Jack Figel looks more like Omar Sharif than Clark (Superman) Kent, but like the Man of Steel, Figel leads a double life.
By day Figel, an engineer with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, is one of thousands of other government bureaucrats. Each night he exchanges his three-piece suit for a snappy tuxedo and becomes executive producer of the District's Encore Dinner Theater.
At age 24, Figel has succeeded where others have failed. Although dinner theaters are rapidly becoming a major form of live entertainment in Washington suburbs, they have repeatedly flopped in the city. Until now.
Figel's Encore has been breaking even since it debuted last June, and the young producer hopes the production of "Guys and Dolls," which opened last weekend, will put his operation firmly in the black. Encore is the District's only dinner theater, except for the Capitol Dinner Theater, which opened last fall at David Lee's Empress and will be forced to move out in March.
Figel's show business experience had been limited to a few roles in high school plays at his home in Pittsburgh before he moved to Washington in 1976. An ex-Eagle Scout who had worked three jobs and had been active in a variety of campus organizations at the University of Rochester, Figel said he became restless when his government job occupied him only from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
"In my spare time I decided to form a polka band, so I started taking accordian lessons," said Figel, his eyes slightly bloodshot from staying up until 3 a.m. the previous night building sets for "Guys and Dolls." When his accordian instructor's wife mentioned that her District Heights theater group needed extra men for a production of "Fiddler on the Roof," Figel jumped at the chance to perform.
Figel became active in community theater, taking bit parts in productions of "Oklahoma," "Camelot" and "Little Mary Sunshine" and designing and building sets for local shows. When a Shriner in the cast of "Fiddler" told him about the large, unused ballroom in the Alamas Temple at 13th and K streets, Figel's dream of opening his own dinner theater was born.
"I was not convinced that a dinner theater could make it downtown, especially next to 14th Street," admitted Figel. "But I had a feeling that the time was right.
"There were three market areas I wanted to attract -- tourists, suburban residents and D.C. residents who wanted an economical evening out," said Figel, who traveled the local dinner theater circuit to see how the competition operated.
In January 1978 he formed J.L.F. Productions and sold $100 shares to his family and friends to raise the $20,000 he needed to open the Encore. His architect father helped design a stage to convert the fading ballroom into a theater.
Dinner theaters are traditionally snubbed by critics and loved by audiences, who relish the convenience and economy offered by a packaged evening -- dinner, a show, free parking and actor/waiters who sing happy birthday at tableside -- all for $15 per person.
Figel lined up these standard elements and added a few touches of his own -- a strolling violinist and accordion player before the show and a soloist singing show tunes while waiters clear plates before the show.
For sentimental and practical reasons, he chose "Fiddler on the Roof" as Encore's first production. "It was the first musical I'd ever done," Figel recalled. "I was familiar with all the parts. I knew the sets and the lighting.
"If you take on a responsibility you have to be able to do any part of it if something falls down. I know enough about anything to fill in when needed."
Figel has stepped in for ailing actors, run the spotlight, played saxophone for the taped musical accompaniment, taken reservations at the box office and made $1, his total profits from the theater, one night when filling in for the coat check person. Although he designed and built the sets for "Guys and Dolls" he said his major responsibility is "paying the bills."
Encore casts are drawn entirely from local talent.
"We have stenographers, real estate agents, computer programmers, auto mechanics and college students in our casts," said Figel, who added that actors take turns waiting tables to earn about $50 a night in tips. "I think there's enough talent in Washington to produce professional shows without hiring Equity (union) actors." Encore can't afford to hire professional actors right now, Figel noted.
The Shriners receive rent and run the bar, Foodarama Caterers of Arlington provides dinner and receives half of each night's gross, and a parking lot 50 feet from the door provides free parking to patrons.
There are still a few rough edges at Encore. On Wednesday and Thursday nights the audience can hear faint rumblings from the downstairs bowling alley, which also serves as the cast dressing room, and the stage hands had trouble with the sets at a recent performance.
But enthusiastic audiences and a spirited cast more than compensate for the headaches, Figel said.
"I got bit real bad by the theater bug," shrugged Figel, whose typical weekday includes eight hours at the office, then 10 hours at the theater.
"I've always thrived on hectic schedules. I enjoy the pressure and I just like to make sure I have enough to do. The only thing I sometimes regret is that my theater life has taken the place of a social life.
"I hope to get to the point where I don't have to worry about pinching every penny," he sighed. "But when I can sit back and see 30 people on the stage and 100 people in the audience enjoying themselves, well, I just feel good inside." CAPTION: Picture, The Big Mission Scene from "Guys and Dolls" at the Encore Dinner Theater . By Craig Herndon -- The Washington Post