Dinner theater is a form of live entertainment that includes a meal along with a staged play or cabaret-style show. Quite often, the menu is pre-selected by the venue owners or a catered buffet is provided before the show. This form of entertainment most likely developed from the popular supper clubs of the 1940s and 1950s, in which nightclubs combined a world-class dining room with a headlining cabaret act, variety show, or big band entertainment. As the popularity of these clubs waned, new owners renovated the buildings to accommodate stage plays.
Most plays are chosen for their general appeal and relatively low production costs. Customers are more likely to see a Neil Simon romantic comedy than a Shakespearean tragedy or a Wagnerian opera. Other typical fare may include a one-man show by a recognized star, an intimate cabaret performance, or an interactive murder mystery. Some theaters have limited stage space, but others may have state-of-the-art facilities with 50,000 square feet (15,240 square meters) of performance area.
Because many productions combine professional and amateur talent, they occasionally receive a bad rap from others in the professional entertainment industry. Few A-list celebrities actively participate in performances while their careers are running hot. Theatergoers are more likely to see actors from older television series or motion pictures headlining the productions, and the rest of the cast may be theater majors from local colleges or amateur regional actors. The level of acting may be varied, but it's usually not painfully unwatchable. Many recognizable performers prefer the steadiness of the dinner theater circuit to the uncertainties of Hollywood.
Many behind-the-scenes personnel and beginning performers see this type of theater as a good first step towards a professional career. Unlike community theater productions or college-sponsored plays, dinner theater is almost always a paying gig. Amateurs have an opportunity to work alongside seasoned professionals who understand the entertainment business. Much like working in soap opera productions, this type of performance can lead to auditions for traveling Broadway shows or film work.
Tickets for these shows are relatively inexpensive, considering the equivalent cost of a separate meal and show in a place like New York City. Some of the larger outlets may feature popular musicals barely off the Broadway stage. Actors are encouraged to interact with the audience, so theatergoers may have an opportunity to meet a favorite actor or mingle with the cast members after the show.