Above: A scene from The Candlelight Theatre’s production of Guys And Dolls. Photo by Tisa Della-Volpe.

By Kevin Noonan

In this day and age, when entertainment venues struggle to succeed in a world with so many options, The Candlelight Theatre continues to flourish. And there are two reasons for that — history and geography.

The theater ­— which was originally a barn ­— has been around since the 1930s as a dinner theater and has developed a reputation for quality productions at reasonable prices. It’s also where future movie, television and Broadway stars such as Anthony Perkins, Jack Klugman, Barbara Bel Geddes and playwright/director Arthur Miller honed their skills, back when it was called the Robin Hood Theater. Also, Susan Stroman, a five-time Tony Award winning Broadway choreographer and director, was part of the 1974 production of Cabaret when she was a student at the University of Delaware.

That’s the history.

As for the geography — the theater is in Ardentown, which is a part of the Ardens, a community that, more than any other in Delaware, is known for supporting the arts.

“That’s a pretty good combination,” says Bob Kelly, the artistic director at the Candlelight Theatre since 2012. “And it’s a combination that has helped us survive and even thrive through some pretty tough times.”

Few people know the history and geography of the Candlelight Theatre as well as Tom and Sue Hornung. The couple has been in countless productions at the theater over the years, starting with Tom’s first show in 1971, The Fantastiks, and they’re currently on the theater’s board of directors.

There’s also this — the two met in 1974 when they were members of the cast of Cabaret. So, when Tom was asked to name his favorite show after all this time, he was smart enough to quickly answer “Cabaret.”

 As for the geography, the Hornungs have lived in Arden for decades and they know their little village is the perfect place for their favorite theater.

“Being in Arden is not a bad thing when you’re involved in an artistic endeavor,” Tom Hornung says.

This historic theater in Arden has lived many lives. What was originally a barn became the Robin Hood Theatre in the 1930s. It’s opened as The Candlelight Music Dinner Theatre in 1969 and today operates as The Candlelight Theatre.

Family Ties

The Hornungs say they’ve never had a bad experience at the theater, mainly because of the family atmosphere fostered by John and Maureen O’Toole and Julian Boris when they purchased it in 1969 and operated it for the next 31 years.

“It was kind of a family affair,” Sue Hornung says. “Even their kids were involved, in the cast, working in the kitchen or serving meals. And when you do a show here, you’re involved for about six weeks of rehearsals and then another six to seven weeks performing. So, when you’re together with a group of people for months, the cast becomes a family. In local community theater, you rehearse for a while and then you do a show for a couple of weekends and then you don’t see anybody again.

“But here, you’re together for a long time and there’s just a closeness that forms between the cast and the staff. And it’s a unique experience for the audience, because the actors are waiting on them and they get to interact with the people that they see on the stage. You don’t have that in most theaters.”

That’s right — the actors in the play are also the waiters for the dinner portion of the show, another long-standing tradition at the theater.

Kelly agrees the camaraderie of the cast and crew is at the heart of Candlelight’s success, coupled with the ambiance of a small, rustic theater.

“A big part of it is the atmosphere here,” he says. “It’s very family oriented. We even get this comment from a lot of performers — they’re treated in such a way and it’s such a homey atmosphere that they feel like they’re part of a family, and that’s a big reason they constantly want to come back and work here. And a lot of the audience feels the same way and they’re really loyal to the theater for all of the productions.”

The Shows Must Go On

Kelly is responsible for deciding which productions hit the stage at the Candlelight Theatre, and that isn’t as easy as it might sound.

“It’s the thing I look forward to the least every year,” he says with a laugh. “It’s a pain in the neck, to be honest with you. I’ll make a list, see what the theater has done in the past and if it was something that was really successful — but it’s been a long time since we’ve done it. I’ll consider bringing it back.

“But I also like to put on at least one or two shows a year that the theater has never done. Like, next year, we’re doing Sister Act, which has never been done in this theater. And we’re doing It’s a Wonderful Life, which has never been done in this theater. You want to strike that balance. For the most part, people prefer to see something they’re unfamiliar with. I did put The Sound of Music on the schedule, but that hasn’t been done in this theater in almost 15 years, so I felt comfortable bringing it back and, of course, it’s a classic. So, you want to make sure everybody gets a little bit of something.”

But to get that “something,” you may be waiting until 2023. The only remaining major production for 2022, Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, is already sold out. (A small number of tickets may become available; call the box office at 302-475-2313.)

As for the past, the most repeated show at The Candlelight Theatre is Fiddler on the Roof (eight times). Next is A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (five times), which was also the first production staged in 1969 when the theater was reborn as the Candlelight Music Dinner Theatre.

The Price Is Right

A lot has changed since then, but one thing has remained constant — the performances at The Candlelight Theatre have remained comparatively affordable, which is another reason the theater keeps chugging along.

“That’s one thing that keeps people coming back,” Sue Hornung says. “If you go out to dinner [at a restaurant] you’re going to easily spend $100-$135, when you include drinks and extras. If you go to the Candlelight, you can buy a season pass for $354 a person for six shows. That’s six dinners and six shows for $354, so you can go out every couple of months and it’s a lot less expensive than going to a good restaurant, plus you get to see a great show. So, it’s very affordable and people really respond to that.”

As for the meals, Tom Hornung praises current Candlelight chef David Ramirez for making the food an equal partner with the performances.

A scene from The Candlelight Theatre’s production of Mama Mia.

“He does a great job of preparing great food with fresh ingredients and it’s much better than most dinner theaters,” he says. “I think most people expect the food to be pretty ordinary and we always hear from them that they’re surprised at how good and fresh everything is. That’s a key element in why people keep coming back — great shows along with great food.”

Still, everyone agrees the biggest reason for the Candlelight Theatre’s continued success was the decision to become a partial non-profit in 2006 and complete non-profit in 2010. Money from the Delaware Division of Arts and other entities has allowed theater management to keep its 150-seat ship afloat while keeping prices reasonable.

“It’s a small, intimate theater and there’s no way we could put on the kinds of shows we do without the help of the Delaware Division of the Arts and the various grants we’ve applied for,” Sue Hornung say, pointing to the rising costs of food, as well as some recent upgrades for the theater that were deemed necessary for safety and comfort.

Of course, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. Like all entertainment and hospitality venues, the Candlelight was broadsided by the pandemic and had to shut its doors for more than a year. Now, it’s finally starting to hit its pre-pandemic stride.

“We’re actually in a better place than I expected,” Kelly says. “And I think that’s because of the smallness of the space and the fact that we’re so supported by the Arden community that we’ve been able to recover.

“But, for a year there it was really tough, and thanks to the generosity of people who have donated to the theater and the fundraisers we had — as well as the response from the community — we were able to get over the hump and get started again.”

— For more information on The Candlelight Theatre, including show times and prices, call 302-475-2313 or go to CandlelightTheatreDelaware.org.