When I was making the transition from performer to writer I learned two important truths: 1) The only way to become known for writing is to write; and 2) The choice writing assignments go to the guy the producers think of first.
For someone just starting out, this means ‘casting your bread upon the water’… writing on spec, circulating unsolicited scripts and developing a reputation for being the go-to guy for original ideas and effective storytelling.
Eventually, if you stick at it long enough and get the right breaks, someone in a position of power will one day call you into their office and say, “I’ve got an idea, but I need your input.” Then, provided you serve both their need for a writer, your need for a creative outlet, and the audience’s need for a fulfilling experience, you may find yourself in a successful, fun and profitable relationship.
On the other hand, you might find yourself in Hell.
Hell is when you’re employed as the pen of a client with bad ideas, boundless enthusiasm and no insight. Hell is when every instinct tells you the idea you’re working on is a waste of your time and the clients’ money, but they can’t see it. Hell is when you know that, even with your best effort, all that work will only result in a bored and confused audience.
But worst of all… even worse than the endless, dispiriting treadmill of such a situation… is when you know that in that client’s desk is the original, perfect script… the answer to their problems and yours. And if they would just pull their head out of their a** and that script out of the desk, everyone would be happy.
Which brings us to Pirates Dinner Adventure.
I first learned of the project back in the 80s, when a local TV writer came to me looking for a favor. He was being paid $2000 to create a script for a new dinner attraction for International Drive, but – having never written anything for a live show – wanted to give me $200 of that money to write the script for him (At that time I had already opened three such shows in California). He showed me a half-dozen handwritten pages he had gotten from the client… all in pencil and all in Spanish.
The idea, he explained, was to build a movie studio attraction in a vacant lot off of I-Drive. Remember, this was back when Central Florida was touting itself as ‘Hollywood East’ because there were 2 other ‘studios’ being built right around the corner. These Spaniards planned to build a fake movie studio with a lake, some facades and a tram tour that would culminate in a visit to a ‘haunted sound stage’.
In the sound stage would be three sliding doors that would open in turn. Behind the first would be battling knights… behind the second, a science fiction/outer space production… and behind the third would be a pirate movie. The pirates would then burst out of their set and abduct the audience, leading them all onto their ship for the dinner experience.
I had a few misgivings about getting involved with the project… besides the $200 paycheck. Foremost was the thought of trying to deal creatively with the people who had come up with the whole idea in the first place. I pictured a team of people who see someone else’s show or hear an idea they like and think, “Hey! We can do that, too!” Such people never want to hear about what works or why, they want what they want because they want it. So I passed.
Colossal Studios opened as planned and was a critical and operational disaster. The sets on their minuscule backlot were all but wiped out by the first big rain and the show was a hopeless mess. Someone suggested bringing in a new writer to fix the show and the Spaniards lucked into a young talent named Michael La Fleur.
Michael looked at this mess and declared, “It’s a pirate show!” He focused the company’s efforts on telling just the one story – a pirate story. He created vivid characters, great songs, exciting competition, fun audience participation and especially a positive, supportive atmosphere backstage.
But one of the owners had a wife who thought she could write and started adding things to the show. Bad songs, pointless bits of business, circus acts… anything the owners wanted, whether it added to the original story or not, was thrown into the mix.
Then the owners hired a new General Manager… someone with no experience in entertainment, of any kind… and certainly not with the special needs of a multi-million dollar stunt show, where human life is put at risk in every performance. He decided he knew more than any of the industry experts associated with the production. One of his famous quotes, stated while banging his fist for emphasis, was, “I may not have any experience or ever been part of any kind of entertainment before, but I have an artistic eye!”
One memorable battle occurred after the owners returned from a visit to Sea World, determined that what their show needed was dolphins and sea lions! They wanted to stock the shallow pool around the set with these creatures, ignoring the enormous expense… not to mention the legal and humane issues involved. Michael tried everything to talk them out of it. “To begin with, we do not have saltwater in our lagoon.”
The boss’s answer: “We have plenty of salt in the kitchen.”
Eventually, Michael grew weary of the politics and personalities and jumped ship. But the structure he had put in place was so solid… the talent so good… the setting so spectacular… and the theme of piracy so strong… the show ran for years. With the director gone, the ill-equipped and uninformed General Manager took control (I wrote briefly about our encounter in ‘From Dreamer to Dreamfinder’) with nothing to recommend him for the job but this: a willingness to do as he was told.
So the show grew less and less focused, longer and less funny. Soon the audience was being beaten to death with demands for greater and greater participation; the cheers that greeted the actors were milked endlessly, resulting in silent, staring crowds each night. And so many men and children were pressed into service in the name of ‘audience participation’, that most of them couldn’t see the dramatic finale because they were up on the stage – and the only people left in the audience were the mothers.
Still, the show kept running and the guests kept coming, and all the while the owners kept looking for ways to raise the revenues, based on shows and attractions they saw in their travels. They hooked up with a local writer who specialized in ‘edgy, adult’ entertainment and mounted a small club/show for a more mature audience: Treasure Tavern. The suggestive jokes garner many a shocked silence and few laughs, but the setting and some good variety acts save the evening.
In an effort to pull guests away from Medieval Times and Arabian Nights, the Pirates mounted their own horsey show, Camelot Knights, which tried to set the story of King Arthur on a pirate ship. The trouble there was that the staging was wholly unsuitable for any kind of jousting competition, so the ‘exciting’ parts wound up merely confusing and disappointing. A lawsuit was threatened by Medieval Times, even though their show has nothing whatever to do with King Arthur (whose story is surely in the public domain by now, anyway).
Recently Josh and I witnessed one of the first preview performances of Pirates’ version of The Three Musketeers. What, you might ask, does The Three Musketeers have to do with pirates? Good question.
The show begins with a bored host introducing three very good variety acts as a kind of preshow. Again, none of them had anything to do with musketeers or pirates, but this is of necessity… These same three acts will also serve as preshow for the performance of Pirates to follow, then run next door to serve as the finale of Treasure Tavern.
A thief appears to rob the audience, but he is interrupted in this by the appearance of Athos, Porthos and Aramis – our heroes. The dictionary describes ‘panache’ both as the plume on a gentleman’s hat and his sense of zest, of style, of showmanship; any panache these musketeers display is on their hats.
They look and act like high school students who have been issued costumes and a script with which they don’t quite identify. I don’t believe this is their fault, though… their director (if any) is to blame. The first duty of any contemporary actor taking on the mantle of a musketeer is to watch the great movies and performers that have told this story; they obviously have not done this. I suspect these men – and the production – haven’t been so much directed as simply blocked; everyone’s been told where to stand but nothing about their characters or the period. Probably the result of mistaking a fight choreographer for a director.
The very bored host returns as the villain, now suitably energized; he is eventually identified as Cardinal Richelieu. This happens with a lot of characters and plot points in this show, as it did with Camelot Knights; characters are rarely identified and action is unclear and/or unmotivated. Plot points that are to serve as a twist later are set-up so emphatically that there can be no surprise left. And one poor villain disappears behind a tent where, it must be assumed, she is murdered. It would appear that there is supposed to be the shadow of her knifing thrown on the back wall of the tent, but the lighting was such that we never saw it and it was left to us to figure out why she never returned.
Songs in the show consist of melodies from Broadway musicals (i.e. Spamalot and Phantom of the Opera) with new lyrics that will only make you think of – and miss – the originals. Sword fights are played up on the ship using the prerecorded sounds of blades clashing; more often than not laughably out-of-synch. A glance at the audience during these fights revealed a pathetic number of people still watching… most were studying their hand-held devices.
The food and the service were well matched… while they were good enough, there was too little of both, especially considering the prices.
All the publicity about this new show mentions a surprise finish… “A surprise ending to the show will leave guests craving more!” In light of this promise, I was definitely surprised at the end of the show by the complete lack of a surprise at the end of the show. I can’t speak for Josh, but it left me craving more…
I craved, more than anything, a return to the wonderfully entertaining and exciting show that Michael La Fleur had created 17 years ago; the show that saved Pirates Dinner Adventure from dying horribly back then. We’ve got the costumes, we’ve got the actors… The only thing anyone would have to give up is the illusion that he has “an artistic eye”.
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I love themed dinner shows. They are the long-form of the craft. The guests are seated in air-conditioned luxury for 2+ hours, and – if you treat them with kindness and respect – you can have their undivided attention. They become characters in the story you’re telling, participating as much or as little as they wish… and you can even use what they eat and how it’s served to reinforce the story.
I’ve done 7 themed dinner attractions and can’t wait for the 8th to come along… as long as the crew I’m sailing with doesn’t insist on cruising only in pointless circles. Hopefully they’ll share my love of the form and a hearty appetite for that new horizon.