Palace Theater a flavorful playhouse option in Wisconsin Dells
Palace Theater a flavorful option in Wisconsin Dells
Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, January 2, 2016 by Brian E. Clark
When Chicago theater and movie producer Anthony Tomaska saw a “For Sale” sign at the then-shuttered Palace Theater in Wisconsin Dells in the summer of 2013, his wife ordered him to “keep driving.”
She also said, “You are not buying that.” So, like any smart husband, he drove on and spent an enjoyable weekend at the Wilderness Resort with his spouse and son.
But Tomaska, who with his brother Joseph produced “Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding” for 18 years in Chicago, couldn’t get the Palace Theater out of his thoughts. So two weeks later he called the real estate agent representing property to inquire about the playhouse, which had been closed for about five years.
“When I saw it, I couldn’t believe how gorgeous it was,” said Tomaska, who (with the full support of this wife, he says) bought the 796-seat theater with his brother and began producing dinner theater shows in November 2014. The Palace is one of only a handful of similar playhouses in the Badger State.
“It’s a unique place because it is the size of a Broadway theater and had all the right technical and physical equipment,” said Tomaska, who opened the four-stage Chicago Center for the Performing Arts in 2000 with his brother, an actor of no small repute who appeared in movies such as “The Watcher” with Keanu Reeves and James Spader, “Back by Midnight” with Rodney Dangerfield and Kirstie Alley, and “Hard Cash” with Val Kilmer.
“Many big theaters don’t have the amenities that the Palace has,” Anthony Tomaska said. “Better yet, there is a gigantic kitchen and auditorium where dinner tables are on risers so you eat in the same room where you see the shows.
“Having done ‘Tony n’ Tina’ for so long, I learned early on that tour groups in motor coaches don’t want to have to park twice for dinner and theater. Convenience means a lot. When I saw the Palace, I said ‘I gotta do something there.’ And it’s worked out well.”
When I saw a production there with my teenage children recently, the theater was two-thirds full, even though it was the day after Christmas — when most people are at home recuperating from the holiday. We saw “A Christmas Carol,” starring Mitch Tebo as Ebenezer Scrooge. It was a delight, and the story of Scrooge’s redemption nearly brought tears to my eyes. In addition, my 13-year-old son said his chicken fingers were “yummy” and my 15-year-old daughter said she enjoyed her tenderloin. My lasagna and veggies were also tasty. And all three of us consumed our desserts, served during a 20-minute intermission.
Tomaska said running a dinner theater in the Dells has been an educational experience.
“We’ve learned where audiences are coming from and what they want,” he said. “We’re also developing relationships with hotels and see our theater as another reason to come to the Dells. But (reopening a theater) isn’t a switch you just turn on. We went in thinking that big titles would automatically take off, but it takes three to four years.”
Tomaska said audiences are building and that he’s focusing on family-oriented shows that are Wisconsin- and Midwest-friendly, while also offering a variety of revivals and some original productions. Now that the theater has been open again for more than a year, he said it is benefiting from repeat and word-of-mouth referrals.
For 2016, Palace offerings will include “Late Night Catechism,” a Blues Brothers revival, a Patsy Cline show and a tribute to Neil Diamond and Cher.
Tomaska, whose family has been in the Chicago restaurant business for more than a century, said he has a special interest in the desserts offered at the theater. They include root beer floats, ice cream sundaes, carrot cake and giant slices of chocolate cake.
“We come from the hospitality business, so we know it is the entire experience that people remember,” he said. “We don’t want people to say the show was good, but the food wasn’t, or that it was hard to park or that they had to wait to use the bathrooms. We know the experience begins when you pull into the parking lot, so everything has to be good.
“We put in a huge bar and lounge area with three large screens and a big, custom-made Brazilian mahogany bar where people can come before the show and hang out and have drinks. We also went a bit overboard and put $1 million into a new state-of-the-art sound and lighting system. We really do see this as making an addition to the arts scene in the region and the Dells community.”
More information: For more information on performances, see dellspalace.com or call (608) 253-4000. For ideas on other things to see and do in the Dells, see wisdells.com.
Getting there: The Palace Theater, 534 Wisconsin Dells Parkway South in Wisconsin Dells, is about 120 miles northwest of Milwaukee via I-94 and I-90.
Brian E. Clark is a Madison writer and photographer.