Murry’s Dinner Playhouse is a modern classic

It’s embarrassing to admit that I knew about Murry’s Dinner Playhouse for almost 15 years before setting foot inside and settling in for a show. If you haven’t been, perhaps it has hovered for years on the edge of your awareness, like it did on mine, as a thing that you could do, but then didn’t, because the idea of it seemed too new, or too old, or too much like something your grandparents would enjoy more. As to why, anybody’s guess is as good as mine. But boy am I glad I finally did, because I had no idea what I was missing.

Murry’s Dinner Playhouse began as the Olde West Dinner Theatre in 1967, which places it among the country’s top 10 oldest dinner theaters and also among its longest-running. “I was here when they were pouring the concrete,” says Ike Murry McEntire, current owner and producer of the theater and grandson of original owner Ike Murry.

“We have customers who’ve been coming since opening night,” says McEntire.

“We have employees who’ve been here since the ’90s,” which is when McEntire took over the business, dropping everything at the age of 27 and stepping in when his grandfather became ill in 1990. Needless to say, the relationship to the past is tangible.

The formula at Murry’s is simple and successful: Feed and entertain people at an affordable price, presenting a mix of comedies and musicals, and not too much drama—there’s enough of that to contend with off the stage. And it hasn’t changed much since day one, which might be part of why I arrived to find a packed house for a Wednesday matinee. The show was “Smokey Joe’s Cafe,” a musical revue of 39 classic pop, rock ‘n’ roll and rhythm and blues songs by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller and the longest-running musical revue in Broadway history.

This production was a perfect match of show and venue: singing, dancing, costume changes, easy-to-follow plot (okay, no real plot to speak of) and an overall cheerful vibe with some earnest laughs thrown in. Throw in a massive buffet and a modest price tag, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a better entertainment deal.

Speaking of the buffet, it really is impressive. The chef at Murry’s works to create thematic menus to go along with each show, and every spread features a carving station, several entrees, multiple salads and sides, plus a staggering variety of desserts. A man who came up to the dessert station while I was trying to decide between two sensed my bewilderment and said, helpfully, “You don’t have to choose, honey. Go ahead and have one of each.”

For its 50th anniversary season, Murry’s is revisiting its history with special programs highlighting some of the illustrious performers who’ve graced the Murry’s stage in the past, such as Veronica Lake, Marjorie Lord, best known for her long running role opposite Danny Thomas on the TV sitcom Make Room for Daddy, and Marie Lord, who gained notoriety as the “dumb blonde” in the radio serial and subsequent TV show My Friend Irma and later shared the screen with the likes of James Cagney and Jimmy Stewart.

Murry’s isn’t only about nostalgia.

The stage as also been graced by several Arkansan performers who are well-known today, including Wes Bentley, Amy Lee (of Evanescence) and George Newbern. “We try to cast locally,” says McEntire. “Little Rock is very fortunate between The Rep and us and community theaters, plus proximity to Branson, to have a lot of good talent here. And we’re very proud of the fact that we’re one of two paying theaters in Little Rock.” So there’s another reason to catch a show there—you never know whose first career steps you might be witnessing.

To get ready for the next 50 years in operation, Murry’s shut down to do a technical and cosmetic overhaul, updating lights, doing sound work and stage upgrades, painting and landscaping. “Sets are built here, costumes are made here,” says McEntire. “We have two weeks rehearsal for each show. Our only dark day is Monday, and we have two shows on Sundays.” The level of involvement in each production and grueling performance schedule add up to a show quite contrary to the drowsy dinner theater you might be imagining. So what do you have to lose in giving it a go? I did, and all I lost were my outdated notions.