New Theatre owners celebrate 40 years of entertaining KC

Dennis Hennessy and Richard Carrothers, owners of the New Theatre, have spent 40 years in show business.

If you want to get a sense of how they accomplished that and built an audience of 25,000 season ticket holders, well, all you have to do is listen.

Hennessy, on their audiences: “They’re very literal-minded. For them, a door has to be a door. They want a beginning, a middle and an end.”

Carrothers: “You seem to be inferring that it’s wrong to be literal. I think the history of theater is about telling a good story.”

True enough, but theatergoers at the New Theatre put a high value on plot.

Hennessy: “When we do revues, we get complaints. They don’t like it because there’s not a strong plot.”

And then there’s the matter of guest stars, a major element of the partners’ success. Often they are actors who are well-known to audiences for the work they’ve done on a prime-time TV series years earlier. The late Don Knotts was one of the most popular. Marion Ross is a favorite. Jamie Farr remains a draw. Hennessy and Carrothers have hired at various times more than half the original cast of “M*A*S*H.”

Hennessy: “We’ve created a television sensibility by bringing those people in.”

Carrothers: “But they’re going to live theater. They could be staying at home. We’re the theater of the people. Our people aren’t elitists. They don’t come with preconceived notions about the plays or the playwrights. But I don’t know if theater can ever educate. I think it can inspire.”

Tiffany’s Attic set the stage for success

Since May 1972, when Hennessy and Carrothers opened Tiffany’s Attic Dinner Playhouse south of the Country Club Plaza, they’ve served almost 10 million customers. They’ve grossed $350 million. They’ve hired Equity actors for 2,080 weeks.

And the partners can claim another extraordinary record: Since opening night at Tiffany’s, not a single week has gone by when one of their shows wasn’t running in Kansas City or Overland Park. Along the way, they produced a piece that achieved international acclaim: “Groucho: A Life in Revue,” which premiered in Kansas City and then ran in New York and London.

Oh, and they made movies for a while. But we’ll get to that in a bit.

In the late 1960s, the business partners were young University of Missouri-Kansas City grads producing and directing shows for the Resident Theatre, an in-house company at the Jewish Community Center when it was at 82nd and Holmes streets. Hennessy was there first, and he hired Carrothers as his assistant.

“An assistant who also did the job of janitor,” Carrothers said.

The guys had an idea: Why not turn the Resident Theatre into an independent company that could hire Equity actors? The community center leaders at the time nixed the idea, but Hennessy and Carrothers found they had plenty of support from the Resident Theatre audience for their next move: rehabbing an old laundry near 51st and Main streets and opening it as Tiffany’s Attic.

They opened the theater for an initial investment of $125,000. Much of that, Hennessy said, came from people who had admired their shows at the Resident. Eventually Hennessy and Carrothers bought out the investors, who earned a 300 percent return on their money.

“With a healthy respect for quality, profit and the appeal of middlebrow fun, two young Kansas Citians are about to open the first professional dinner theater here,” wrote Giles Fowler, The Kansas City Star’s theater critic at the time. And he quoted Hennessy summing up the new company’s populist bent: “There’s nothing intellectual or academic about what we’re doing.”

Hennessy said recently that they intentionally called Tiffany’s a playhouse, avoiding the word “theater” for fear it might sound too high-brow.

The partners did much of the physical work themselves. Carrothers, in fact, was still staining the coat-room floor when they opened the doors for the first time. And the coat room was where the partners ate their dinner that night. They put in 14-hour days to get the theater ready.

“You can do that when you’re young,” Hennessy said.

The ticket price: $6.50.

Tiffany’s was an immediate success. The first show was a sold-out run. That led them to open a second theater in 1973 — the Waldo Astoria Dinner Playhouse, at 75th and Washington streets — as a sort of safety-release valve for the people who couldn’t get into Tiffany’s. The cost to rehab what had been a movie theater and opening it to theatergoers: $200,000.

Tiffany’s and Waldo were unique in the Kansas City arts scene. Each venue had a terraced seating area, and each theater had singing and dancing waiters and waitresses who performed a revue before the main show. And between the two theaters, a local star system evolved. Performers such as Dennis Allen, T. Max Graham and Vicki Oleson became potent box-office draws.

Ultimately, the partners were so successful they moved to Los Angeles — while the two Kansas City theaters continued operating — to try their hand at movies. Among their producing credits was a TV miniseries about the battle of the Alamo (co-starring a young Alec Baldwin as Col. Travis) and the feature film “Movers Shakers,” starring Walter Matthau and Charles Grodin.

But the Hollywood culture wasn’t to their liking. Carrothers said if he had to do it over again, he wouldn’t have gone to California. He found little artistic satisfaction there. Film producing was a whole different world. In the movie business people want to see you fail, Carrothers said. In theater, people want you to succeed.

On the other hand, Hennessy said, they did very well financially as movie producers, so well that they were able to put $1 million into opening the New Theatre in 1992. After Tiffany’s and Waldo were phased out, many of their customers shifted over to the new Overland Park playhouse.

At the New Theatre, the partners signaled they would be doing things in a new way. No more singing/dancing servers. The production values had a sheen to them that wasn’t possible at the old Missouri-side venues. And in their first season, they introduced material that was new to the Kansas City market, including the wild cross-dressing musical “Pageant” and the first local production of “Forever Plaid,” directed by Robert Longbottom, who went on to become a successful Broadway director.

A helping hand for smaller local theaters

When Carrothers and Hennessy met for this interview, they sat at a table in a room with old show posters on the wall on the second floor of the New Theatre. Leaning against the wall atop a cabinet was a framed vintage photograph of Patricia McIlrath, founder of Missouri Repertory Theatre and the UMKC theater department. The picture is never moved, Carrothers said. Without McIlrath, there might not be a New Theatre, they suggested.

Hennessy: “Dr. Mac was a season ticket holder because she believed in what we were doing.”

Carrothers: “The original seeds were planted by Dr. Mac. She was what grew our excitement. Everything was possible with Dr. Mac.”

UMKC remains a big part of the Hennessy-Carrothers saga. The College of Arts and Sciences, in fact, awarded them honorary doctorates of philosophy earlier this month.

But the partners spend less time looking back than looking forward. Even within the limitations of audience expectations, they’re willing to take chances and expand the company’s artistic boundaries.

This summer they’ll stage “Hairspray,” a relatively recent and reasonably hip musical based on a film by the iconoclast John Waters. It’s the first local production of the show. The New Theatre produces a big musical each summer, and it’s the one show in the season without an imported guest star. The reasoning is that the show will sell itself.

Carrothers said the financial goal of “Hairspray” is to break even. The summer musicals might not make money — they’re physically elaborate and require large casts as well as musicians — but they generate season ticket sales.

Later this year, the partners will spend about $500,000 to refurbish the theater. The configuration of the stage and seating area won’t change, but the décor will. The idiosyncratic statuary — including arms and legs extending from the wall as if someone had been trapped in concrete — will go away.

Carrothers: “After 20 years, I think it’s time.”

At one time, the partners considered opening a small theater that would be operated independently with the idea that they could stage edgier, darker material that would never fly on the New Theatre stage. But then the local theater scene evolved and small companies were established, and they could see that after a certain point, there was plenty of edgy theater in town.

Carrothers: “I think it’s being done wonderfully already. Look at what’s happening at the Fishtank and the Living Room and the MET (Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre). But what we can do is support them financially.”

Indeed, the partners have a history of providing financial and material support to smaller theater companies in town. And despite the growth of professional theater, they said the theater scene here isn’t particularly competitive. Each company seems to have developed its own constituency.

Hennessy: “I used to think there was a monolithic theater audience here in the city. I don’t think that anymore. They’ve all found a niche, and they work in that niche.”

Hennessy and Carrothers continue to look for new material. They travel to other cities to see plays in the hope of finding a show that might be a good fit for the New Theatre. Sometimes they send Rob McGraw, the company’s vice president of marketing, to see shows.

Hennessy: “It’s very difficult out there finding new material.

The goal is always the same: Find something new and different, but not so new and different that it turns off the audience. And the audience can be counted on to give unvarnished feedback.

Carrothers: “They see shows they hate, and they still come back. Don’t get me wrong — they see shows they love. But they say, ‘We didn’t care for that one but we’ll be back.’ ”

Perhaps they come back because, as Carrothers said, the theater’s goal above all is to entertain.

Carrothers: “I don’t think we could have sustained 40 years if we weren’t the theater of the people.”