CLEARWATER — Al Tong made the most of his time on the stage, usually right after dinner and before the curtain went up. Mr. Tong, who owned the Country Dinner Playhouse for nearly 14 years, told jokes aimed at the seniors he had targeted as his prime audience.
Many came from mobile home parks near the former Gateway Mall in St. Petersburg. The playhouse, which Mr. Tong bought in 1974, was the first dinner theater in the nation to be located in a shopping mall. Mr. Tong and his wife, Patricia, kept the Country Dinner Playhouse afloat from 1974 to 1988, when they sold it for good.
Mr. Tong, who distinguished himself in war and business with a practical, far-sighted approach to problems, died July 12 at a nursing home. He was 90.
Keeping audiences and professional actors happy while turning a profit brought its share of aggravations. Sal Mineo threw a Category 5 tantrum about stage furniture. Burt Reynolds raided Mr. Tong's cast for one of his own musicals. Local newspapers panned some of his shows.
"It's sort of like shooting craps," Mr. Tong said shortly after buying the theater. "If it works, it works. If not, we won't cry about it."
It worked better for Mr. Tong than most. Actors from Bob Denver of Gilligan's Island to Mickey Rooney frequently appeared at the Country Dinner Playhouse. A production of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas packed the house for six months.
Mr. Tong was born in Chester, Pa., and as a teenager worked alongside his father at a paper mill. The experience stayed with him.
"He would pick up a napkin in a restaurant," said David Tong, his son, "and be able to tell you whether they contained kerosine used to clean the blade to cut the paper."
As a bombardier in the Army Air Forces during World War II, his quick thinking diverted a planned bombing run over occupied France that would have killed hundreds of civilians. Those actions earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross and the French Croix de Guerre, Mr. Tong's family said.
Before moving to Clearwater in 1971, he owned a sporting goods store and sold industrial products. He bought the 2-year-old theater in 1974, an era when dinner theaters dotted the Tampa Bay area.
"They were more popular with older adults than anyone else," said Jim Moorhead, a retired theater critic for the Evening Independent.
After five years he sold the theater, but the buyer defaulted and he repossessed it. Mr. Tong sold the business for good in 1988.
By 1995 the Country Dinner Playhouse, St. Petersburg's Encore Dinner Theatre and the Showboat Dinner Theatre all had closed their doors.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.