As Will Prather reflects on Broadway Palm Dinner Theatre’s 30 years in business, he sees three main reasons for the venue’s three decades of success. One is good timing. Another is an ability to adapt.
And the third? “I always say that we are in the happiness business,” says Prather, Broadway Palm’s co-founder, owner and executive producer of Prather Productions, the family business that runs the Fort Myers theater and another dinner theater in Pennsylvania. “We provide four to five hours for people to kind of forget about what they’re doing and come here with their friends and family and enjoy a very quality experience.
“My vision statement is compassionate people inspiring happiness,” he continues. “As long as we stay true to that vision statement, I think we will continue to succeed.”
As Broadway Palm embarks on its next act, it’s got a lot of things going for it. Royal Palm Square Mall, in which the theater is located, is in the midst of a major, much needed redevelopment. Alessio Cos. plans to transform the 1980s-era center into a mixed-use community with a focus on the arts.
“It’s an exciting project, and everything is being very, very well done,” says Prather. “I’m excited about the future of Royal Palm Square Mall.”
The theater is also 100 % self-funded through earned income from things like ticket sales and bar and gift shop sales. That means it’s not reliant on donors, grants or other funding like nonprofit theater companies are. And that makes it a "little bit unique,” says Prather, 54.
“The pros are that you kind of call your own shots…The cons are that when you’re short or when you lose money, you don’t have a donor who covers the basic expenses of that show. You don’t have a big fundraiser where you raise a couple hundred thousand dollars that gives you that little extra buffer."
The model allows the company to remain close to its customers. “You know what your customers want. Because if you produce the wrong show, they’re not going to come see it," he says. "They play off of each other.”
The show goes on
Broadway Palm Dinner Theatre was founded by Prather and his parents, Debbie and the late Tom Prather, in 1993. The family already owned the Dutch Apple Dinner Theatre in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and after years spent vacationing on Sanibel and Captiva, they felt Fort Myers was a perfect location for a second theater. Their new Florida venture in a former Publix was Fort Myers’ first dinner theater company.
“It was right at the start of the big population boom that happened here, and by being the only dinner theater in Fort Myers, it really gave us the opportunity to establish a connection with the community as we went through all this growth,” says Prather.
The theater’s gone through a lot in its 30 years, from economic downturns to disruptive hurricanes. “Being able to adapt in three decades to all these different challenges has really been a reason why we’re still in business,” says Prather. “Any business that survives 30 years is going to have to adapt, and I think we’ve done a really good job of doing that.”
The pandemic definitely tested the theater’s ability to overcome challenges. “It pushed us to the brink,” says Prather. “I would never have anticipated that in the middle of March, my busiest time of year where I make the most amount of money, that I would literally have to shut down.”
The federal government’s PPP loans and arts-related emergency grants proved crucial to staying afloat. “If we would not have received that type of assistance, I don’t know if we’d be having this conversation right now,” says Prather. “We were up against the brink, and I had to pull all the resources I could assemble. I had to make some really hard decisions in terms of having to cut costs. It was tough, and it will be a chapter of my life I hope I don’t have to ever repeat again.”
He’s learned the importance of perseverance from his parents, who encountered their share of challenges in their careers. “My parents did instill in me a pretty strong sense of resiliency,” he says. “It was basically figure it out…And the other thing is make strong decisions. Don’t be wishy washy. Figure out what you want to do, and make it happen.”
Build the brand
The fact that the family business includes more than just one theater means it’s easier to make things happen. Prather Productions includes not only the Broadway Palm and Dutch Apple Dinner Theatres but also Prather Touring and APEX Touring, national and international touring companies that bring productions to other theaters around the country and world.
One of the advantages of that? Obtaining licenses to titles. “Being a larger producer of theater, you get access to titles and to bigger shows and newer shows,” says Prather.
There’s also an ability to share production costs, as shows typically play in both Prather family theaters, and get access to better talent. “I have some of the best and most talented people working for me,” says Prather. “They are performing at the highest level of where they are in terms of their current career status, and the only next step from that is either a Broadway show or Broadway tour.”
The private company doesn’t share specific revenue figures, but Prather says Prather Productions as a whole is an excess of $20-million gross annual revenue company. “And that’s about where I want to be,” he says.
The dinner theater business is navigating some demographic shifts, as its typically older audience is passing away and the need to attract younger, newer customers grows. Prather has already seen how Baby Boomers and other younger clientele differ from dinner theater patrons of the past.
“We are having to change everything from the shows we produce to the food we serve to the bar menu,” says Prather. “If you would have asked me if I needed to have a $55 dollar bottle of wine on the wine list 10 years ago, I would have laughed at you. Well lo and behold, people like nicer drinks.”
Michael Brindisi, president, co-owner and artistic director of Chanhassen Dinner Theatres in Minnesota and the current president of the National Dinner Theatre Association, has no doubt Prather can keep rising to any challenges that come his way.
The two have known each other for decades, and Brindisi appreciates that Prather is just as passionate about the shows he stages as he is about what it takes to keep the lights on at a dinner theater company. “When I sit down and talk with him, we talk business; we talk numbers,” says Brindisi. “But we always talk about the characters in a play and the casting of it and all the creative artistic stuff too. That makes him pretty special, that he carries both of those weapons. He’s a strong businessman but a really savvy theater guy too.”
Brindisi knows adapting to changing demographics while also scratching the creative itch folks like he and Prather have doesn’t always go off without a hitch. He recently staged “The Prom” at his Minnesota theater, a musical about a lesbian high schooler banned from bringing her girlfriend to prom. He calls it “the most important play I’ve done in 36 years as artistic director,” but the theater also lost money on it.
Balancing shows like that with ones more likely to succeed are both motivating and challenging in the the community theater business. "It’s kind of dull to do all those blockbusters over and over, the shows we know people will see,"says Brindisi. "So it’s stimulating for us to be able to once in a while do something that is a little more important.”
Dollars and sense
With a 382-seat dinner theater and an 86-seat black box theater (plus a dining room, meeting rooms, and gallery space), the Broadway Palm produces more than eight main stage shows, five black box shows, a concert series, and four children’s productions each year. More than 170,000 guests visit the theater each year, and it employs 175 people.
That means the Broadway Palm is not just a source of entertainment — it also has a significant economic impact on the area. In addition to its locally based employees and patrons and the visitors from outside of the county it draws in for shows, the theater brings in actors nationwide, providing local housing for these temporary Lee County residents who spend money at area restaurants and other businesses.
“Having a theater like Broadway Palm in our community is not just good; it’s important for the continued growth and enrichment of Lee County’s cultural and artistic landscape,” says Tamara Pigott, executive director of the Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau, in an email.
With Broadway Palm’s place in the Lee County community now firmly established, Prather continues looking to the future, but cautiously. “When I hit a big anniversary like this generally in life, I usually get like a five-year itch where I feel like it’s time to do the next big thing,” he says. “But I’m not kind of getting that sense right now. I think the most important thing is to keep our eye on the ball and kind of stay in our lane. I don’t want to get too big.”
In business sometimes,” he adds, “the most important thing is not always looking for the next big thing.”
Nokomis-based freelance writer Beth Luberecki, a Business Observer contributor, writes about business, travel and lifestyle topics for a variety of Florida and national publications. Her work has appeared in publications and on websites including Washington Post’s Express, USA Today, Florida Trend, FamilyVacationist.com and SmarterTravel.com. Learn more about her at BethLuberecki.com.