A new twist on dinner and a show

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The Ben D. Bollinger Candlelight Pavilion showcases quality local talent for 25 years counting.

Center stage to an audience focused on its own dinner entertainment, guitarist Seth Greenberg, Ph.D., college professor and acclaimed artist, performs prior to an April start of “Thoroughly Modern Millie.” / photo by Michael D. Martinez

Center stage to an audience focused on its own dinner entertainment, guitarist Seth Greenberg, Ph.D., college professor and acclaimed artist, performs prior to an April start of “Thoroughly Modern Millie.” / photo by Michael D. Martinez

by Lauryl Bakke
photography by Michael D. Martinez

Shoes squeaking across a hardwood floor, the buzz of the scoreboard as time expires, the cheer of a fan-filled crowd and the bouncing of a basketball circling the rim – these were all familiar sounds in the building that once housed the former Claremont High School gymnasium. But now athletic cheers are only a forgotten echo to the sounds of Big Band music, show tunes beautifully being sung and the applause from capacity crowds of entertained people who fill the building now known as the Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater. Since its beginning 25 years ago, the Candlelight Pavilion has been a family affair, and it is this strong, unique trait that keeps its patrons coming back for more.

The start of the show

It all started when the theater’s founder Ben D. Bollinger was approached in 1983 by Sandy Sanford, owner of the Griswold’s complex on the site of the old Claremont High School. Bollinger was the dean of music at Citrus College and staged a yearly Christmas show, attended that year by Sanford. Sandy propositioned a better use for his gym building, which was currently being used for receptions and special events. It was on a napkin that the plan was conceived—a dinner theater—one unlike any that had been done before in the community, and one that would prove successful. At first, everything was split: Ben was in charge of the theater and Sandy the food. Ben brought in his family to help staff the new venture, and the simple plan born on a napkin began turning into a reality.

Son Michael “Mick” Bollinger, now general manager, remembers the opening days at his dad’s theater. “I didn’t start any higher than busboy; I had to learn every job before I could move up in the ranks.” Mick, then a Citrus College student, first transfered to the University of Southern California to start a music business major. But when his dad took on the dinner theater, Mick decided to move close and started his degree in Hotel and Restaurant Management at Cal Poly, Pomona. In 1990, when Ben Bollinger took over the Candlelight Pavilion as sole owner, Mick earned the chance to move up to general manager. He has successfully been running the theater ever since.

Mick is not the only one involved in the Candlelight Pavilion, as many family faces and names can be seen and heard throughout the building. From his sister Mindy in production and human resources, to his mother in payroll and accounts payable to his daughter in the box office, the Candlelight Pavilion is truly a family-run business. Even the employees not a part of the Bollinger family have been embraced and, through the years, have become part of the family, with most employees having worked for the theater for many years. From employees to actors to audience, family is a running theme at the Candlelight Pavilion. “I did the very first show at the Candlelight Pavilion; it’s always been a home to me,” describes John Lalonde, actor and artistic director for the Pavilion. “I left and then came back in 1995 and started directing while still doing shows. It was a great opportunity to get the chance to direct.” Many of the current actors performed at the theater early in their careers and end up coming back to do more because of that family atmosphere. “You hope you cast people who get along,” explains actress Leslie Scott. “It’s the frosting on the cake.”

Behind the scenes

Not only can one feel the family-run atmosphere when attending a show, but also the personal touches and the intimate, catered feeling that brings people back time-after-time and makes the Candlelight Pavilion a special and unique dinner/theater venue. “We only serve fresh food; we even make our own ice cream,” says Mick of the great dishes they serve. Everything is controlled and run by the Bollinger family when it comes to the dining experience, the building and the shows. They make all the on-set costumes, which, post production, are then rented out and benefit school theater productions. They design and construct all set elements. The food is carefully thought out and made fresh for the audience, and the actors are auditioned and hand picked for every production. The Candlelight Pavilion stages about 10 shows a year, all taking months of advanced planning to carry out successfully. “It’s like a jig saw puzzle,” says Mick, describing the process of choosing shows. “We have to find what shows are available, but we don’t get first pick. Any large tours or remakes being run at the same time cannot be done; then we have to find what tracks fit the shows.” It is a complex, tedious process to put out a yearly theater schedule, but it is well planned with the audience in mind. Some shows are even requested to be brought back by the loyal patrons who come to the theater.

Doing it for the children

A unique annual show is the Summer Children’s Program and Workshop. This three-week program helps children with their acting ambitions and covers everything from headshots to theater etiquette, ending with a performance. Children of all ages learn the theater trade via hands-on advice from professionals who work behind the scenes and on the stage. At the end of the three-week program, the children put on an actual theater performance. This year it is “Once Upon a Mattress,” to be performed in front of a paying Candlelight Pavilion audience. This unique experience helps community children enhance their love and knowledge for the theater and gives them the opportunity to launch a career and do another show for the Candlelight Pavilion. The annual Christmas production has become a favorite, too, of many Candlelight Pavilion patrons, new and old alike.

From great food, amazing service, an entertaining show and everything in between, the Candlelight Pavilion is a dining and entertainment experience that is unique and special. As the room fills with thunderous applause, the cast takes its final bow, and the audience is full of complimentary and enthusiastic chatter. The curtain may be going down for “The Pajama Game,” but after 25 successful years of entertainment and community involvement, the curtain will be going up countless times in the future, as Ben D. Bollinger’s Candlelight Pavilion and Dinner Theater continues to bring quality entertainment to the Inland Valley.

For information and show times, visit the website www.candlelightpavilion.com.

Upcoming Shows

The Candlelight Pavilion is known for its entertaining and unforgettable shows, and for the 2010 season, that is on par with “Will Rogers Follies,” (closing Sept. 26), an intriguing revue that spotlights the glamour of Will’s Ziegfeld Follies days. Also showing throughout the season is “Return to Sin City: Big Band Nights 2010.” Sure to be a hit is the “Silver Jubilee” (Oct. 1-3) that celebrates 25 years of the theater’s success, revisiting more than 170 productions, countless familiar faces and unforgettable memories. Ben Bollinger and family will serve as hosts.

Mick Bollinger, general manager of the Candlelight Pavilion and son of founder Ben D. Bollinger, takes pride in the success of his family’s dinner theater. / photo by Michael D. Martinez

Mick Bollinger, general manager of the Candlelight Pavilion and son of founder Ben D. Bollinger, takes pride in the success of his family’s dinner theater. / photo by Michael D. Martinez

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