Entertainment and food: as in popcorn and a movie. Food as entertainment: as in Happy Meals, Tony the Tiger and The Jolly Green Giant.
The marriage of eating and entertainment is one of the longest-running shows in history — naturally the two make a dashing couple of consumption. While the formal history of “dinner and a show” began in the late 1890s in Europe, most likely the pairing dates much earlier when festivals of harvests and hunts were celebrated with pow-wows, lu‘aus, and spiritual rituals that included dance, song and, of course, extensive feasts.
By the 1890s a new type of night club began appearing in France. The cabaret — referring to the cabernet grape that makes the wine — was considered any place that served alcohol and entertainment together.
While the most famous of France’s cabarets is The Moulin Rouge in Paris’ 18th arrondissement, the first actual cabaret was Le Chat Noir (The Black Cat), which opened in 1881 in the same district — made famous by the painting by Toulouse Lautrec.
In Germany the trend caught on, later to be celebrated in the hit Broadway show, Bob Fosse’s “Cabaret,” which explores the seedy and glamorous dinner-theater world of pre-war Berlin.
It was in these dark theaters, filled with smoke and red wine, that customers huddled at candle-lit tables, watched a show and ate a light dinner.
“Cabarets brought a new intimacy and informal spirit to public performances. Audiences sat at cozy tables consuming food and drink while performers worked right in their midst. Inevitably, audience members became part of the show, interacting with performers — and even each other,” writes John Kenrick in his book “The History of Cabaret.”
American versions of Europe’s cabarets included supper clubs, dinner theaters or speak-easies of the first half of the 20th century. Before Prohibition, these clubs served wine, gin or whiskey along with simple food and a staged play.
According to a dinner theater company in New York called Dark Forest, “Howard Douglas Wolfe is considered as the ‘Father of Dinner Theatre.’” Wolfe, a Virginian entrepreneur, created a Barn Dinner Theatre franchise beginning in the 1960s, which included 27 theaters in New York, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Louisiana and Georgia.”
Theater owners kept the content of their productions light, it was far more appetizing to watch a romantic comedy or mystery than a Shakespearean tragedy, Neil Simon over Wagner.
Later, famous supper clubs like The Copacabana, The Diamond Horseshoe or The Cotillion Room featured such former vaudeville headliners as Jimmy Durante or Sophie Tucker with several supporting acts.
“Candlelight, tuxedoed servers and a formal dress code added to the sense of glamour. These elegant showplaces held hundreds of high paying customers at a time, and were more like Las Vegas showrooms than classic cabarets,” writes Kenrick.
“However, the material and performance style were very much in the cabaret tradition — torch songs, innovative comedy, etc.”
Today, from 36th to 53rd on Broadway in New York City, the famous street of entertainment is packed with restaurants that offer special early dinners for those on their way to a show, but the days of “dinner and a show” exist only in small, locally run theaters and hearken back to pre-Hollywood America, where live entertainment and supper seemed a natural evolution of the standard restaurant.
The disconcerting feeling of walking into a brand new movie theater is that it lacks the permeating scent of artificial butter and popcorn.
Modern cinemas have decided to limit the food they serve to candy and nachos — mainly for the ease of cleaning, where multiple showings in one night move at commercial speed.
Yet even for die-hard movie theater patrons, or five-star restaurant diners, sometimes there is nothing better than staying at home, cooking a delicious meal and popping in a movie.
Somehow, with the advent of VHS and DVD, people are reinventing one of the most perfect pairs in the book: dinner and a movie.
Filmmakers from around the world have taken the next logical step and melded the two together, and made movies that center around food as subject matter — some of the most loved films are about the love of food and can be watched while eating the same themed meals presented in the story.
And if it’s too much trouble to cook, Kaua‘i offers the traditional “dinner and a show,” Hilton’s presentation of “South Pacific” every Wednesday evening.
• Keya Keita, lifestyle writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 257) or email@example.com.