SUN CITY CENTER
Four years ago, Andy Oosthuizen owned nothing but a toothbrush and the clothes he wore. Opening a dinner theater in Florida was the last thing on his mind. It was April 2006. White farmers in South Africa had burned down his restaurant and store. They didn't approve of him allowing black children to go to school on his property. "It was a case of life being so complicated there," Oosthuizen, who is white, said as he sat at a table in the Palace Dinner Theatre. Beside the 64-year-old, a stage awaits actors while neatly set tables are positioned just so for the next crowd. Staying "wouldn't have been worth putting my life in danger," he said.
This was the second time he said he had to flee his country. The first was in 1979, when Oosthuizen said he sought political asylum in England for his protests against apartheid. He later moved to New Jersey, where he worked as a playwright for nearly 20 years.
When apartheid ended, Oosthuizen decided to leave the United States in 2003 and move back to South Africa. But he was targeted again, this time for helping to educate local Zulu children.
"The farmers didn't want blacks to be educated," Oosthuizen said. "I wouldn't stop."
He left South Africa again and headed back to New Jersey. Friends there invited him to Florida, where they owned a home in Sun City Center.
While wondering what to do with his life this time around, he took a walk through a shopping plaza in Sun City Center, and ended up in front of the Old Castle Tavern. Inside, Oosthuizen found Frank Hartmann fixing up his new German restaurant.
Hartmann, now 49, needed help. He had just moved to Riverview from Germany with his wife and two children.
"I started working for him," Oosthuizen said. "And I'm still here."
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Four years later, the pair opened a new restaurant in October, called the Palace Dinner Theatre. There, in a standalone brick building that used to be a sports bar, they combine the art of acting and the art of food.
Oosthuizen writes, produces and acts in a variety of the plays. Hartmann, an accomplished chef who has worked for more than 30 years throughout Europe, serves a menu that combines Mediterranean and Caribbean styles of cooking with American flavors.
The two also wanted to give patrons flexibility not common in most dinner theaters. They allow visitors to come for just dinner, just the play or both.
Since opening, crowds for the weekend shows vary, the pair said. Sometimes there's a full house, and other days are slow.
As they cultivate a following, the business partners know that what they bring to the area is very much appreciated. Their patrons tell them so.
Betty Flora took some of the acting and writing classes Oosthuizen also offers at the theater. Flora, who is 80, said that having such a place so close to home is great.
"It's a wonderful thing for our community," Flora said. "My husband and our friends go, and it's nice that we don't have to drive so far. For lots of our entertainment, we drive to Tampa or to Sarasota. That's a big issue as you're aging."
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Delyse Axinn and her husband, Richard, also appreciate having a professional theater in their back yard. Richard is the stage manager at the Palace, and Delyse acts. The couple have been longtime members of Sun City Center theater groups.
"When we heard there was a dinner theater in the area holding auditions, we went over there and I ended up being cast in a part," Delyse, 72, said. "Since then, we help with anything we can do to help it along."
She thinks the theater puts on excellent shows — one of her favorites is Social Security, a dramedy in which she played a grandmother being passed off among her children — and she hopes area residents of all ages will come for dinner and plays.
Even more importantly, they need to meet Hartmann and Oosthuizen, she said.
"This isn't put on," Axinn said. "I am so supportive of this group. There's so much talent. And Andy, I think, is a genius."
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Chandra Broadwater can be reached at email@example.com, or 661-2454.