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 firstname.lastname@example.org ).
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.