Demise of dinner theatre related to bad deal more than criminal investigation of its owner

Sunday, July 24, 2011 at 7:05pm
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Eric England/SouthComm 

When the curtain fell abruptly on the Nashville Dinner Theatre’s run in a historic Printer’s Alley venue last month, it stopped a production group that had started to see some success, breathing life back into the downtown theater/club space. But soon the cost of renovation, rent and a sideline legal squabble brought that potential to a show-stopping halt. 

Before moving in late last summer, Kaine Riggan, the theater group’s owner and producer, searched for a year for space to house his dinner theater troupe. Rent topping out at about $8,000 a month for performance space would have quickly killed the deal anywhere else, but when Riggan found the theater that was once the home of “Yakety Sax” saxophonist Boots Randolph’s own dinner club in the late ’70s, it seemed like a good fit — not the least bit because of a supposed agreement to split the net take. 

After $150,000 in renovations, according to Riggan, the Nashville Dinner Theatre opened to the public Nov. 12 with Joyce DeWitt — who played Janet on TV’s Three’s Company — headlining in the Kaine-penned Scattered, Smothered and Covered Christmas for a fall run of the Waffle House-themed Christmas musical. DeWitt and company were set to return for a reprise this winter. 

A production of the The Odd Couple featuring Richard Moll — Bull Shannon from the ’80s courtroom comedy Night Court — made a run at the theater in January through March, following an appearance by Ruben Studdard of American Idol renown.

According to Chris Hancock, partner at Cumberland Commercial Partners Inc., the realty firm now trying to lease or sell the newly renovated theater, delinquent rent payments followed by repeated warnings for Riggan to pay up led to an eviction notice. Riggan and company were locked out of the property at 209 Third Ave. N. (the theater has entrances on both Third Avenue and Printer’s Alley) in late June. 

But Riggan said what he thought was an arrangement with the building’s owner to split the take at the door instead became a flat $8,000 rent, preventing his theater group from making the money to pay the bills, or even the staff. 

Attempts by The City Paper to reach Randall Higgs, listed as the property owner on a Metro website, were unsuccessful. Riggan said he and Higgs had come to the arrangement to share proceeds. 

“For a young theater company, that’s very, very difficult, and I was worried. … It was like, ‘What do I do?’ ” Riggan said. “I’m already in the building. The only thing I [could] do was stick with it and try to make some money back.”

Short on a long-term lease, Riggan found no one willing to pony up investment capital in the theater — which had been empty for three years prior to Riggan’s group coming in — so he stuck it out as long as he could.

Hancock granted that Riggan and company “did a fantastic job of putting together a great show — and performance-wise it was phenomenal — but from the business side, it wasn’t all there.”

 

Last fall, adding to the Nashville Dinner Theatre’s difficulty of getting up and running at the downtown space with its Waffle House-themed premiere, Riggan and the Nashville Dinner Theatre faced a legal dispute over ownership of set props — including Waffle House-style restaurant booths and swinging doors. 

Riggan said he had permission to take the props from the Donelson Senior Center, where he’d produced Scattered in previous years. Weeks later, the police showed up investigating the alleged theft of the props, which led to burglary and theft charges against Riggan. That case is still ongoing.

Around the same time, however, Riggan filed a temporary injunction against the Donelson Senior Center. In that matter, a judge found sufficient evidence based on sworn affidavits of those involved to grant Riggan and the Nashville Dinner Theatre the right to use the props for the extent of the Scattered production featuring DeWitt.

FiftyForward’s Jane Schnelle, director of the senior center, didn’t want to comment on the ongoing burglary and theft case, and directed The City Paper to FiftyForward executive director Janet Jernigan. A phone message stated Jernigan was out of town until after the deadline for this article. 

Dick Eason, counsel for Riggan in the criminal case, wouldn’t comment on the specifics of those proceedings. Regarding the closing of the Nashville Dinner Theatre, Eason said the situation amounts to “just financial problems” — nothing to do with the criminal case against the company’s chief. 

“It’s just a classic story of a business going under due to finances,” Eason said, adding that Riggan said he’d honor any refund requests from guests who bought season tickets or believe they have a claim (email info@nashvilledinnertheatre.com). 

After the abrupt shuttering, Riggan said there were also some Groupon deals that had to be refunded. 

“It was no more than a small business trying to pay an overhead of eight grand a month,” Riggan said. 

Now, with the Nashville Dinner Theatre locked out, Riggan faces vendor debt and other expenses as the prime downtown nightlife real estate stands newly renovated and ready for a deep-pocketed investor. 

As Cumberland Commercial looks to broker a deal, Riggan must stand aside and wait to see how the rest of the story unfolds.  

8 Comments on this post:

By: danny52 on 7/25/11 at 9:54

It's a sad end to a promising beginning. In more than 40 years on Nashville stages, I count opening night, November 12, in Kaine Riggan's A Scattered, Smothered & Covered Christmas, as the most thrilling opening night of my life. Building owner Randy Higgs was certainly beaming as we played to houses packed literally to the rafters and brought new, upscale entertainment to Printers Alley. In 1937, Walt Disney walked into the opening night screening of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs facing certain financial ruin had it not proven to be a hit. Elton John, Willie Nelson, George Jones, and writers Mark Twain and Oscar Wilde filed bankruptcy. But in the face of financial and legal battles, Kaine Riggan still shines as a brilliant playwright, producer and director. Joyce DeWitt herself ranked him in the top comedy directors of her career when she starred in Kaine's Nashville production of Dearly Departed several years ago, even before her success with NDT's Scattered." I'm sure after Kaine and Co.'s blood, sweat and tears transformed Boots Randolph's tarnished old club into a jaw-dropping, up-to-codes sparkling jewel of a showplace, owner Higgs will find it easier to lease and I'd guess he most likely had offers to outbid Kaine before NDT was shut out. After the nightmare of trying to keep that grand showboat afloat in shallow waters, I'm hoping Kaine is at least relieved and able to focus on the future and to write some more plays. Thanks to Kaine for many rewarding stage experiences and thanks to James Nix and The City Paper for fair investigative reporting.

By: livinglively57 on 7/25/11 at 11:54

I was so sorry to see NDT closed. My husband and I were so impressed with the facilities and quality of the stage productions...it seemed like Nashville was bringing us some real adult entertainment for the locals and tourists alike, instead of the usual bar scene that permeates here.
Once again, we find ourselves only venturing out to eat in Nashville and buying our Southwest ticket deals to Chicago and NYC when we want entertainment. There is so little to do in this town.

By: freddy on 7/26/11 at 8:05

I don't share danny52's gratitude for Mr. Nix's investigative reporting. The crux of this matter seems to hinge on the lease, confusion over a flat fee or sharing the door. Why not look at the lease and see what it says? These things don't just change midstream, yet Mr. Nix doesn't seem to be interested in that aspect.

By: theaterguy on 7/26/11 at 8:36

I have had the honor or knowing Mr Riggan for many years. and While I agree that he has some fantastic ideas, is a very charming and likable man, it has to be said that there is something very wrong with this artical and with Mr. Riggan himself. The alleged path of destruction left behind by Mr Riggen from everything from theft to questionable relationships needs to be looked at closley. Rumors are just that rumors, but when things like this come to light, It sure makes those rumors look very believable. In the past Mr Riggen has been able to make his accusers look like they seem to attack him for no reason. Perhaps the community needs to reevaluate the past situations where Mr Riggen has put on a great show in order to gloss over events and come out smelling like a Mamma Rose.
I am just sorry that the Nashville Theater scene has once again had to face a obstical that could discourage patrons from supporting the wonderful smaller theater companies in the area.
Kaine Riggen is truly one of the most charismatic snake oil salesman I have ever encountered. But in the end, Its all show.

By: INDUETIME on 7/26/11 at 11:10

I have to agree with theatreguy on this one. The theater was awesome and well rehabbed. However, I find it odd that Mr. Riggan would dump so much money into the venue and not have an ironclad contract in place. Maybe it goes back to the crux of his history with ending things on bad notes and calling it something else. Sucks that Nashville lost a great theater due to poor planning and shady management..

By: DJdDub on 7/26/11 at 3:43

Why is it that people have amnesia when it comes to David Kaine Riggan? Everyone in the theater community knows, has heard or was there for something that has happened when he's around.

This is a SMALL town and when you get into a sub group . . . even smaller. He's hopped from place to place - Circle Players, Cumberland County Playhouse, Tennessee Arts Commission, Nashville Dinner Theatre at Fifty Forward and the mystery job he may or may not have had on the West Coast BUT would ANY of those organizations hire him back?

The rules for theater are basic and hold true in most every situation:

* Be on time.
* If it's not yours, don't touch it.
* Be where you're supposed to be and no where else.
* Come prepared and don't waste time.

Maybe if these rules had been more closely followed by the management of NDT it would still be around.

Now, back to the other great theatre companies in town.

By: danny52 on 7/26/11 at 10:05

I stand by my original post wholeheartedly and will be the first in line for the next Kaine Riggan production.

By: SmilingZebra on 7/27/11 at 11:03

Jane Schnelle doesn't need to comment to the writer when she can simply post annonymous comments slandering Kaine's name at the tail end of the article.

It's so obvious by the tone of the comment that this is a personal issue with her and she is on a mission.