true story of four young musicians who gathered at Sun Records for what would be one of the greatest jam sessions ever.
AUG. 21 – SEPT. 29
KEN LUDWIG’S “BASKERVILLE: A SHERLOCK HOLMES MYSTERY”
BUCKHOLZ: “Everyone loves a mystery, and this one has great, smart writing and comedic moments. It’s a fun take on a classic story.”
Sherlock Holmes is on the case and must crack the mystery of “The Hound of the Baskervilles” before a family curse dooms its newest heir. A murderously funny adventure!
OCT. 2 – NOV. 10, 2019
“ELF THE MUSICAL”
BUCKHOLZ: “Elf is going to blow the doors off this theatre. It’s a huge, fun, show, with a big cast. If you loved the movie, you will love this show. It’s a blockbuster.”
Based on the hit movie, “Elf” is the hilarious tale of Buddy, a young orphan child who mistakenly crawls into Santa’s bag of gifts and is transported back to the North Pole.
NOV. 13 – DEC. 31
BUCKHOLZ: “It’s been about 10 years since we’ve done this show, and we have many cast members returning for this super fun show.”
This hit Broadway comedy is filled with chaos, matchmaking, and mayhem!
JAN. 8, 2020 – FEB. 16, 2020
“SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER”
BUCKHOLZ: “We’ve wanted to do this show since it became available several years ago. It has been rewritten several times as it was performed across the country and we’re at a point right now where the rewrite is great. And, the music in it – just, wow.”
This energetic musical adaptation of the ’70s classic film is the story of a talented, streetwise kid from Brooklyn who attempts to escape his dead-end life through dancing. Featuring many disco-era hits by the Bee Gees.
FEB. 19, 2020 – MARCH 29, 2020
BUCKHOLZ: “I just love a great big, classic musical and this is one of my favorites. There’s so much in this Broadway revival: great costumes, fantastic tapping, and, you can’t go wrong with Cole Porter.”
Music, dance, laughs, and the age-old tale of Boy Meets Girl. A hilarious shipboard romp wrapped around one of Cole Porter’s most magical scores. Critics call it “A delightful, delicious and de-lovely Broadway musical!”
APRIL 1, 2020 – MAY 17, 2020
Derby Dinner Playhouse
525 Marriott Drive
Run for Your Wife
Web of Murder
The Little Mermaid