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May 22, 2014

TAKE A BOW: Derby Dinner Playhouse thrives after 40 years

Since 1974, facility has filled a unique niche in region

CLARKSVILLE — In its younger years, Derby Dinner Playhouse didn’t look like much more than a barn.

“It was red, it had a red roof, it had poles when you came in, it had checkered tablecloths, it had wagon-wheel lights,” said Bekki Jo Schneider, co-owner and producer at Derby Dinner.

That was 1974 — a time when dinner theaters across the country were owned by wealthy men who knew food, and shows toured from venue to venue, she said.

Forty years later, Derby Dinner Playhouse continues to thrive and grow, even though dinner theater is no longer in its heyday, thanks to changes both outside and on stage.

Remodeling the exterior of the theater was not in Schneider’s original vision when she took co-ownership with Carolyn Thomas 30 years ago.

“Mine was production-wise,” she said. “I wanted a certain-quality work.”

Derby Dinner was originally built as part of a tourism complex, joining the then-Marriott and a convention center, with little attention paid to the quality of the performances.

“[The owners] wanted to sell a family a steak and bourbon, make their money, and get out. And that’s exactly what they did,” Schneider said. “They made their money and ran audiences off because we got tired of steak and bourbon and bad shows.”

Shows on stage at Derby Dinner Playhouse were usually ones that had been on many stages before. Cast and crew would travel from one dinner theater to another, sometimes bringing famous actors including Mickey Rooney and Cesar Romero.

“So there was nothing taken in thought about this specific audience,” she said. “My goal was to make it community based enough that I would know that customer, and that’s where we started.

“What is it about this audience that’s different?” she asked.

Schneider has spent those 30 years learning her audience — she can even predict what kind of alcohol people will buy based on the show — and bringing productions up to her standard of quality.

“The role when I bought it was, it was supposed to be part of a convention center that would draw people to stay at the hotel,” she said. “Now it is part of the cultural makeup of Southern Indiana.”

Thomas has since sold her stock in the business to her daughter, Cynthia Knopp, who is general manager and co-owner. Audience awareness is something Knopp and Schneider keep in mind when ensuring that evolution of the theater continues.

“We have to build constantly. That audience-building is key because those kids are our future,” Knopp said. “We do that through classes and the children’s theater. We want kids to remember coming here as they get older and then come with their kids.”

Another big change the two have embraced is technology improvements.

“I try to read a book a month, that’s my thing. On my bedside table are manuals for the change in technology,” Schneider said.

The theaters use social media to market their shows and keep an eye on their customers. Schneider chooses shows based on customers’ responses to an online survey she sends out.

“That’s what they couldn’t do historically in the beginning,” she said. “You didn’t get a hand.”

All business is computerized, which is quite a change from the days when Knopp worked at the theater during her teenage years in the ’70s.

“I remember when we did reservations on paper, which would be crazy now,” she said. “I can’t even imagine how we would keep track of those without technology. To me, it would be almost impossible.”

Derby Dinner has also grown in real estate. In the past three years, Schneider has purchased the block on Newman Avenue piece by piece to include empty lots, houses for actors and a rehearsal warehouse.

Today, Derby Dinner Playhouse brings in more than 134,000 people to the mainstage every year, with nearly half of those visits coming from season ticket holders.

New Albany residents Jack and Joyce Kiper have had season tickets on and off for 20 years since the theater first opened. Jack said they never miss a show.

“When they first started way back when, they used to bring in outside entertainers,” he said. “They changed now to more of a local group, and I think one of the things I’ve noticed in the last few years is they’re bringing different actors and actresses [to each production]. I think that adds to the overall quality and professionalism.”

He said their favorite performances are the musicals, such as “The Wizard of Oz” and the theater’s most recent show “Singin’ in the Rain.” The two also attend some shows in theaters in Louisville.

“As far as we’re concerned, Derby Dinner is head and shoulders above them,” Jack said.

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Barbara Brewster has been the organ player at Faith Lutheran Church in Jeffersonville for the past 50 years. Brewster began playing organ with the church in August of 1964 at the age of 17.

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