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Making Scenes

A cautionary memoir about the hazards of mixing dinner and drama.

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Sometimes, when I get tired of writing about food and the performing arts, I look back on my short sad career in dinner theater — a union that somehow always manages to be the worst of both worlds — and suddenly everything is hunky dory. Restaurants can be difficult and full of drama even when business is good. In leaner times, the backstage soap operas can turn into a Jacobean revenger's tragedy. From the day it opened in May 1993, Mysteries on Beale was in leaner times.

I should have trusted my gut on that beautiful spring night in the parking lot of Steak & Ale. I never liked dinner theater. Something told me to blow off the job interview and go home. I mean, what kind of serious restaurant or theater people would ever schedule meetings at a Steak & Ale? Right?

"I don't know dinner and I don't know theater," said Tony, my potential employer, pointing his ringed pinky finger at me in the dimly lit East Memphis beer-and-beef emporium. This strange piece of biographical information was somehow supposed to make me feel more comfortable with the management team. But it didn't.

"I do know chemical, though," he asserted, the smoke from his ever-present cigarette pouring out of his nostrils. "And that, my friend, is art." Tony said he'd made a good living working in Memphis' chemical industry but was ready for a change. That's why he was moving ahead with his dream to open a dinner theater just like the tourist-oriented venues he visited regularly on his many business trips. Every play would be an interactive murder mystery, he said, and everything from the wine list to the fine Italian food coming out of the kitchen and to the tuxedo-clad waiters providing "silent service" would be "classy." Tony wanted me to be in charge of the plays. He wanted me to make them classy too.

"Do murder and fine-dining mix?" I asked, and Tony laughed. "Trust me, people love it," he said. The drama began as soon as we moved into Number 1 Beale, where the restaurant was scheduled to open.

"What do you mean I don't get to choose the plays?" I asked the management team upon the discovering that a deal had been struck to produce plays created by another dinner theater. "That's like not letting the chef order his own ingredients," I complained. My request not to get locked into an exclusive deal with anybody was met with blank stares and the photocopied book for a show titled Scratch a Rising Star, a Scooby Doo-like mystery about a Hollywood director trying to cast a sequel to Gone With the Wind as his potential stars are picked off one by one. "I feel your pain," the chef said when I passed him on my way back to the office to make things classy.

A few weeks before the final curtain, Tony came into my office and slammed a piece of original artwork down on my desk. I looked at the picture of a man face down in his plate of spaghetti, then I looked back up at Tony who was still red-faced and sputtering. "How about a little murder with your meatballs?" he asked, quoting the ad copy. "'Murder with your meatballs'? Who thought this stuff up? Who thought this was a good idea? Who authorized you to associate the food in my restaurant with killing a guy dead?"

"Well, this is a mystery dinner theater," I answered, a little amused and standing my ground. "We kill somebody every night. Some nights we kill a lot of people. They all die tableside. Usually right before the entrée is served.

"Trust me," I said. "People love it."

"But we don't even have meatballs on the menu," Tony howled, smacking his head and storming away.

Mysteries on Beale, Beale Street's first and (so far) only dinner theater opened with a gigantic staff that included an individual waiter for every table, a team of hostesses, a bartender who juggled bottles, a few bathroom attendants, an army in the kitchen, a security detail, and a cast of seven actors who worked for $15 a show and a plate of fried chicken tenders. It closed six months later with a skeleton crew and a cast of seven actors who still worked for $15 a show and a plate of chicken tenders. It was classy.

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