by Tony Sclafani
Since Jan. 1 of this year, the building on the site of the former Burn Brae Dinner Theatre has seen a new kind of audience: parishioners of the Parker Memorial Church. The auditorium itself now awaits the wrecking ball.
So what happened to transform the fortunes of this pioneering playhouse? To lift a line from the movies, someone made owner John Kinnamon "an offer he couldn't refuse."
"About three years ago we got an offer from a private school," explains Kinnamon, who founded the Burtonsville landmark in 1968. "We have almost 10 acres of land and it was really underutilized. The property used to be a swim and tennis club."
While the initial offer was attractive, says Kinnamon, the school decided it needed more land and moved on. "But it got our attention as to what the property may be worth," adds the one-time opera singer and TV director, who now lives in Annapolis.
"So then we went in and gave the agents a green light to see if there were any more offers."
Selling to a real-estate developer was out of the question, Kinnamon says, because zoning regulations prevent more houses from being built along Route 29. So when the offer from the Parker Memorial Church came along, Kinnamon decided to accept it.
Kinnamon won't disclose the amount of the deal because details are still being worked out.
"We made the move to sell to them this fall," he explains. "The actual sale won't be until this spring." Until then, the church is leasing the space.
Kinnamon says business remained strong through the years at Burn Brae, despite the demise of many of the region's other dinner theaters. In fact, Kinnamon _ who operated other theatrical venues in the 1980s with longtime partner Bernard Levin _ says he has other plans in the works that may include a new dinner theater.
"We're currently looking at other sites, especially in Montgomery County," he says. On the other hand, he acknowledges, the Sept. 11 attack "has really had an impact on the tourism and travel industry."
In the spotlight
It makes sense that Kinnamon would want to continue on in the dramatic arena. After all, he started Burn Brae not so much as a money-making venture but as a place for him and other performers to showcase their talents.
"When [the D.C.-based] American Light Theatre disbanded," Kinnamon recalls, "I was working at NBC-TV and had heard about this concept of dinner theater."
Kinnamon scouted out the Valley Stream Country Club on Route 29 in Burtonsville, rounded up some fellow performers, and settled on the Lerner and Loewe musical "Brigadoon" as the enterprise's maiden production.
"We opened in May of 1968 at $6.95 a ticket, parking and dinner included," he chuckles. "We thought that it would go 90 days."
Instead, he staged another show, and then another. By 1974 he and partner Levin (who signed on in late 1968) bought the property. In the years afterward they "expanded several times," most notably in 1989 when they added a new lobby and box office.
"You can imagine how many actors and actresses went through there," says Levin, who retired from the theater business in 1986 and now works as a lawyer. "It afforded actors a tremendous opportunity.
"We did a variety of shows throughout the years and gave opportunities to literally thousands of performers, as well as technical people, people who made costumes and made sets."
"They were the foremost producers in the area," notes Kathy Kurichh, who started acting at Burn Brae at age 9. She now owns the Young Artists Theatre drama school on Route 29, a few miles north of Burn Brae.
"There just weren't enough avenues for performers then," says Kurichh. "You could see people there that would have been on Broadway, if they only had the desire."
Adds Levin: "With three or four shows a year, for let's say 30 years, that's a lot of theater. We've seen so many people throughout the years go on to great success."
One of those people is Toby's Dinner Theatre owner Toby Orenstein, who started her theatrical career at Burn Brae as a director and eventually founded her own theatrical school on the premises.
"She left because of space and time limitations, and the rest is history," Levin explains.
Another Burn Brae success story is Kurichh herself. Her Young Artists Theatre was also started on the premises of Burn Brae, where it also outgrew the space.
"If John hadn't given me my start, I wouldn't have been able to get out on my own," she admits. "I'm grateful for all the years I worked there. I did everything from working the snack bar to hat check to, eventually, directing."
The theater "is a piece of history that will never be forgotten," Kurichh says.
"They called me recently because they were having a `fire sale' on all their old costumes," Kurichh says. "And when I went through them it was like seeing my whole life and the lives of others."
Levin, too, gives in to nostalgia.
"The first time I drove up Route 29 and saw the sign that said `Parker Memorial Church' was quite a dramatic moment offstage," he admits.
As for Burn Brae's longtime mentor, Kinnamon says he's looking to start his new theater around 2004; meanwhile, he'll be executive producing an opera in Seattle.
"I love the business, and I have some really good ideas about what the next [dinner theater] should be like," he says. "I am actively looking for another [theatrical] home."
E-mail Tony Sclafani at email@example.com.
The list of performers and directors who "got their start" at the Burn Brae Dinner Theater is an impressive one. Here are some of the most prominent:
Robin Baxter _ Nationally recognized performer who just opened in "Mama Mia" at the Wintergarden Theatre on Broadway
Suzanne Brock _ Opera singer
Scott Ellis _ Tony Award-winner and director of Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Starlight Express" on Broadway
Larry Friedman _ Veteran local performer at Toby's Dinner Theatre and elsewhere who starred in several national touring productions
Jean Anne Kain _ One of the superstars of local dinner theater known for countless revivals of "Hello, Dolly!" "Mame" and "Follies"
Kathy Kurichh _ Founder and owner of Young Artists Theatre
Arthur Laupus _ Popular Columbia leading man and film actor
Megan Lawrence _ Howard County's Helen Hayes Award winner-turned-Broadway actress
Andrea McArdle _ Young star of the original "Annie" on Broadway
Beth McVeigh _ Starred in "42nd Street" on Broadway and now a Rockette
Toby Orenstein _ Owner and director of Toby's Dinner Theatre
Susan Schneider _ Starred in "Cats" on Broadway and in several television series
Richard Stillwell _ Opera singer
Rick Stohler _ Another favorite Columbia leading man
Susan Strohman _ Choreographer of "The Producers" on Broadway
Gaye Willis -_ Starred in "Magnolia" on Broadway