The Passions of Will Prather

by Bob Tarantino

At 35 years old, Will Prather is the Executive Producer and Owner of the largest operator of Dinner Theaters in the United States. With 500,000 annual patrons and $15 million in annual sales, the Prather Family Theaters, which includes the Broadway Palm Dinner Theater of Fort Myers; the Dutch Apple Dinner Theater of Lancaster, PA; and the Broadway Palm West Dinner Theater of Mesa, AZ, is the epitome of success in a ‘roller coaster’ economic field. So, who is this young entrepreneur who provides the leadership for hundreds of employees while also providing outstanding entertainment for thousands of local theater-goers?

Susan Johnson, General Manager of the Broadway Palm Dinner Theater in Fort Myers sums it up, "Will Prather has more on his plate than any 35 year old that I have ever known. He also handles it all better."

"My life can be separated into a tripod of priorities," says Prather. "First of all, my family—and then the business and finally, my volunteerism. They are all important parts of me and critical to my life."

As Will ponders these three areas, he is quick to list family as number one. "I am blessed with a wonderful life—and having a close relationship with my five year old son is the focal point of my life." The beaming father goes on to talk about his own father and remises about his own childhood. "My father was always so busy, constantly traveling and working. We had more of a distant relationship. As much as I have always loved my father and the importance he has had on my development, I hope my son and I can spend more time together" says the loving dad.

A second part of Will Prather’s life is being the leader of an ever-growing, highly successful business. "We where fortunate to arrive in Fort Myers in the heyday of the city’s economic growth. Things were really booming and the area was starving for a good dinner theater. The people really responded and the positive reaction was incredible. Will continues, “I was young and had a lot to learn. I was not very good at the selection of talent in the early days and, thank goodness, my ego was not very inflated. Many times I needed to go back to the drawing board and rely on much more knowledgeable people to hire cast members. That’s when we started assembling the management team whose role has helped propel the theatre. We have about 350 employees who totally rely on our business to support them and their families."

In 1999, when the Prather family hoped to open a third theater in Arizona, Will had to make some tough decisions. "It was time to build a management team and empower others to take over some of the responsibilities. To put Susan Johnson into the role of General Manager was a ‘no-brainer’. In her first five years she had excelled at everything she did, playing a multitude of roles.” With the strong management team that was assembled, this multi-dimentional endeavor can be run as effectively as possible.

On the very important subject of play selection, Will talks candidly about the continuing dichotomy between financial and artistic success and failure. "There is no doubt that this community loves the tried and true traditional favorites: The Sound of Music, Carousel, Fiddler on the Roof, etc. etc.. No matter how many times these shows are produced the crowds keep on coming.
Although this is true, most Executive Producers have a great need to keep expanding the experiences for theatre goers. Consequently, we brought in The Civil War in the Fall of 2001. What horrible timing! The last thing that people needed to see was a play dealing with conflict after the pain of 9/11. Even Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, very successful on Broadway and getting excellent reviews, received little support at Broadway Palm."

Will continues talking about this dilemma, "We are bringing in two new and highly successful plays next season, Miss Saigon and Beauty and the Beast, along with a repertoire of all-time favorites. We’ll continue to experiment (a little bit) while sticking with what people love to see. We get a great deal of praise for our fine staff, friendly servers and excellent food, but the theatre experience is now and always will be about ‘the show’. Without a good, well done play our wonderful audiences will stay home and watch television.”

From day one it was obvious to local groups that Broadway Palm was much more than just a theatre. With the winning of the prestigious Horizon Award in 2000 (the first arts organization to win this honor presented by the city of Fort Myers for the theatre’s role in economic development) Broadway Palm moved into the forefront as a home for numerous non-profit organizations.

"It is such a win-win situation for everyone," emphasizes Prather. "We open our doors to everyone from women’s clubs to the YMCA to local schools, etc. This important practice brings people into the theatre, it gives shifts to the servers and staff, everybody picks up brochures for future plays and it is done at a no profit cost. It’s great for everyone and it also satisfies our need to give back to the community that has been so responsive to us."

Thus, the third leg of Will’s tripod. Prather says, "If there are forty hours in a work week—not that my work week is even close to 40 hours—I spend at least 15–20 hours helping other agencies and art organizations." Will goes on to comment that several years ago he was giving his time to ten different agencies. "I had to cut back. That was way too much,” he admits.

“My parents taught me the importance of offering my help as much as possible and to always be sensitive to the needs of others. Also, at Cornell University where I went to college, the emphasis was always on being community-conscious and to give back as much as you get from your community." As President of the Alliance for the Arts, Will has led the formerly fledgling organization to a very high level of success.

Another area that Will Prather has recently delved into is politics. He has come out publicly on the importance of changing administrations in Washington. "We cannot endure another four years of this president and the direction that this country is going", says the passionate Prather. "I do not dislike President Bush personally and I think that he did a wonderful job after 9/11, but the path that we are following is a dangerous one. We must have a new president and I plan to work hard on the Kerry campaign."

Will Prather knows the danger for a business leader to embrace politics, but says, unequivocally, that "This is such an important decision and the next four years are so critical that we must do everything possible to bring out the vote."

Eleven years ago, Will Prather walked into Fort Myers to begin the process of converting an old Publix supermarket into a state-of-the-art dinner theatre. "It was amazing how many people told me that I was crazy," Prather remembers. After more then ten years of enormous success and from numerous perspectives, Will Prather contemplates the future. "My friends and family know that I get the five year itch", says Will with a laugh. "It’s important to keep growing and changing so that one doesn’t become stagnant and at 35 years old, I have many more mountains to climb."

There is little doubt that many of those mountains will be steep ones as Will Prather knows only one way to go through life—with passion and commitment and with a feverish sense of excellence and compassion. •

from the July-August 2004 issue

"My parents taught me
the importance of
offering my help
as much as possible
and to always be sensitive
to the needs of others."

The Prather family