published Thursday, July 21st, 2011

There's no mystery to Vaudeville Cafe's success

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    Chris Hampton opened Vaudeville Cafe in late 1999. He and his wife, Jennifer, were looking for a place they could take the family and be entertained.
    Photo by Tim Barber.
    enlarge photo

Chris and Jennifer Hampton were driving around town about 13 years ago when they realized their options for evening entertainment for the family meant dinner and a movie.

Chris Hampton grew up in a family that liked to entertain itself, and he studied theater at American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York. He and Jennifer began talking about opening a family-friendly theater venue.

When Vaudeville Cafe opened in late 1999, it featured singing waiters on Friday and Saturday nights and a murder mystery with a wedding theme on Sundays.

The Sunday show drew huge crowds. So after making it through a tough first 18 months, the Hamptons decided to dedicate more time and energy to murder mysteries. They added shows like "Mystery of Flight 138," "Mystery at the TV Talk Show" and "Mystery at the Nightmare Office Party."

It was a good decision, as the dinner-theater has drawn steady crowds ever since.

Q: What was the inspiration for opening Vaudeville Cafe?

A: (Chris Hampton) Our family has always entertained each other with theater and comedy, and I always had this vague dream of opening a place that entertained families.

It was topped off when Jen and I were driving around with (children) Sajin and Kylan. We realized there wasn't anything to do with a family besides dinner and a movie, and we'd that done over and over. I said, "That's it; we need to do this."

Q: Do you have a theater background?

A: Yes, I went to a theater conservatory in New York City.

Q: What did you study? Acting, directing, producing?

A: They trained you in all of it. They even had clown classes. They had theatrical, dance, clown, theater, combat acting classes. It was all live-theater based.

Q: Did you do anything theater-wise after graduation?

A: I did a few small productions in New York city, but nothing to brag about. Then I grew my hair long and started a band on Long Island. We tried to make it as an original band. After that I got into business. I had gotten involved in a photography company and I thought it was a great concept. That led me to start my first company at 23 down in Chattanooga.

Q: What was the business?

A: Playtime Portraits. We took pictures of babies in their houses. I did that for two and a half years, then moved to Israel and learned about computers and networking.

Q: Why did you have to go to Israel to learn computers?

A: I went there as a volunteer. The Internet was really taking off and the Web was just about to be invented. I was teaching people FTP and Veronica and the Web was just about to be invented. This was around 1994.

Later, I started a Web design company and moved to Florida and started a Web-design business there. I did OK at it, but other people were passing me by. I didn't have the programming background to keep up in that business, but I was able to save enough money to do what I really wanted, which was Vaudeville Cafe.

The original concept was singing servers and a piano doing early 40s-type tunes and one night of the week we did murder mystery. The vision sort of evolved. In the beginning, I thought I wanted to have a place where you can do crazy improv, sing to the guests and if it's your birthday we will make up a song about you, and some murder mystery.

The inspiration for that was a show called "Tony and Tina's Wedding" in Florida. I saw a bad review of it. They guy hated it. He ripped it. He said, "I just saw a Broadway show and I hated it. The barmaid followed me into the bathroom and the reverend was walking around tipsy." The way he was describing it, he said he didn't want the fourth wall coming down. I was reading it thinking this is entertainment.

The murder mystery shows were always full, so we started doing more of them.

  • Age: 43.
  • Hometown: Carrollton, Ga.
  • Family: Wife Jennifer; children Prescott, 4, Avery, 6, Kistler, 8, Sajin, 16, Kylan, 17.
  • Vocation: Owner Vaudeville Cafe.

Favorites

  • Movie: "The Contender."
  • Book: "The Catcher in the Rye."
  • Play: "True West" Sam Shepard.
  • Quote: "Truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it."

-- Flannery O'Connor

Q: What year did you move from the Tremont Street location to the current one across from the aquarium?

A: We lost our lease at that [Tremont] spot and panicked. We weren't sure what to do. We moved downtown in 2003. Rent quadrupled and our electric bill is crazy. The expenses are through the roof, so we really had to step up. It has been a good move. The visibility is better for locals and tourists, so it has turned out to be a great thing.

Q: What are the lessons you've learned over the years?

A: You've gotta have good food. You know how you have to keep things neutral and not your own tastes. It's the same. If the crowd roars, it's funny. I'll tell you what I think is funny and I will write bits, but as it evolves and people laugh, that's what's funny.

The lesson is to watch your crowd.

The food on the buffet is not my taste, but people like it and I know it because the plates are empty when they come back.

We know people are happy by watching them when they leave. If they are sticking their elbows in their friends ribs, or patting him on the back smiling, we had a good night.

Q: You've made some changes to the venue recently, what are they?

A: We added beer and wine and now, or very soon, we will have full liquor. We started doing stand-up comedy a while back. These are major big name touring comedians. We have them every Friday at 9:30 and Saturday at 10:30.

This is new. I haven't told another soul, but beginning next month, we will start having live band karaoke on Sundays from 6-10 p.m. Other large cities are doing it.

about Barry Courter...

Barry Courter is staff reporter and columnist for the Times Free Press. He started his journalism career at the Chattanooga News-Free Press in 1987. He covers primarily entertainment and events for ChattanoogaNow, as well as feature stories for the Life section. Born in Lafayette, Ind., Barry has lived in Chattanooga since 1968. He graduated from Notre Dame High School and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga with a degree in broadcast journalism. He previously was ...

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