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Last curtain call: The battle to preserve a unique dinner theatre legacy

The cast of "Into the Woods" as performed by the UTEP Dinner Theatre.
Annabella Mireles 
/
The Prospector
The cast of "Into the Woods" as performed by the UTEP Dinner Theatre.

Forty years ago in 1983, a young theater student named Greg Taylor had a dream to put on a musical at the University of Texas at El Paso. When the university said no, Taylor did not let that stop him. He raised the money and created a dinner theater in the university’s ballroom in the union.

With a thousand dollars and the help of his friend Jimmy Legarreta, Taylor staged their first production of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” on March 10, 1983. This year, the UTEP Dinner Theatre was shocked to learn that this season will be their last after Taylor announced his retirement.

It all began on Aug. 31 of this year when Taylor retired after 40 years of running the dinner theatre. That day he posted on Facebook about the legacy he built and how it will live on. But just one month later, another Facebook post begins “This is so sad and disappointing.”

“In the many meetings I had with the dean, it was never intimated to me that their plan was to close the dinner theatre,” Taylor said. “If they had told me… I would have stayed one more year and done the last show. I would have stayed another year and closed it myself. I would have been there for the end. I started it, I’ll be there at the end of it.”

That was in response to news that UTEP now planned to close the theater and lay off the entire staff after the end of this season. Taylor says the UTEP administration never mentioned this as a possible outcome.

A UTEP Dinner Theatre production of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show."
Annabella Mireles
/
The Prospector
A UTEP Dinner Theatre production of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show."

“Not too long ago we heard that the dean of liberal arts was looking to make some changes with musical theater,” said UTEP Dinner Theatre actor and theater student Fernando Romero. “She was looking to mix in musical theater with the department of theater and dance, which was something that caught a lot of us students off guard. It doesn’t make any sense.”

The university then put a gag order on everyone working at the dinner theatre. No questions were answered by the university, instead in response to questions they released a press release from the Dean of Liberal Arts Anadeli Bencomo on Oct. 4 stating:

Friends of UTEP Dinner Theatre: 

Because you care about the future of UT El Paso’s musical productions, we wanted to take a moment to drop you a note to clarify the status of musical theater at UTEP. 

Musical theater at UTEP is not going away. The same professional-grade musicals, produced for decades by UTEP Dinner Theatre, will continue at UTEP for seasons to come.   

With a natural transition in leadership at the Dinner Theatre this semester, we believe now is the time to plan for the future of musical productions at UTEP. How can our efforts to create culturally-rich performances better advance UTEP’s educational and service missions? Over the next few months, the Dinner Theatre and the College of Liberal Arts, which oversees the Dinner Theatre, will be working to create a larger vision for musical productions at UTEP. 

Questions we are examining include: 

• How can we make sure UTEP’s theater arts students fully benefit from working with the professionals in the Dinner Theatre on these productions? How do we better integrate the productions into our theater curriculum?

• How can we increase affordable access to the performing arts for both our students and the El Paso community at large?

• What is the optimal internal structure at UTEP to provide sustainable support for musical theater moving forward?

After we work through these and other questions, we will announce plans for the future of musical theater at UTEP. We will keep offering musical shows that will serve the goals of educating and preparing our students for future jobs in theater as well as providing entertainment of high quality to our audiences. Although we haven’t set a hard deadline, we expect this planning will take several months to complete. 

Musical theater lives at UTEP. Once we have finished our planning, we’ll drop you a note to let you know all the details of the next generation of UTEP musical theater. 

Thank you for your continued support of the arts and of UTEP. 

A production of "Into the Woods" by the UTEP Dinner Theatre.
Annabella Mireles
/
The Prospector
A production of "Into the Woods" by the UTEP Dinner Theatre.

“They’re saying ‘yeah, we’re gonna get rid of the dinner theatre, but we’ll keep doing musicals, so you all will be happy,” Taylor said. “And that’s not what everyone’s gonna go for.”

The next few days were a mass of confusion for dinner theatre supporters and students like Chloe Curtis.

“So all we know is that the dinner theater put out their season and said ‘farewell season,’” Curtis said. “And we’re like, ‘whoa, what’s going on?’ And when we try to ask questions, we get a lot of non-answers.”

Curtis and other students created the “Save the UTEP Dinner Theatre” initiative. They started social media pages and a petition that has nearly 5-thousand signatures.

“I didn’t start any of this,” Taylor said. “This groundswell of reaction has come from the people – from the students, from the former students.”

The Instagram page made their first post on Oct. 3, 2023. The post read “This page is made from members of students and the community who wish for the Dinner Theatre to continue putting on incredible shows all year round.”

The account today has over one-thousand followers and 53 posts. The posts talk about how to help and dozens of stories from past performers talking about what UDT means to them.

One post is by seventh grader Sebastian Ochoa. He was an actor in “The Who’s Tommy” musical as the young 4-year-old Tommy.

“I had the incredible opportunity to perform at the UDT,” Ochoa said. “I remember how exciting it felt to see the huge sets and props. I seriously felt like I was living in a dream. UDT has helped me gain knowledge, techniques, and discipline to help me improve my theater skills.”

“So many people have come out of the woodwork that I’ve never met or heard of or anything,” Curtis said. “Talking about how much the dinner theatre has meant to them. I know a lot of people that are working professionally in theater that owe, or they say that they owe, their professional training to the UTEP dinner theater.”

That includes performance major Fernando Romero – who credits the dinner theatre as a launching pad.

“I came in with my own story,” Romero said. “And I just grew. I just grew as an actor, I grew as a performer. I grew as a person.”

Romero worries that cutting ties to the dinner theatre’s unique history is as bad as doing away with musical theater all together.

“It’s going to cause everything that makes it special to go away,” Romero said. “It does something that is unique to itself – not just in El Paso, but like in the whole country.”

On Oct. 20, UTEP issued another update, saying “UTEP has formed an internal committee charged to develop a plan for the future of musical theater at UTEP.” It says that the committee includes current theater staff and will have recommendations before the end of this semester.

The UTEP Dinner Theatre began their current season with a production of "Damn Yankees."
Annabella Mireles
/
The Prospector
The UTEP Dinner Theatre began their current season with a production of "Damn Yankees."

The UDT began its season with the production of “Damn Yankees.” Right now they are preparing for the next show in February of “We Will Rock You,” which Curtis and Romero will both be starring in.

Despite the looming final curtain call, the Save the UDT group remains resolute, vowing to fight on and ensure that the spotlight never dims on this cherished one-of-a-kind dinner theatre.

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