The man behind the curtain

It's the second day of rehearsals for the Mark Two Dinner Theater's production of "The King & I," the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical romance. Local actor Frank McClain already has shaved his head to approximate the look made famous by Yul Brenner, who originated the role of the 19th-century king of Siam on Broadway in 1952 and toured it around the country for umpteen years. It's McClain's first time working at the Mark Two, and he's breaking his own long run: After uncounted performances as the villain in "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" at Disney/MGM Studios, it's time for a change.

Joining 40-year-old McClain onstage is a company of mostly younger thespians. Some are members of Actors' Equity, the union of professional actors and stage managers. Some are gaining credits toward membership. Also onstage is a gaggle of children, cast to portray the king's large brood. Production personnel hover nearby. All await the arrival of the one individual without whose say-so nothing ever happens at the Mark Two, and whose word is absolute law in this small universe of make-believe.

After several minutes, director, producer, theater owner and impresario Mark Howard strolls to his accustomed place and sits at a table in front of the small stage in the College Park building that once housed a Piggly-Wiggly grocery store. (Indeed, backstage sit several heavy sliding doors that used to open to the freezer compartments.)

"Good morning everyone. How are you all today?" asks Howard.

The assemblage mumbles a tired reply. Howard repeats the greeting -- louder and a bit more insistently. At that, the group chimes back in lively unison. Whether from experience or repute, they know that Howard, like a parent, wants to know he has been heard.

Then the workday begins. For the next several hours, Howard will instruct, cajole and hector his company into conforming, as precisely as possible, to his vision of how the play should connect visually, musically and, most important, emotionally with the audience.

Howard directs move by move, sometimes word by word, giving line readings and inflections. "Cross down, and turn out... then say your line. No, wait, then say it. All right. Now go back up. Where are you going? I didn't tell you to go there."

Even for practiced performers it can be a harrowing and intense experience, but Howard knows precisely what he wants, and time is extremely short for him to get it. He has only nine days from the first script reading to the opening matinee to mount a complete, albeit small-scale, professional musical-theater production -- and as Howard maintains, directing is not something that can be done by committee. After 120 local productions, he has his routine down cold.

Howard has been running the Mark Two for 15 seasons. He opened his first Florida theater in Lakeland in 1983 and purchased the current operation three years later from the Rovine family, who had transformed the supermarket space and ran it as Once Upon a Stage for about 10 years. Although Howard says that with the many talented people he employs, the theater could run without him, it is hard to imagine how. He is the proverbial one-man show, managing the business, choosing the seasons, auditioning and hiring actors and staff, and producing and directing all the shows.

And it is Howard's grueling determination and vision that has made the Mark Two a successful business, employing from 80 to 100 people at any given time (including actors, food preparers, waiters, box-office staff, costumers and administrators), as well as a thriving theater company in a town where many others have fallen by the wayside. It is a success made even more impressive when set against the city's faltering steps to subsidize downtown stages for itinerant theater troupes, not to mention the drawn-out demise of the Civic Theatres of Central Florida.

"We are second only to the Broadway series at the Bob Carr in terms of yearly attendance," say Howard, whose shows play to 75,000 to 90,000 patrons a year.

Howard's survival in this difficult profession is the result of hard work (he often puts in 12- to 15-hour days); canny commercial considerations (shows that "sell" are given priority over shows that might offer more sublime experiences); and a season that never allows a dark week (productions run eight times a week, 52 weeks a year).

And unlike many other theater ventures, Howard's business is not a nonprofit enterprise that would be eligible for foundation and charitable grants and, in cases like the Civic, taxpayer bailouts when poor administrative decisions force the institution into the red. Howard must pay the bills with box-office receipts alone. Also, unlike many local companies, the Mark Two pays all of its actors -- in the case of union performers -- the highest wages in town outside of the theme parks. The theater, according to Howard, "is not making us rich, but we're doing well."

At one time there were about 160 professional dinner theaters in the country, offering everything from the best to the worst in both culinary and stage fare. Today, there are fewer than 20 nationwide operating under Equity contracts. So in addition to the difficulties connected with running any theater company, Howard has to contend with all the stereotypes associated with the "dying art" of dinner theater -- that only old people like the shows, and that the food is fit only for the same rest-home-age denizens. Of course, the other myth that Howard has to deal with is his reputation within the local theater community as a dominating autocrat who bullies his hirelings.

Scott Reed, who worked as Howard's assistant for four years in the early '90s and returned a few years ago to be the general manager, enjoys putting those myths to rest. Sitting in his windowless berth behind the box office (Reed's view of the parking lot was closed off in 1994, when Howard expanded the lobby and added a gift and memorabilia shop), Reed offers both statistics and theories, while busily fielding phone calls and visits from the staff.

"It's true that a large portion of the theater's patrons are elderly," he noted, "but that's only for the three weekly matinees, when younger audiences are at work. Evening shows tend to be more mixed. In fact, over the last year, the theater saw a 72 percent increase in the 25- to 35-year-old crowd."

Patrons are those with the time and money to spend (a show with food can be a five-hour affair, and tickets range from the high $20s to the low $40s -- though still less than the $35-$60 for touring Broadway shows), as well as the taste for classic American musicals (newer and bolder works are not to be found). As for the food, Reed notes with pride that the place recently received the Sentinel's Palate Pleaser Award for the best dinner-theater food in Orlando.

He stresses that Howard's desire to achieve excellent service for his patrons, coupled with his "great vision" for his shows, is often misinterpreted by others as authoritarianism. "From the business side, there is actually great affection for Mark," he says, and many people have either worked for him for years or have returned after stretching their wings with other ventures.

One of the people who has been with Howard the longest is Pat Nugent, his musical director and close friend. In the early days, Nugent would be on hand for every show, playing one of the two grand pianos that accompanied the actors. For the past several years, though, he has bowed to technology and now records each show's entire score on synthesizer.

Nugent, too, deflects stories about Howard's temper. "I think it's mainly a result of the pressures of production week and the attitudes of some performers," says Nugent. "In his attempt to put on a show, he might offend someone, and they store it up for revenge. Some people are not used to being directed." Nugent admits he sometimes wishes Howard's "technique" for getting what he wants were otherwise, but he quickly notes that age and time have softened Howard's rougher edges.

Howard himself confesses to intermittent bouts of impatience. He often traces his reputation for explosive anger to one incident a few years back. It's a story he likes to tell every cast, and has become well known as "the sawdust tale."

It seems that several years ago, Howard noticed that an unusual amount of sawdust on the theater's shop floor was finding its way into the dining and stage areas. He advised the stage carpenter that the mess was unsightly and dangerous, not to mention illegal, and that each night it had to be cleaned up.

"I came in the next day and nothing was done," says Howard. "So I repeated my request and why it needed to be followed, and the next day, still nothing happened. Finally, after several days of this, I blew up at him, and they tell me my angry voice was loud enough to be heard throughout the building, even scaring some of the patrons. But from that day on, the sawdust was routinely cleaned up."

The occurrence became fodder for backstage folklore. Now, whenever his pique is aroused, Howard calmly but stonily peers at whoever has galvanized his displeasure and quietly pronounces, "Sawdust." At that moment the offender knows it's time to snap to attention.

In the end, Howard simply shrugs when questions of his volatility remain.

"I try very hard to make things pleasant for people, and I never go out of my way to offend or hurt anyone. Some people will not like the way things are run, but it is my job to accomplish what needs to be done." And he adds, rhetorically, "Why do people come back and work here if I'm this mean person?"

And come back they do. Howard's upstairs office features book- and score-lined shelves, several blinking computers (which, among other tasks, help churn out the theater's 16-page newsletter) and theatrical posters. But most prominently placed are filing cabinets overflowing with actors' resumes and head shots.

"Angela, how many pictures do you think we've got there?" he asks an assistant. "Oh, I don't know," he says, finally. "Hundreds and hundreds, at any rate." Indeed, over the years, many locals have trod upon the Mark Two's boards.

And, according to Howard, Nugent and Reed, the talent pool keeps getting bigger and better. This is largely due to the increased number of union professionals who decide to make Orlando their home after being recruited by the theme parks. The result of this evolution is higher-quality shows but also steeper payroll costs, due to the augmented use of Equity performers. Howard, though, is unconcerned with rising talent budgets.

A former actor, singer and opera performer who trained at the American and Musical Dramatic Society and studied with teaching legend Sanford Meisner in New York, Howard's overriding concern is finding the best person for each role. Many observers feel that casting is Howard's key strength. If he can't find the suitable candidate among the many hopefuls he faces at each show's auditions, his extensive list of contacts almost always assures the correct fit for every part.

This is why Howard thinks his shows are so well received by his audiences, 5,000 of whom buy yearly subscriptions to the entire seven- or eight-show season. Knowing that his small stage limits the size and effect of the large production numbers that many Broadway musicals rely upon, Howard must attempt to more closely involve his onlookers into the inner lives of the show's protagonists.

"Successful theater has to have the audience participating in, rather than just observing, the story unfolding before them. So I'm constantly reminding the actors that they must re-create rather than merely duplicate the feelings and passions of their characters."

But if the public appreciates what Howard offers, it has been an altogether different story with the local press. Howard, Nugent and Reed all agree, with varying levels of intensity, that press coverage and criticism of Mark Two's work has been less than kind over the years.

"Scandalous," Nugent calls it.

Howard maintains, "Local reviewers neither understand what their role as critics should be nor what we are trying to do by offering a repertoire of classic American musicals."

He also feel that the individual who generally writes up the shows for the area's only daily simply has a bias against the form -- a bias that won't be left at home. And Orlando Weekly rarely reviews Howard's shows at all, preferring to send its critics to more experimental or contemporary fare.

Though there is no scientific way to measure the results of reviews, Howard maintains that his attendance numbers prove that they do have an impact.

"Good reviews help, bad ones hurt," he says. It's as simple as that.

But after all these years, he is resigned to being maligned and misunderstood, unable to shake the feeling that dinner theater in general is seen as "schlock," and that his work in particular is discriminated against because it just isn't hip enough for the local opinion makers.

Reed wishes that "more people would understand that in presenting the kind of shows the Mark Two does, it is keeping alive a truly important part of our culture -- preserving and celebrating a uniquely American form of entertainment."

Yet if it's true that Howard's audience tends to be closer to the end of their theatergoing days than the beginning, and that carving out new demographics is difficult, then how will the taste for this indigenous art form be maintained and passed along to the next generation of patrons? One answer is being addressed by the Mark Two's upcoming foray into the world of children's theater.

Howard is planning to present a series of children's musicals during the few hours that the theater is dark. The timing of this move is unquestionably another of his sagacious business decisions, coming as it does on the heels of the Civic Theatres' recent demise. It was the Civic that formerly featured several well-attended children's shows each season. With its production schedule out of commission, the field is ripe for plucking. And once the kids get to enjoy live musical theater written for them, the conventional wisdom is that it should open the way for expanded marketing opportunities to their parents and teachers.

Another audience that the theater would like to get its hands on are the tourists who are, more than ever, being held captive by the theme parks' expanded schedules. But even here, possibilities exist. With the closing of several area themed restaurants, including King Henry's Feast and Wild Bill's Dinner Theatre in Kissimmee, Howard is hoping that more out-of-town visitors will take the time to patronize his venue. Since the majority of Howard's audience members come from within a 75-mile radius of Orlando, there would be great potential financial benefits if he could tap into the tourist trade.

So at an age when many of his contemporaries are contemplating retirement, Howard is busy gearing up for the next show, the next season and the next opportunity. Several health problems have slowed him down over the past few years, but they show no sign of stopping him. Howard adamantly believes, "It's important to Orlando to have a commercial entity in this town doing the kind of shows we do."

Not to mention the fact that the Mark Two has become "more like an extended family than just a business over the years," says Howard, "and I feel that I owe it to my employees to stay in operation as long as I'm able to work and the theater is surviving."

But the main reason that Howard will likely soldier on is the emotion he undoubtedly felt a few months back as he stood at the end of the theater's narrow green room during an intermission of "South Pacific." As the cast members were gabbing and showboating, high on the energy they were getting from the audience, some people noticed Howard surveying the merry scene with a contented smile on his face. This was his doing and his domain. And if one has to work, why not do this every day?

Al Krulick, a regular columnist and theater reviewer for Orlando Weekly, has worked under Mark Howard's direction himself, most recently in the Mark Two's production of "South Pacific."

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