In April, when I e-mailed Ike Murry McEntire about attending his Murry’s Dinner Playhouse in Little Rock, he wrote to say the theater was closed because a flood had just invaded the theater, bar and dining room.
“But we expect to be back in business soon,” he said. “E-mail me in a few weeks.”
I did indeed and got no response. So after I arrived in Atlanta and was waiting for my plane to Arkansas, I called him.
“We’re all sold out,” he said.
Right, I thought, yeah, sure — sold out on a Tuesday night.
“I don’t need to eat,” I said, figuring he didn’t want to spring for the price of a meal.
“It’s not that,” he said. “We’re sold out.”
“I’ll stand,” I offered. My goal is to see theater in all 50 states, and I was not leaving Little Rock until I could check off Number 46.
“We can’t let you,” rebutted McEntire. “It’s against the fire laws.”
This guy does NOT want me to review his show, I thought. “Well,” I said. “I’m going to come by because you might have a cancellation. As you can see,” I said, looking out the window, “the rain is really coming down.”
“If that’s what you want to do,” he said evenly.
I smiled — and in fact grinned all the way my Toyota and GPS would take me. Wouldn’t Ike be embarrassed when I got there and I saw a house half-full — if he even had that many there. I practiced saying “Gee, Ike, I guess the rain kept everybody away” in my best passive-aggressive voice. Boy, was HE going to be embarrassed!
Finding Murry’s Dinner Playhouse wasn’t easy. Although the address is 6323 Colonel Glenn Rd., there’s just a strip mall there and — oh, wait! No, there’s no sign on the road, but there’s one on the side of a building pointing me in a certain direction.
I turned into the parking lot — and saw that it was packed.
You mean … Ike wasn’t lying?
As I waited in a l-o-n-g line leading to the hostess, I checked e-mails and saw Ike’s. Indeed there had been a cancellation and I was welcome to see the show — and eat, too.
O distrustful New Yorker!
I was seated with Max Frauenthal — his daughter is the up-and-coming opera star Bonnie — and his friend Susan Reasoner. Their friends were the ones who couldn’t make it, which made room for me. Although they could have regarded me as an intruder, they welcomed me so warmly that I was once again reminded that there truly is such a thing as Southern hospitality.
When I expressed my astonishment at that every other table was occupied, these season-ticket holders explained that the flood caused many to re-book.
“It’s usually not this crowded on Tuesdays and Wednesday,” Max said. “On weekends or even Thursdays, though, you can’t get near this place.”
I remember the heyday of dinner theaters that started in the early seventies and became yesteryear’s news by the end of the decade.
“Yeah,” Ike told me the next day when I dropped by. “In the entire country, there are now only 22 remaining members of the dinner theater association.”
That The National Dinner Theatre Association lists a mere 16 even better begs a question.
How can Ike survive?
Murry’s opened 50 years ago, and aside from a few years as a standard restaurant and even an art gallery, it’s been in the dinner theater business for 40 straight years, producing close to 400 shows seen by nearly three million.
So even if the crick DOES rise — and it has flooded the venue six times in the last half-century — the theater rises above it. People fork out $33-$37 then bring fork and plates to where the cod, ham, roast beef and salads (ranging from macaroni to lettuce) reside. Not a bad deal, although – as at all dinner theaters — alcohol and tips aren’t included.
McEntire gives much of the credit to his grandfather Ike Murry, who was twice Arkansas’ attorney general but started the business because he loved theater.
“I really didn’t,” admits McEntire. “But when my grandfather died, I knew he wanted the place to live on. After a while, I got into theater.”
You don’t have to take his word for it. That a FOLLIES three-sheet adorns one of the office walls tells all.
Still, McEntire doesn’t take trips to New York to scout what he’ll do next in his ten-show season. Instead, he relies on what the other brother wizards in the association recommend.
They’re not always right. “I thought SMOKEY JOE’S CAFE would be big for us. It wasn’t,” he says matter-of-fact, fully aware from being on the job since 1990 that you never know what’s going to land.
To my astonishment, DRIVING MISS DAISY has been a bonanza. “That’s partly because of Candyce Hinkle,” he said, “who’s a big star here. You saw her last night.”
I did, albeit not in a Pulitzer Prize-winner, but in Osborne & Eppler’s
SOUTHERN FRIED FUNERAL. Here Hinkle played a busybody neighbor who is a flashlight-sized thorn in the side of Dorothy Frye under normal circumstances, but more so now, for Dorothy’s husband Dewey has suddenly died.
That means that daughter Harlene will be coming home to Mississippi from Dallas. Undoubtedly this free spirit will conflict with her younger sister Samantha Jo, who’s an overbearing overachiever.
If that were Dorothy’s only problem. Her brother-in-law Dub claims that with his brother’s death, HE now has title to the land on which the house sits.
There’s early talk on how Dewey’s son Junior has bought a lottery ticket, which MUST be a red herring, I hoped, for a sudden six-number seven-figure win would be too easy a way to get the Fryes out of their financial frying pan. Nope — that’s part of the resolution, but it wasn’t needed, for the usually shiftless Harlene and her old beau who’s now a lawyer find a legal loophole.
And a happy ending, of course. McEntire is quick to admit that “We’re not here to educate; we’re here to entertain.” So although SOUTHERN FRIED FUNERAL has no Broadway pedigree — one of the troupe’s occasional actors co-wrote it — the title sounds funny enough to do that entertaining. McEntire would have been far less inclined to produce it if it had been called A DEATH IN THE FAMILY. He knows that people would have stayed home instead even if it meant cleaning their bathroom tile.
Some cynics may say, “Big deal! What ELSE is there to do in Little Rock?” Well, what else was there to do in the dozens of other small cities and towns where dinner theaters tried and failed?
So what’s the secret to the longevity of Murry’s Dinner Playhouse? “We own the building outright and have no debt,” said McEntire, but you and I know there’s more to it than that. McEntire has found out what they like and how they like it and has given it to them just that way. The actors may be non-Equity, but all of them are paid — and accomplished; the 11 proved to be professional and convincing in their roles.
That includes Hinkle, who recently broke her arm, but there she was on stage, arm in a sling, chattering away.
So neither flood nor injury can stop Murry’s Dinner Playhouse. Even if you have no immediate plans to visit Little Rock, chances are that whenever you get here, Murry’s will still be there waiting for you.