Lancaster, Pa.'s American Music Theater Opens to a Full House

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BY JORGE SIDRON

LANCASTER, Pa. -- The American Music Theatre opened here on April 12 without an empty seat in the house.

In fact, advance ticket sales passed $500,000 shortly after construction began on the 55,000-square-foot theater last fall and were expected to reach $4 million by opening night, said Gregg Halteman, the theater's director of sales and marketing.

Built at a cost of $10 million, the 1,600-seat theater, which will employ up to 100 full-time workers, is a welcome addition to the tourist industry in Lancaster County.

The theater's first performance, "From Branson to Broadway," came less than four months after Sight & Sound, a 1,400-seat Christian-based theater in Strasburg, burned down.

"We're looking at $40 million in economic impact the first year based on overnight stays and day trippers," said Allan Erselius, president of the Pennsylvania Dutch Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"American Music Theatre will be a very significant addition to the Lancaster County tourist package."

Were Sight & Sound -- which pulled in $55 million last year -- operating, tourist officials were hoping for a 10% increase in payroll taxes in Lancaster County this year with the two large theaters operating simultaneously, said Erselius.

Halteman, the former director of sales at Sight & Sound, said the fire that destroyed Sight & Sound actually hurt ticket sales at American Music Theatre.

"We weren't strong enough on our own to hold on to all of the multiday bookings," said Halteman. "When the Sight & Sound component disappeared, there were a lot of people who didn't want to take the chance of something new being the reason for their trip."

However, armed with a $500,000 advertising campaign and lots of positive press, "we're now starting to break loose," Halteman reported.

Of the 475,000 people who are expected to visit American Music Theatre this year, about 85% will come by motorcoach from the Northeast , the Midwest, the Carolinas and even California, with the rest coming from Lancaster and the surrounding area, said Halteman.

The theater's primary client will be 50 to 75 years old, female and retired, he said.

Designed in an opulent style, the American Music Theatre features an open dome atop a three-story lobby, vaulted windows and spiral staircases leading up to a balcony. The use of pillars and red brick borrows heavily from its Lancaster County roots.

Performances will be staged on a 65-foot stage augmented by nine-foot-tall video screens.

Seating is especially generous, with extra-wide seats, high chair backs and nearly twice the legroom found in other theaters, said Halteman.

There is parking space for more than 450 cars, plus more than 20 motorcoaches.

"From Branson to Broadway," which is scheduled to run through Oct. 25, features a cast of six singers and 20 dancers, and is backed up by a 12-piece orchestra and a technical crew of 16.

Described as "a celebration of the American music experience," the show opens in an Amish community with the cast singing in Old Order German. The scene is built around the traditional work of the Amish, including a barn raising. When the barn doors close at the end of the scene, they open a few moments later, seemingly transformed to a contemporary country-and- western barn dance.

From there it's on to New York, where the first act concludes in a celebration of the music of Broadway.

The second act is built on an immigration theme and celebrates our nation's founding.

Live theater, augmented by video, transports the audience to Ellis Island, and then on a journey through the Midwest, the West Coast and the South, in scenes that pay homage to the spirit of working families across the country.

With a price tag of $1 million, the show uses 30 different sets, 350 costumes and 250 multimedia images, including video, slides and still photographs. The show will be performed a total of 403 times this year, about 12 times a week, from Tuesday through Sunday.

Ticket prices range from $12.50 for children 3 to 17 to $25 for adults and are refundable. Group rates for 25 or more are slightly lower.

Although the theater itself does not serve food, it offers packages with seven local restaurants that include a meal and show tickets.

During the Christmas season, the theater will stage "Holiday Treasures," a look at the holiday traditions of Europe, before bringing "From Branson to Broadway" back for the 1998 season.

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