I had a puppet theater in an upscale mall in Dallas from 1994 to 2004. My wing of the mall was torn down in 2005 and made ready for an expansion. Afterward there was no place for the theater, but the mall continues to cooperate on a return. The theater was very successful in its 10 year operation, but without the mall's cooperation it would have been tough. The name of the theater was "Le Theatre de Marionette" and we specialized in European style marionette productions of Fairy Tales. We employed three puppeteers and a manager who manned the phones, cash register and retail area.
We changed shows every 2 months, and it wasn't long before we figured out that "The Little Mermaid" did much better in the Summer than in the Winter.
We aggressively marketed school groups Monday through Friday. Private Schools were our best school group customers. The "International School" paid us a visit at least 5 times each year. We had a special "warm up" in the theater for them with a very charming linguist who, with a very funny dragon puppet, would answer questions in the children's native languages. School groups were very important to us, and regardless of all the paper work to become "registered" with the Dallas ISD the experiences were well worth it, especially from some of the schools from poorer areas of the city who had never been in a live theater before.
We prepared teacher guidebooks and classroom workshop manuals for each show that included talking points about marionettes, puppet history, and theater manners. They included word games pertaining to what they had learned and paper puppet patterns to construct. These workbooks were sent to the teachers one week prior to their performance date. I was very surprised to hear from the teachers that we were the only "entertainers" who did such a thing and they really appreciated it. (If you would like a sample copy, please email me and I'll be glad to send you one. You can use it as an example only as they are copyrighted)
Our warm-up consisted of briefly going over theater etiquette, but then a Cabaret-style demonstration of a marionette, what they are and how they work. The demo was very funny and it set the mood perfectly.
The shows were elaborate and were performed from a 7 foot bridge, a 8 ft proscenium with a beautiful Austrian curtain scaled to proportion. The shows were no longer than 45 minutes. When the show was over, the children filed out by the "backstage window", an opening where they could see the entire backstage. The puppeteers held a question and answer session and showed how scenery was raised and lowered, where the marionettes "lived" etc.
Birthday parties were our bread and butter. We had three party rooms and had three different birthday plans:
1. Do it yourself. We furnished the show and the party room and that was all.
2. We furnish everything but the food and drinks. That included balloons for each child, table decor, utensils, plates and cups, tablecloths, napkins.
3. We furnish everything including the birthday cake, drinks, ice-cream and party favors.
All the above plans included clean-up. Very few chose Plan #1. Because of the mall's location in Dallas, the most popular plan was the third one.
Parents wanted a package deal while they gossiped with their guests. We took care of all the presents at the front desk and made a "from" register for the host of all gifts. The presents were taken into the party rooms during the show. Most birthday parties were for Friday, Saturday and Sunday. If requested we would do a late show during the week for a party, and we charged extra.
We did not accept tips. ( Crass )
Very important for school groups and Birthday Parties: Require a healthy deposit. Ours was $75.00 and it worked well. There was also a rather detailed one-page booking form to fill out also. The form stated that the shows would always start on time and that late arrivals would be seated only during the warm-up portion. We made sure everyone understood this, and in 10 years I can count on one had the times we had to refuse late arrivals. If it was for a birthday party we would let them wait in the party room or give them a discount coupon for the cafe just down the hall. We would come for them when the show was over.
We also did two shows a day and we scheduled them for the convenience of the school groups. A 10:00 a.m. show was perfect for an early school group. It gave the teachers time to get the kids on the busses in time for the show and also the show was over by 10:45 and they were back on the busses by 11:00, just in time to get back to the school in time for lunch. Sometimes the teachers would request use of the party rooms and the kids would bring sack lunches which we would collect as they came in and would take them to the party rooms. We requested that all sack lunches have the children's names on the outside. The afternoon show at 2:00 got the kids back to school in time for pick-up by parents. That is another subject.
School groups: No adult could pick up a student at the puppet theater without specific identification by our staff along with the requested child and their teacher. No child could leave the theater without an adult that had checked in with us. This was important for birthday parties also. Children could not leave and roam the mall. We had a security camera at the entrance hooked up to a stop-motion VCR in case it was needed.
I will cover marketing, contracts with the mall, and other areas in my next posting.