Candlelight Dinner Playhouse marks 10th season

You’d be forgiven if you didn’t notice, blasting by at 75 mph on your way to Fort Collins, a sign along I-25 for the Candlelight Dinner Playhouse. Forty-three miles north of Denver, the Candlelight is adjacent to an RV dealer and a truck stop and surrounded by corn fields and gas wells. The smell of nearby feedlots wafts over the landscape as you pull into the theater’s roomy parking lot and gaze up at the large steel building that houses the theater.

What, you may wonder, is this place doing here? How does it survive?

Well, you’ll just have to slow down a bit there, city slicker, and find out! Because inside this unassuming building along the interstate is a world unto itself. Just like any theater, from Broadway to the Denver Center to the humblest 50-seat community playhouse, the Candlelight is dedicated to transporting its audience to another place. What’s extraordinary about this venue is not so much its location as the quality, scale and frequency of its productions.

Kicking off its 10th season this fall, the Candlelight has not only survived but thrived, and expanded, as it continues to offer top-flight, large-cast musicals year-round for a local and regional audience. Seating up to 350, the theater typically does five big musicals a year, with long runs lasting between 10 and 12 weeks.

With a payroll of full- and part-time staff up to 100, Candlelight is one of the largest theater operations in Colorado. On most nights, the place is packed, and during the holiday season — even with eight shows a week — it can be tough to get tickets at all.

The 10th season launched last weekend where it began in June of 2008, with the Meredith Willson stalwart “The Music Man.” It’s typical of the shows put up here: family friendly classic musicals with strong name recognition. Don’t expect to see “Avenue Q” or “Rent” here, but if you’re interested in seeing a well-wrought production of “Beauty and the Beast” this holiday season, or Cole Porter’s “Kiss Me Kate” next spring — it’s the place to go. With a live pit orchestra, top regional talent, lavish sets and costumes and a nice dinner on top of it, it’s a great place to take children looking to experience their first live theater. Older patrons enjoy the familiar shows they may have seen many times before, with recognizable songs and plots and a comfortable table with a glass of wine in hand.

Bumpy start

Unsurprisingly, putting together all the money and parts to create a dinner theater adjacent to the Johnson’s Corner truck stop was no simple task. As executive director Dave Clark tells it, plenty of people told the founders they were crazy.

“It was just a group of four with a dream to do this,” Clark said. “They were looking around for existing buildings when they made a connection with Chauncey Taylor (the owner of Johnson’s Corner), who suggested they just build something new on some land he had nearby.”

With land and another investor in Taylor, the Candlelight was inching closer to reality. Clark, a local contractor with his brothers at the time, was hired to build the place.

“I figured it’d be like usual, where we’d build it and then turn it over,” Clark said with a laugh. “But I’m still here.”

It was a combination of the recession and building slump taking hold back then that prompted Clark to take the reins at the theater and leave his career as a contractor behind. With well-researched plans for the dinner theater in hand, the theater went up and opened its doors in June of 2008.

This spring they’ll open their 50th production with “Kiss Me Kate.”

While the Candlelight draws theater-goers from as far away as Laramie, Cheyenne, Denver and Colorado Springs, it’s the locals who really appreciate the theater in a community that’s both far-flung and quickly changing.

“We’re very fortunate to have the Candlelight,” said regular patron Bill Markham, who owns a nearby ranch. A lifetime resident of the area, Markham said he and his wife, Elizabeth, have been attending shows at the Candlelight since Day One. “I think the place is wonderful, a big asset to the community — we consider them our friends.”

Elizabeth said she appreciates the family-friendly aspect of the theater while Bill extolls the ease with which they can see professional-quality shows without having to fight Denver traffic.

“I ain’t goin’ down there to see a show,” he said. “No offense!”

Relaxed but efficient

The audience at the Candlelight on any given night ranges from a busload of seniors from Cheyenne to corporate groups to parents or grandparents enjoying a fancy night out with the kids. You’ll see cowboy hats and boots, suits and ties, shorts and sandals and everything in between as patrons come as they are. But while the audience is laid back, Clark’s staff is a model of efficiency.

Like most dinner theaters, the actors double as the waiters, and they’ve got a pretty short window to get table-served food and drinks to 300+ before the quick change and the leap to the stage. Clark is quick to point out that one of his identified weaknesses joining the theater was his lack of theatrical experience. It was, he noted, also one of his strengths. His no-nonsense approach to the running of the operation is the kind of things patrons appreciate without necessarily noticing all the work that goes on behind the scenes — both off stage and in the kitchen.

With a newly remodeled kitchen (done in just 10 days between shows), added conference space, a new set-building shop and other recent upgrades, the Candlelight appears poised for another decade bringing theater to an area that has little in the way of cultural amenities. By keeping quality up and staying friendly with other dinner theaters in Boulder and Fort Collins, Clark said the talent pool is deep enough to keep standards high and the lights on.

And while the Markhams pointed to “Oklahoma” and “Always – Patsy Cline” as recent favorites at the theater, a good meal and a night out in a friendly place keeps them coming back.

“And the prime rib is wonderful,” Elizabeth Markham said.

This story originally appeared in the Denver Post.