In 1983, Greg Taylor was an undergraduate student in the Theatre Arts Department when he envisioned a dinner theatre on campus. Together with his peer, Jimmy Legarreta, they secured $1,000 and the Union Ballroom from the Director of the Union, Sonny Castro, for a dinner theatre performance. Their first production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat ran for three sold-out performances starting on March 10, 1983. Technically, Taylor and his team had only $250 to use to produce the show because the rights to show cost $750. The production relied on volunteers including parents, like Taylor’s own mother who sewed Joseph’s dreamcoat. The show and the dinner, provided by Union Food Services, was such a great success that Castro approved funds for a show in the summer, Jesus Christ Superstar, which proved to be another great success. The next school year Castro gave Taylor a workstudy position to produce four shows through the 1983-1984 season and from then on the dinner theatre has found a permanent home in the Union Ballroom and has been a highlight of arts, culture, and cuisine on UTEP’s campus.
Greg Taylor, now Dr. Taylor, serves as the director of the Dinner Theatre, which is now part of UTEP’s Department of Theatre and Dance. The Dinner Theatre continues to present an average of four fully staged musicals each season and holds the distinguished honor of being the only year round full-time dinner theatre on a college campus in the United States. The budget has grown considerably since 1983, now averaging $25,000 a production. The productions are popular among students, faculty, and community members. Dr. Taylor says the shows averages about 3,000 people per show, though some of the more popular shows can bring in more audience members. For instance, in 2013, Grease brought in almost 5,000 viewers and in the 2004-2005 season, Beauty and the Beast sold a record 7,424 tickets. Currently, the musicals have been awarded over 30 awards from various competitions around the country including the National win for Chess at the 1989 American College Theatre Festival.
The Dinner Theatre shares a close relationship with Tony, Grammy, and Oscar winner Tim Rice. Tim Rice is the lyricist of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, Chess, Blondel, Tycoon, and The Lion King. Dr. Taylor has produced all of Rice’s musicals including reprisals because the shows prove to be successful every time they are performed. Rice has also been an honored guest at the Dinner Theatre for various productions.
The food was prepared by Union Food Services until 2000 when Sodexo was contracted by the University. Lorranie Gomilla, one of the original Union Food Services chefs, created the Mile High Ice Cream Pie, an audience favorite which is typically served during the summer productions. Gomilla also created another favorite, the Green House Dressing, also known as the Green Goddess Dressing. Dr. Taylor reported that the theatre stopped serving the dressing for a couple of shows but the “the audience let us know they missed it so it is kind of permanent now.” Other favorites include the Chicken Wellington, New Orleans Style Brisket, and the snowflake dinner rolls. All of the meals are determined by Dr. Taylor, University Dinner Theatre Coordinator Beverly Kerbs-Ward, and Sodexo Head Chef Tony Guardardo. The meals alternate between a chicken and beef entre every other show. Chef Tony makes suggestions of new dishes; however, Kerbs-Ward and Dr. Taylor make all final decisions regarding the menu. Regardless of what selections make it onto the menu, the food is one of the highlights of the show and keeps the audience coming back for more.
For over 30 years, Dr. Taylor has watched his vision of a dinner theatre grow and expand. For the first four years, the Dinner Theatre had to make use of a portable stage, tables, and chairs. In 1987, the Ballroom was renovated and remodeled in order to better facilitate the Dinner Theatre which included tiered seating, a semi-permanent stage and fixtures for theatrical lighting. Dr. Taylor continues to dream of what could be with the University’s Dinner Theatre. “Our plans are to keep doing what we do well. We have a great, talented staff at the UTEP Dinner Theatre and we have a great working relationship with Sodexo Catering Department led by Chef Tony Guardardo. If you want my dreams,” says Dr. Greg Taylor, “then I would say we would love to have a new theatre that seats 600 people and has all the technical and backstage modern conveniences as well as a full kitchen.” He concludes, “One can dream!” It is true, once can dream; like Joseph and his dreamcoat, a young Greg Taylor dreamed of a dinner theatre which now produces top-rated musicals and serves delicious cuisine to sold-out audiences.
[Sources: Dinner Theatre website, http://academics.utep.edu/Default.aspx?tabid=12776; Macias, Nadia Dinner Theatre Celebrates 30 Years; and e-mail correspondence/interview with Dr. Greg Taylor on 22 February 2013.]
Ashley Swarthout was a student in the Masters of Arts in Teaching English program at UTEP. She graduated in May 2013 and is now teaches dual credit at Chapin High School.