Drury Lane Dinner Theater founder dies

Tony De Santis made headlines during 60-year entertaining career
2007-06-08T00:00:00Z Drury Lane Dinner Theater founder diesPHILIP POTEMPA

Entertainer Debbie Reynolds described the death of Chicagoland dinner theater mogul Tony De Santis as "the passing of the last of the great small stage barons."

De Santis, born and raised in Gary and owner of the Drury Lane Dinner Theater chain, died Wednesday at age 93 after a long battle with cancer, according to his publicist Noreen Heron.

"He was my boss and a lovely man," said Reynolds, speaking by telephone Thursday from her home in Los Angeles.

"I work a lot of venue dates around the country every year, but none of them are anything like Tony's chain of Drury Lane Theaters. They are the last of ... (a) type of theater offering. And I know his family will keep this tradition alive."

Chandeliers, heavy red velvet drapery, large fresh-cut floral arrangements and gold-gilded furniture set the atmosphere for De Santis theaters, which at one time, numbered five in the Chicago area.

Today, only his Oakbrook Terrace, Ill., Drury Lane and the one in Chicago's Water Tower Place remain.

In his theaters' lobbies, large portraits of stars like Reynolds, Mickey Rooney, Wayne Newton, Andy Williams and Claudette Colbert continue as a reminder of the galaxy of stars De Santis convinced to be headliners at his theaters, the first of which opened in 1949 as a tent pavilion outside of his Martinique Restaurant in Evergreen Park, Ill.

In more recent years, entertainers like The Smothers Brothers, comedian Jerry Lewis, singer Marie Osmond and comedienne Vicki Lawrence, along with Reynolds, filled the house for De Santis and his daughter Diane Van Lente, who continues to serve as producer for all bookings.

Heron said Tony De Santis' generosity and philanthropic nature were legendary.

In 2006, De Santis also made headlines when he was called to testify in the trial of former Illinois Gov. George Ryan, about "gift" checks he had written to Ryan. However, because of his poor health, he did not appear in court.

In addition to his daughter Diane, he is also survived by grandchildren Jason and Tom Van Lente and Kyle, Abbie and Drew De Santis, as well as his brother, Dane, and sister-in-law, Kay. His wife, Lucille, also in her 90s, also survives, but is in frail health.

The funeral Mass will be at 10:30 a.m. Monday at Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago. In lieu of flowers, donations are requested for Catholic Charities, in care of the Tony De Santis Fund.

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