Owners believe one combined dinner theatre will ensure the future of robust, professional musicals for Northern Colorado audiences
Two of Colorado’s three largest dinner theatres have announced a blockbuster merger that will fundamentally change the landscape of live theatre in Northern Colorado. Whether that turns out to be good news or bad news for theatregoers depends on your perspective.
Dave Clark, owner of the Candlelight Dinner Playhouse in Johnstown, and Kurt Terrio, President of the Midtown Arts Center in Fort Collins, have finalized a deal that will result both in the permanent closure of Midtown and the expansion of Candlelight effective September 1, 2019.
“Consolidating our resources into one major Northern Colorado musical-theatre center benefits both sets of patrons and helps to solidify our efforts to establish Candlelight not only as a top theatre in Colorado, but on a national scale as well,” Clark said.
But the bottom line: One fewer professional theatre means there will be less live theatre presented in Northern Colorado. “I fully acknowledge that,” Clark said. “But we will have more resources because of it, and that will allow us to increase our production values and become more competitive in many areas.”
The way Terrio sees it: One is better than none. “This deal assures the solvency of one robust professional theatre for the region moving forward,” he said.
Colorado had nine dinner theatres a decade ago. When Midtown closes, there will be only four.
Candlelight and Midtown, located just 17 miles apart, present up to 12 musicals a year for nearly 100,000 patrons in a county (Larimer) with a population of roughly 340,000. The only larger dinner theatre in Colorado is BDT Stage, which serves about 65,000 a year in Boulder.
Midtown opened as the Carousel Dinner Theatre in 1991. It has been competing with Candlelight for audiences, actors and show titles ever since the $6.2 million, 350-seat theatre opened at the Johnson’s Corner truck stop in 2008. Having two large professional dinner theatres in such close proximity was becoming an increasing problem for both. It was Terrio who approached Clark about the merger, even though it would mean the end of his own company.
“I think it’s absolutely miraculous what both companies have been able to do,” Terrio said. “We are both successful, and I think that is a true testament to people’s support for the arts up here. But there was not room for either one of us to grow. And we are unable to compete with the larger metro Denver theatres who often usurp us for newer titles like Mamma Mia [currently playing at the Arvada Center] just because they are bigger. Dave and I have been banging our heads against the wall, because there are only so many resources in Northern Colorado to go around.”
But the deal announced today is an unusual one. Clark is not buying Terrio’s business or his physical assets. “He is absorbing my customer base,” Terrio said. “The goal is to migrate Midtown’s 4,000 season-ticket holders into the Candlelight fold by the start of the 2019-20 season. “We are essentially purchasing Kurt’s cooperation in helping his patrons make the move to Candlelight over the next year,” Clark said. “By the time Midtown closes, we want to have his patrons signed up and ready to go for our next season.”
Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed.
If Midtown’s subscribers go along with the plan, Candlelight’s current base of 3,500 could more than double. And that would give Clark the resources he needs to move Candlelight up a notch in scale.
“Our initial goal is to increase attendance from 55,000 a year to 75,000 — on the low end,” said Clark, who already has added Motones Vs. Jerseys to next year’s lineup of five mainstage shows. He also anticipates increasing the number of performances Candlelight presents each week from the current five to accommodate increased demand. That would result in higher actor and crew wages. He also plans to expand his concert series, and he said he is open to exploring the possibility of presenting mainstage shows in repertory to increase variety in his programming.
“We think it is essential that we give our audiences more than five opportunities a year to come to Candlelight Dinner Playhouse,” Clark said.
But whether Candlelight can win over Midtown’s subscriber base may hinge on whether Candlelight can satiate the more adventurous theatre palate Terrio has nurtured in his audiences over the years.
The two companies are in some ways alike: Candlelight is presenting Mary Poppins right now, and Midtown will serve up My Fair Lady next year. But while the bread and butter of both dinner theatres is that kind of family-friendly Broadway musical fare, Midtown also has an impressive record of being the first Colorado theatre company to stage edgier contemporary works such as Fun Home, Once, Next to Normal, The Producers, Cats and Miss Saigon, among others.
There is next to no chance the Candlelight of today would ever present Next to Normal, the story of a suicidal, bipolar mother. It would be no home for Fun Home, which featured Broadway’s first lesbian protagonist. Clark admits the end of Midtown probably means the end of its brand of cutting-edge musicals in Northern Colorado — at least for now.
“Maybe in the future,” Clark said. “We have been committed to standard, family friendly fare since the day we opened, and we get tons of comments from our audiences thanking us for that. Right now, I am more concerned about building what we’ve already got and making sure we go through this transition successfully.” Upcoming titles on the Candlelight schedule also include Scrooge The Musical, Nunsense, Oliver! and Disney’s Tarzan.
That’s a bittersweet consequence for Terrio, he said, because that is his legacy. “That’s probably the thing I will miss the most – having burly construction guys stop me in the street and say, ‘My favorite show was Next to Normal,’ ” said Terrio, who hopes other Fort Collins theatre companies such as Bas Bleu and OpenStage seize the opening.
But both men reiterated that the days of both Midtown and Candlelight operating independently and successfully were dwindling. Something had to give. “We’ve had good years and bad years, but at the end of the day, it’s theatre, and the margins are very tight,” Terrio said.
Since 2010, Midtown has performed in a huge, rented, 20,650-square-foot former movieplex that provided space for kitchen facilities and up to three performance venues. “But it was actually too big for us,” Terrio said. “We were only using about 30 percent of the space, and it had a lot of deferred maintenance.”
The future of Midtown was cast in grave doubt back in January, when the property at 3750 S. Mason St. was purchased by Housing Catalyst (formerly the Fort Collins Housing Authority) for $2.7 million to turn the building into low-income housing. Several attempts at finding a new home for Midtown fizzled.
The deal effectively ends Terrio’s colorful run as a theatre purveyor in Fort Collins after two decades, as he will have no operational role at Candlelight. He has an ownership interest in a dinner theatre in Florida, though he will not be moving there.
“I am going to take some time with my family,” said Terrio. “My kids are close to getting ready to go to college. I feel like I have given nearly 20 years to the dinner theatre, and there are other things I want to do with my life. There are a couple of restaurant concepts I am interested in, and I have a real-estate license.”
But before he goes, Terrio has one more “first” up his sleeve: Midtown will close next summer with the first homegrown Colorado production of Matilda The Musical.
What about the Midtown Academy?
The Academy at Midtown Arts Center has long offered a robust children’s theatre-education program that Terrio sold to Jalyn Courtenay Webb three years ago and has continued to operate there as a separately owned business. Webb said the Academy will be moving to a new location in September 2019. “We will continue our lease at Midtown for the next year, and then we will expand with a second location in Greeley as well,” she said.
John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.
Candlelight Dinner Playhouse
4747 Marketplace Drive, Johnstown, 970-744-3747 or coloradocandlelight.com
- Now through November 11: Mary Poppins
- November 23-December31: Scrooge, The Musical
- January 10-March 3, 2019: Nunsense
- March 14-May 26, 2019: Oliver!
- June 6-August 25, 2019: Disney’s Tarzan
Midtown Arts Center
3750 S. Mason St., Fort Collins, 970-225-2555 or midtownartscenter.com
- Now through Nov. 11, 2018: West Side Story
- November 23-December 24, 2018: Heart of the Holiday
- October 12-November 18, 2018: The Roy Orbison Experience (in the Ballroom)
- January 3-March 10, 2019: First Date
- January 10-March 17, 2019: My Way (in the Ballroom)
- March 21-May 26, 2019: My Fair Lady
- June 7, 2019-August 11, 2019: Matilda