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The Prather family talks about new plans for the dinner theater that will have it's 30th anniversary. (L-R) in photo are Tom Prather, his son Will and wife, Debbie. (Riochard Hertzler/Staff)

Thirty years ago when the Dutch Apple opened, dinner theaters were plump and happy.

Slap a popular name on the marquee — Rodgers and Hammerstein was always a good bet — and the buses would come, filled with retirees from all around. They liked a big buffet and a good show.

And while nothing in the theater is ever easy or guaranteed, it was a pretty solid equation.

Today, it’s not so simple.

Fewer buses are rolling into the parking lot. Group trips are less popular with baby boomer retirees.

Show titles are harder to choose. Rodgers and Hammerstein is no longer a guaranteed sellout. More contemporary shows sometimes upset older audiences.

And not everyone loves a big buffet these days. They want quality food. Just ask all those foodies out there.

“It was time to make some changes here,” says Will Prather, owner of the Dutch Apple and its sister theater in Florida, the Broadway Palm. “So we went through the effort of doing an in-depth marketing study, and we heard some resounding comments that were obstacles to the next generation.”

The Dutch Apple will be making major changes come January. The Broadway Palm has already made them.

“The main thing is there will be more room, more space in the theater,” says Tom Prather, who with wife Debbie founded the Dutch Apple Dinner Theatre and passed the reins to son Will in 1999, though they still consult.

“There will be about 8 feet between each table,” says the younger Prather. “We are taking out about 30 seats.”

“We wanted to increase the two-and four-(seat) tables,” he adds. “We will still have the eight-(seat), but we are experimenting radically with the seating chart.”

“We found that our top age group — 45 to 56 — wants a different kind of experience,” Debbie Prather says. “They don’t have enough time, so when they go out,they want to have a special evening.”

“And they are willing to pay more,” Tom Prather adds.

Better food, service

That means, in addition to more-private seating, the quality of the food and the way it is served will be improved.

On Thursdays, all seats will be show-only ($36), and guests will be served a la carte. Only want dessert and coffee? No problem. Want a full dinner? Order it from the menu. Or get lighter fare.

For those who like the traditional buffet, that will be available Tuesdays, Wednesdays and at Sunday twilight and matinee shows. Fridays and Saturdays, a prime rib will be available along with the traditional buffet.

Prices haven’t been set for the a la carte items, but Will Prather says he expects them to be from about $12 for a lighter meal up to $25 for a prime rib dinner.

And he wants a nicer, calmer atmosphere.

“Some people said they were frustrated because they felt rushed,” he says. “Things will be more refined, leisurely. We will have white table cloths, and the waiters and waitresses will have new uniforms.” The buffet will be hidden behind a curtain.

The theater itself is going to be updated.

“The study said things looked a little dated,” Will Prather says. “So we’ll be closed for 10 days in January, and we’ll redoing all our (decorative) panels. They’ll look more contemporary.”

Audiences flat

Will Prather notes that audiences have been flat the last few years. The 2007 recession didn’t help. “The whole industry is struggling,” he says.

Across the county, the Rainbow Comedy Playhouse(formerly the Rainbow Dinner Theatre) in Paradise made similar changes at the beginning of this year, offering higher-quality food, a la carte items and a new seating chart.

David DiSavino, co-owner of the theater with wife Cindy, says things are going well, though it is not a magic bullet. “It’s intended to be part of a long- range plan,” he says.

But he is happy with what’s happening in the transition after a bumpy start. Feeding 150 to 200 people at once when you are used to a buffets is a challenge, and it took several weeks for things to begin to run smoothly.

“Change is never easy. But having said that, I walk out on a Friday and Saturday night and there is a buzz — an energy and excitement I haven’t felt in years.

“Of course, there are some people who will never forgive us for taking away the buffet (at certain times), but their number is small, and they can always come for those shows (when there is a buffet).”

As DiSavino notes, restaurants all over are upping their game, improving the quality of their food and environment. Customers are demanding it.

“We need to be part of that,” he says.

The Prathers agree.

“People have higher expectations,” Debbie Prather says. “We want to meet them.”

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