Fiddler On The Roof

As of May 22, 2007, with better than 35 years on the Denver Theater circuit and one of three major Equity venues in the region, The Country Dinner Playhouse closed its doors. CDP had quite a few Celebrity and Pre-Celebrity actors pass through its portals as a nominally priced evening entertainment package. My first production with them in July of 1984 was "Fiddler" along with the Talented Ian Sullivan, Anabelle Weenick and Joshua Sussman. I actually ran two shows back-to-back in this venue-- both playing the spiritual leaders of the respective settings, the second being the Preacher in "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" with John Almberg and Susan Long.

Terry Rhoads

For awhile, Character Man Terry Rhoads worked in "The Barnstormers" which were actor- serving staff that did the musical pre-show. Terry also was part of the rep company at Bill Oakley's "Heritage Square Opera House". He can now regularly be seen as the "Orbitz" man.

Terry Rhoads as "The Orbitz Man"

As The Rabbi


Seven Brides for Seven Brothers


Country Dinner Playhouse closes doors

By John Moore
Denver Post Theater Critic


The Country Dinner Playhouse, the second-largest theater in the state, abruptly closed its doors Tuesday after having entertained more than 5 million theatergoers in Greenwood Village for the past 37 years.

Majority owner David B. Lovinggood posted a padlock and a note stating the renowned theater that had staged more than 220 productions, mostly family musicals and many featuring TV and Broadway stars, had run out of money. Lovinggood and co-owners Bob and Joan Buffington are expected to file for bankruptcy.

"This just hurts my heart," Denver actor Amy Board said of a 470-seat theater that has drawn up to 150,000 theatergoers a year. That's second only to the Denver Center Theatre Company. It also drew more than 100,000 in the past 10 years just for children's programming.

The Barn, as it is affectionately known, has been home to Mickey Rooney, Morgan Fairchild, Mary Jo Catlett, Ted Shackleford, Lee Horsley, Rachel deBenedet, Paige O'Hara and nearly every significant local musical-theater performer in Colorado including Annaleigh Ashford, who last month made her Broadway debut in "Legally Blonde."

The news was greeted by shock and anger. The CDP, which carries a staff of about 50, just opened a production of "Evita" on May 9 that was to have run through July 8. Customers likely won't get refunds and, while actors were paid through Sunday, staff and crew have not been paid for the past two weeks and have not been offered severance.

"So we have no warning, no pay, no job, and they didn't even call," said deck manager Josh Fugazzotto. "The owners didn't even have the decency to give us a heads up. I wouldn't be so bitter if they would have at least paid us. I have been expecting this check for two weeks and now I am (expletive)."

The CDP was the only year-round union theater in the state, and its closing leaves Boulder's Dinner Theatre and Golden's Heritage Square Music Hall as the only major dinner theaters in the metro area.

"This affects us all in a really profound way," said Boulder's Dinner Theatre artistic director Michael J. Duran. "When any theater goes down, it hurts the whole community. It's one less place for actors to work and one less place for audiences to see theater. A lot of actors, musicians and staff are now out of work. It's just bad all around."

Dinner theater fortunes in Colorado have plummeted in the past three years. Colorado now has just seven, down from 10 in 2004. Others operate in Greeley, Longmont, Fort Collins, Manitou Springs and Grand Junction. In 2004, Colorado dinner theaters cumulatively generated just under $10 million in revenues and drew 351,794 -- accounting for 22.1 percent of the state's overall theater attendance.

The Country Dinner Playhouse was opened in 1970 by Bill McHale, left, Hilda Newton and Sam Newton. (Denver Post file photo)

"It's pretty devastating," said producer Paul Dwyer, who was among the unaware. He was en route to New York to observe off-Broadway's "Altar Boyz," part of CDP's recently announced 2007-08 season, when he got the call.

Dwyer, who put in a rejected bid to buy the Playhouse himself three years ago, said "it's not out of the question" that he might try to raise a new ownership group to fill the dinner-theater void in the metro area, but given the age and condition of the CDP, he thinks it's unlikely anyone would make a run at the present facility. He said more likely new owners might want to start a new facility.

Lovinggood owns 65 percent of the Playhouse, followed by the Buffingtons at 35. But since September 2005, the land the Playhouse sits on has been owned by Uhlmann Offices Inc., of Sherman Oaks, Calif. The land had been owned by founder Sam Newton.

Because Lovinggood never negotiated a lease with Uhlmann and has since operated month to month, it has been feared Uhlmann might shutter the Playhouse for development. Rather, officials were recently assured that Uhlmann had no plans to do anything with the property until at least May 2008. Still, there was no lease.

Tuesday's decision was Lovinggood's, one he called "difficult but unavoidable." The note he posted on the door stated: "Negotiations with our landlord have been underway for several months to no avail. Without a lease in place, we cannot sell season tickets. This has put us in a position of having no funds to continue operation of this business."

The Country Dinner Playhouse opened in 1970 by Sam and Hilda Newton with the legendary director Bill McHale, who operated a small chain of dinner theaters around the nation. By September 2005, Sam Newton sold the land that CDP sits upon to the California group for $3 million. Newton, 87, sold his 5.82 acres Uhlmann for $3 million. Lovinggood has been on a month-to-month lease ever since.

"The Country Dinner Playhouse has been a part of my life for all of my life," said Carla Kaiser Kotrc, who went from audience to actor when she appeared as Domina in "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" in 2005. "Some of Denver's finest talent has performed on that stage, and they and introduced the thrill of professional theater to thousands of families."

Lovinggood and Buffington were meetings all day with a bankruptcy attorney and did not return calls. Landlord Chuck Uhlmann was out of the country.

"The CDP will be greatly missed," said Denver's Deb Flomberg. "I remember my mom taking me to see Annie when I was 3 or 4 (would have been 1982 or so, if my memory is right) and that was the first time I was exposed to theatre. I remember being amazed at the vitality of the whole thing."

Theater critic John Moore can be reached at 303-820-1056 or


Key developments

April 1970: Sam and Hilda Newton open the Country Dinner Playhouse with Mary Boren and Bill McHale. David Lovinggood, a Dallas native, joins a few months later.

1995: Lovinggood, John Rutter and Robert and Joan Buffington buy the Playhouse from founders Sam Newton and Mary Boren. Rutter is made majority owner.

December 2002: John Rutter dies suddenly, setting in motion protracted ownership struggle between Rutter's wife, Eileen, and then-CEO David Pritchard, over Rutter's shares, valued at more than $1 million.

October 2004: Lovinggood completes purchase from Eileen Rutter. As part of the settlement, Pritchard is paid $425,000 to go away. Lovinggood now owns 65 percent. The remaining 35 percent belong to executive staff members Robert and Joan Buffington. The group names Paul Dwyer producer and artistic director.

December 2004: Pritchard opens open the rival Pinnacle Dinner Theatre, which closes under a mountain of debt 10 months later.

September 2005: The 5.82 acres the Playhouse sits upon is sold by original owner Sam Newton to Uhlmann Offices Inc., of Sherman Oaks, Calif. for $3 million. Uhlmann expresses no immediate desire to develop the property, but never settles on a satisfying lease arrangement with Lovinggood.

May 22, 2007: The Country Dinner Playhouse closes. Lovinggood claims to be out of money and the lack of a lease was hindering season-ticket sales. Others say Uhlmann had assured CDP officials that the property was safe through at least May 2008.


Take 3: Country Dinner Playhouse reaction

By John Moore
Denver Post Theater Critic

Article Last Updated: 05/28/2007 11:17:34 AM MDT

Actors Clarissa Hope Stranske and Mark Frie at the final performance of "Evita" in the Country Dinner Playhouse parking lot Wednesday.
(Laurie Scalf)

Ronni (Stark) Gallup, actor: When my dad called to tell me this devastating news, I cried and told him I was so glad I was not in Denver to witness this happening. My heart hurts for those tremendously talented performers who are out of work so abruptly and so unfairly, for the crew and staff who have given their blood, sweat and tears to "the barn" for so many years, and for the Denver audiences who will no longer have this tremendous venue to escape the real world for a few hours. This was my home from the time I was 6 or 7 years old and I can't believe it has gone dark for the final time. What a waste, what a loss! Thanks to you John, for allowing those of us who live far away to see these final moments. They are the final chapter of a lifetime of amazing memories.

Kimberly Tedder-Hernandez, Eva in Carousel Dinner Theatre's recent "Evita" (Fort Collins): Although I was not a performer on that stage, my heart goes out to all those involved. I can't imagine the shock, disappointment and loss the cast, crew and entire staff of CDP are feeling. I would have been devastated. As you know, this profession is both work and family. I can't imagine having everything come to such an abrupt halt. My heart goes out to all but especially to Joannie Brosseau-Beyette (Eva), as I know first hand how much that role takes to perform and how much of yourself goes into it. I know she and others have sacrificed other contracts in order to perform there. Please let them know that their fellow actors up north at the Carousel are thinking of them and pulling for them.

Sara Seever, fomer CDP actor, currently star of Town Hall Arts Center's "My Fair Lady": I appreciate your candidness in sharing this story with us. With no passable excuse before, we were left in the dark about the closing of our beloved theater. I know others will be glad to know the truth, however infuriating it may be. My hope is that another union theater will take CDP's place in the

near future with owners who will treat the theater with the respect and dignity it deserves, and whose main itenerary will be to provide quality shows and a good place for local actors to work. I know that the theater community will recover and continue forward. In the meantime, we grieve what was lost. I am moved by the CDP family's farewell performance in the rain. They were able to close "Evita" on their own terms, and with an enormous amount of grace. Brava! I am personally glad that these owners no longer have the privilege and honor of running a theater. To say they grossly mishandled CDP is an understatement.

Mark Devine, actor( I met Mark when we worked together in "Mickey's Nutcracker" at Disneyland): My heart, too, goes out - and I send love - to all those affected ... the actors, employees and those wonderful audiences. I can't help but think of the brilliant performances I saw in that building by Marcus Waterman, Amy Board, Paul and Penny Dwyer, Bill Berry, Randy St. Pierre, Beth Malone, Heidi Morrow-Hahn, Thad Valdez, Gregg Price, fill-in-your-favorite-name here, so many. From Paul's hysterical of the pre-show to the classic opening - heck even the name - "The Barnstormers"; from the rising stage to my favorite Bill McHale rehearsal line -- "I KNOW this show!" -- Sheesh, hearts are breakin'. That old barn is sacred. P.S. Thank you so much John for your slideshow of pictures.

Lowell Noel, actor: A sad day. I have a lot of nice memories from my short stint as an actor there. I'll always be grateful to Bill McHale for giving me a job when I needed it. This is a pretty severe blow.

George and Jan Wehrstedt, readers: Let me add my name to the long list of those who will miss the CDP. We have attended many performances and have followed the careers of Paul Dwyer and his sister Annie through their performances and articles in The Denver Post. Such a shame to see it collapse the way it did.

Mathew Kepler, actor: I am SO proud of those people. I stayed for the whole show on Wednesday, and I could not believe their spirit. Even in the face of tragedy they sang and danced their hearts out. This is why we are in this business, for the love of what we do and the love of the art. I am so proud of them and the community for standing in the pouring rain getting soaked to show them love and support.

David H. Anderson, reader: Thank you for your article on Country Dinner Playhouse, it was most informative. I have missed my evenings at the playhouse since I moved to Maui a few years ago. As a former longtime season-ticket holder, I am saddened. I was a big fan of Sally Myers. I would like to keep up with her career, as she is a fine actress.

T David Rutherford, actor: I was fortunate enough to have performed on the Playhouse stage in several shows. Like others, I'm shocked by these events. I feel that the stage at CDP is in many ways, my home. The Barn will always hold a special place for me. Doing eight shows a week, I feel I learned my craft there. So many friends. So many memories. My best wishes to the cast, crew and employees of the Playhouse. Our prayers are with you.

Bill Daly, reader: So many wonderful shows, a warm theater through the years. I played Denver theater for 15 years and never worked at Country Dinner Playhouse, but I have four adult children who remember the shows as part of their youth and introductions to the magic of the musical stage.

Ginger Alderson Playford, reader: We moved here in 1969 and have been to CDP too many times to count. I had season tickets for many years and was waiting for the 2007-08 lineup to decide if I was going to subscribe. I hope the money can be raised for the CDP to survive. They COULD move to a new location. The Ascot space is big, empty, newer and has NEVER had smart owners. Don't let CDP die!

Ron Hyman, reader: What a sad event, compounded by being so poorly handled. My heart goes out to these young folks who work so hard. I was lucky enough to attend "Evita" this past Saturday. The show was great! The singing, the staging, the choreagraphy -- all excellent. The Barnstormers are always a delight. Watching these talented young men and women you know you are seeing the future stars of Denver. I'm hoping somehow CDP can be revived, hopefully with a new management that matches the quality these young folks deserve.

Bryan Bell, actor: John, thank you so much for your ongoing coverage of CDP. Today's article was very informative. It is so sad that poor management and financial decisions killed a theatrical icon in Colorado. I also wanted to commend you for focusing so much on the actors and how much this will affect the talent in Denver. Many times, actually most of the time, the actors are overlooked, even though they are the heart of a production, and theaters could not be theaters without them. After living through the Pinnacle Dinner Theatre travesty, I can relate to the sadness and anger those folks are feeling. Thank you for keeping the community informed.

Clarissa Hope Stranske, actor: I just wanted to say thanks for all you've done for those of us who were quite literally thrown out into the cold this week. Your articles, the incredible slideshow, your getting the word out to the community, and your support have been so helpful in helping me grieve and start to come to terms with this whole thing. I can't thank you enough for everything you've done.

Who killed the Playhouse?
Tax repayment unmade, liquor license lapsed and pending

By John Moore
Denver Post Theater Critic

Article Last Updated: 05/29/2007 11:04:12 AM MDT


The Country Dinner Playhouse was done in by what founder and former owner Sam Newton calls "gross, ongoing mismanagement," but it was two simultaneous daggers that prompted owners to hastily close the 37-year-old theater without warning Tuesday.

Dagger One: Owner David Lovinggood defaulted on a court-ordered $10,000 payment to Newton that became overdue May 20, two days before Lovinggood closed the Playhouse, Newton said. As a result, Arapahoe County District Court documents stipulate that Newton could then lay claim to all assets within.

Dagger Two: The Playhouse's liquor license lapsed May 2, and its renewal was pending, according to Greenwood Village City Manager Jim Sanderson. State law requires any liquor-license-holder who rents must show proof of a valid lease, which CDP has not had now for 29 months. But in its application for renewal dated April 27, Sanderson said, the CDP claims to have a current lease in place through 2015. It's believed the renewal was pending to give CDP time to bring evidence of a lease, Sanderson said, that we now know does not exist. The loss of a liquor-license is a deathknell to any dinner theater.

Lovinggood won't comment, but Newton lays all blame at his feet. He said when Lovinggood became majority owner in 2004, he initially paid himself $10,000 a month, while putting next to nothing into the upkeep of the facility since. The roof of the back building is so severely damaged that rain was falling freely Wednesday on ruined costumes and props. Newton also cited a stark scale-back in marketing.

CDP owner David Lovinggood defaulted on a court-ordered $10,000 payment that became overdue May 20, according to founder Sam Newton.
(Special to The Post)

"It was all completely mismanaged," Newton said. "He's going to do all he can to take the blame off himself, but he gets it all, in my opinion."

Newton's timeline of events makes the demise of the Playhouse seem all but inevitable:

In October 2004, Lovinggood completed the majority purchase of the Playhouse. That was for the business. But while Newton long ago sold his interest in the business in 1995 to a group of minority owners that included Lovinggood, Newton always retained ownership of the 5.82 acres upon which the Playhouse sits. And as part of the '04 sale terms, Lovinggood was to assume responsibility for $58,000 in overdue property taxes.

But a few months after Lovinggood assumed majority ownership of the business, he found himself quickly running short on cash, Newton said, so he extended to Lovinggood a $100,000 personal loan to keep his tenant operationally afloat. But he defaulted on that loan, Newton said. The lease between the two expired Dec. 31, 2004, and negtiations for a new one stalled.

Joanie Brosseau-Beyette and Willow Samu in the rainy, final parking-lot performance of "Evita." (Denver Post / Kathryn Scott Osler)

Newton says he became so "absolutely fed up" with Lovinggood that he sold the land to Uhlmann Offices of California in September 2005 for $3 million. The $100,000 Lovinggood owed was discounted and rolled into that sale, meaning Lovinggood now owed Uhlmann for that debt.

But Lovinggood never paid the back taxes he took responsibility for, and in order for Newton to legally complete his land purchase to Uhlmann, Newton had to go ahead and pay them himself. He then promptly sued Lovinggood in Arapahoe County District Court for repayment. The verdict: Lovinggood was to re-pay Newton $10,000 on May 15, and $2,000 a month thereafter until paid.

A short grace period ending Sunday made Tuesday D-Day at the Playhouse. Default terms give Newton the right to claim all assets inside the building, 9News confirmed. Lovinggood met with a bankruptcy attorney last week, but had not yet filed as of Thursday.

In the 20 months since the land sale, Lovinggood and Uhlmann have never come to terms on a lease because Lovinggood wanted a rent decrease from what is currently believed to be roughly $13,000 a month. Uhlmann wanted an increase, CDP officials have said, hence the ongoing stalemate.

Heather Fortin Rubald, left, and Kitty Skillman Hilsabeck
(Denver Post / Kathryn Scott Osler)

Uhlmann had just this month begun to market the land around the Playhouse for complementary development, but the company had no plans the scrape the Playhouse. "The ownership would still be open to discussing ways to keep the theater open," said spokesperson Janelle Sahaf, who added the company had no notice of the impending closing. "Unfortunately, we are now also among the creditors of Country Dinner Playhouse."

Lovinggood is four months behind on rent, Sahaf said. While she did not disclose an exact figure, it is believed to be at least $50,000. That, combined with the assumed Newton note, brings the debt owed Uhlmann alone to more than $100,000.

The problem with someone riding to the rescue and resuming normal operations at the Playhouse is that no new tenant can come in and simply assume authority of a business that is expected to become tied up in a long bankruptcy case that would involve dozens of creditors and take months to resolve.

Outrage at the way the Playhouse was closed continued to echo through the theater community last week. The CDP was the oldest union dinner theater in the country, and the only year-round union theater in Colorado.

"So one-third of union jobs were just lopped off in one swoop," said actor Leslie O'Carroll. The impact? Many actors, especially young musical-theater actors, will leave the state seeking more-available work.

"I think what ownership did to these kids is a travesty," actor Sue Leiser said. "It was selfish, it was cruel, it was unkind and it was cheap."

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