Murder mystery dinner shows have become increasingly popular over the years, but did you know that the oldest and first of its kind in the United States began over 70 years ago? Tony DeSantis opened the Martinique Restaurant in Evergreen Park, Illinois, and began producing plays in 1949 in a tent adjacent to the restaurant to attract customers. His success led him to build his first theater, Drury Lane Evergreen Park, in 1958. It was the first of six dinner theaters he started and a local entertainment fixture for 45 years before closing in 2003.
The concept of a murder mystery dinner party is simple but intriguing. Guests arrive at a venue, typically a restaurant, banquet hall, or ballroom, and are welcomed by a cast of characters or Detectives, who set the scene for a murder that will occur during the evening. The guests are invited to interact with each other and the characters to solve the mystery while enjoying a delicious meal.
Opening in Los Angels in 2004, The Dinner Detective is America’s Largest Interactive Murder Mystery Dinner Show with over 85 locations in the United States. The Dinner Detective takes this concept to the next level, providing scripts in the present-day, loosely based on actual FBI cold cases. Professional actors not only stay in character throughout the evening but are seated with guests and are revealed as the investigation progresses throughout the night. Some guests become Prime Suspects while everyone participates at their comfort level. The result is a highly interactive and immersive experience that keeps everyone on their toes.
The Dinner Detective and others stand on the shoulders of many companies that led the way to today’s modern murder mystery dinner show. In 1960 the Meadowbrook Theatre Restaurant in Cedar Grove, New Jersey, opened with 700+ seats of table service. It closed after 13 years, partly due to nearby competition from Broadway. Candlelight Theatre Restaurant in Washington, D.C., was the first to perform the dinner and show in the same room. The venture was successful but could not convert to a year-round operation due to the hotel’s convention business, and eventually moved to Chicago. Howard Wolfe, who some claim is the “Father of Dinner Theater,” created the Barn Dinner Theatre in 1961 and grew the chain to 27 theaters across New York, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Louisiana, and Georgia. At the end of an act or scene, the stage would disappear into the ceiling, then reappear, set for the next scene. The Greensboro, NC, location was opened in 1964 and is the oldest continuously running dinner theater in America and the last of the original Barn Dinner Theaters.
The history and number of individual proprietors are rich, extensive, alive, and well today. Unfortunately, during the Covid-19 pandemic of 2020-2021, many stand-alone dinner theaters faltered and were shuttered due to local restrictions on access and looming overhead costs. The Dinner Detective still performs weekly public shows in their home venues across America and private events at diverse places based on client requests and needs. Some have taken the concept aboard cruise ships, trains, and locations believed to be haunted. Whatever your preference, I bet there is a location near you entertaining a crowd of hungry, eager guests this weekend! Check them out and support local businesses and the arts.