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The Catalina Players prove that dinner theater isn't dead.

Little theater groups in Tucson tend to make a brief buzz and then quickly die, like flies on a cold autumn windowsill. The Catalina Players seems like it would be one of the first groups to drop: It performs in a church basement, where you'd expect to find earnest but stiff Easter pageants, and it does dinner theater, which is sooooo 1970s.

Yet the Catalina Players are now celebrating their 20th anniversary, typically drawing 500 to 800 people to each of their two- or three-weekend runs. This, despite an irregular performance schedule (there are usually four shows per year, but sometimes only one or two), the stigma of performing in what is essentially a church dining hall, and the fact that it all started as a self-help group.

Priscilla Marquez was attending an adult Sunday school class at Catalina United Methodist Church in 1983 when Ruth T. Debevoise recruited her and several other people for classes in self-improvement through acting. The little group, naming itself after the church, put on a few scenes that year, and in 1984 presented its first full production, Kennedy's Children.

Debevoise withdrew from the nonprofit project in 1988, and since then, every Catalina Players show has been produced by Marquez, who is the longtime board president.

"Once theater gets in your blood, it never goes away," she says.

Marquez was first infected in high school in Santa Fe, when she saw a play depicting the crucifixion of Jesus. "Instead of thinking about the play's message," she recalls, "I just kept thinking, 'How did they do that?'"

Marquez elected not to become a theater professional. Instead, she got a degree in family studies from the UA, and now she, her husband and their kids own several gas stations and a used-car dealership in town. And in their spare time, almost the whole family gets involved somehow in Catalina Players.

It's predominantly a volunteer organization; only the scenery painter and lighting designer get paid. Only now is Marquez starting to apply for grants to pay the actors and stage managers; all along, the group has been supported by ticket sales and some donations.

"I've never been in the red here, ever," Marquez says proudly of her $25,000-a-year organization. "Once, we even gave Catalina Methodist everything in the budget but $80 for some special things they were doing. People were saying we'd go broke if we gave away almost all our money, but it came back tenfold."

Because of scheduling conflicts, the group moved to Trinity Presbyterian Church a couple of years ago. Catalina Players is a completely independent organization, but it's getting a sweet deal from senior pastor Jeff Kane and the church elders--free use of the hall, the substantial kitchen and a honeycomb of underground rooms for costume and lighting storage. In return, the theater group pays for its own electricity, feeds money into church youth programs, provides the church with a dishwasher and puts on the occasional Christian play outside its regular series.

Marquez is quick to point out that although the Catalina Players specialize in family-oriented shows, the fare is by no means church-oriented, and in some cases, might raise a few Christian eyebrows. In 1997, for example, they did Inherit the Wind, a fictionalized account of the Scopes "Monkey Trial," and in 2001 they presented the slightly racy No Sex Please, We're British, which set an attendance record for the group.

"After every show," says Marquez, "people come up to me and look surprised and say, 'This was good! We thought this was going to be churchy and rinky-dink.'"

As for the prejudice against dinner theater, Marquez acknowledges that "people have said it doesn't seem legit if you do dinner, but I think it's a silly concept that you can't have dinner and see a solid play. We started this because the hall at Catalina Methodist was huge and this seemed like the best way to use the space. We thought dinner and a play would make a nice evening. Now, we don't know how to do it any other way."

For at least 15 years, Tony's New York Deli catered the meals, often adjusting the menu to the nature of the play. For Stan Watkins' Musical Malt Shop Murder Mystery, which opens Feb. 21, root beer floats have been added to the menu of beef Burgundy, garlic mashed potatoes and tossed salad. (Vegetarians get a more appropriate entrée if they call ahead.)

Board member John Caccitolo attributes the group's staying power to a good mix of comedies, dramas and musicals, but also to Marquez' presence. "It's Priscilla's personality," he says, "her persistence and her love for theater and people that drives the Catalina Players."

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