MUSICAL OUTLET: Broadway-Style Theater Opens in Bargain-Shoppers' Paradise
Pressley, Nelson, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)
Can an untried Broadway-style musical revue make it in the heart of Pennsylvania farm country? Three businessmen in Lancaster think so.
They have built a $10 million, 1,600-seat facility called the American Music Theatre and have mounted a $1 million show titled "From Branson to Broadway," which opened April 12 and is scheduled to run through 1998. Tickets cost $25 - a mere third of Broadway's top price - and 90,000 tickets were sold before "Branson" had its first public performance last weekend.
When you think of hotbeds for razzle-dazzle and all that jazz, Lancaster isn't likely to be among the top 100 places that spring to mind. This is the land of the Pennsylvania Dutch, the traditional Amish farmers and craftsmen who disdain most of the technology of the 20th-century world, who dress in unembellished black and eschew the automobile in favor of horses and buggies.
Yet the theater is not a bit out of place in Lancaster, for Lancaster is hardly the sort of virgin throwback to pre-technology America that Amish country evokes. It's only partly Amish, after all.
The county also has an industrial base; a drive past the string of factories and commercial headquarters on Route 30 makes that clear enough.
More famously, Lancaster is the granddaddy of outlet shopping. Before outlets started popping up every hundred miles or so (Potomac Mills, Queenstown and Rehoboth, just to name a few of the closer ones), Lancaster had forged an identity as a mecca for savvy shoppers, with bargains that made it worth the trip.
This, in part, is how the theater fits in.
The brand-new, red-brick performance hall is situated on the commercial strip of Route 30 on the eastern edge of Lancaster, directly across from the Rockvale Square Outlet Center. The theater's next-door neighbor is the Amish Farm and Home, a tourist magnet. A half-mile east is Dutch Wonderland, a mini-theme park with a roller coaster, monorail and a massive gift shop (where an automated teller machine sits amid the souvenirs, for the convenience of temporarily strapped shoppers).
A half-mile west of the theater, at routes 30 and 896, a horse and buggy cruises confidently through Saturday night traffic, gliding south between the Rockvale shops and the ship-shaped Fulton Steamboat Inn. Beyond the inn and shops lies farmland, stretching south, east and north as far as the eye can see.
Out there, the American Music Theatre would be odd. But within the carefully restricted confines of commercial Lancaster, where everything from designer clothes to the Amish time capsule culture is fodder for tourists, hardly any manner of business - even show business - would seem alien. Leather jackets, $99 to $179. Linens, half-price. Singing and dancing, two-thirds off.
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The theater was founded by three businessmen with a love of (but no expertise in) the sort of wholesome family musical revues that have made Branson, Mo., one of the nation's top tourist spots.
Dwight Brubaker, a partner in a Lancaster real estate firm, had the original idea. He shared it with Fred Steudler, a childhood buddy who had made a success designing a system for delivering fresh water to large numbers of chickens on chicken farms. They brought in James Martin, a one-time corporate pilot who had been in the produce-distribution business for 15 years, but who was ripe for a change.
From its inception, the theater was designed to take advantage of the tourist trade that bustles through Lancaster. Mr. Martin, the theater's managing partner, says the number of tourists is estimated at from 4 million to 6 million people a year. Most come for what is locally referred to as the "cultural experience" - i.e., the Amish. But "outlets really cannot be discounted; they are bringing a lot of people to this area," Mr. Martin says.
Theater officials hope to sell 650,000 tickets this season. …