Family Dinner Theater

Hometown Heroes, Odd Jobs, People
on February 24, 2002

The Emter family serves up roast beef, old-time music, and warm feelings, all in generous portions, at its dinner theater in Jamestown, N.D. (pop. 15,527).

The six Emters have fed and entertained more than 20,000 guests since they opened their dinner theater on Memorial Day of 1999. In addition to nourishment, they offer what is otherwise growing in short supply—accordion music and family togetherness.

“By their smiles, you can tell this family really enjoys working with each other,” says Vivian Sheets, 75, who drove 43 miles from Carrington, N.D., with her husband, Glenn, to see the Emter family perform for the first time. “You can see there’s a lot of love and understanding between them.”

The Emters—father Roger, mother Renae, and children Adam, 20, Angelina, 18, Alida, 17, and Abigail, 15—all wear broad, infectious smiles when they’re playing polka music on the small stage of their warehouse-style dinner theater, which seats 100 guests. The smiles on their attractive, wholesome faces aren’t phony.

“We have our fights like any family, but most of the time it’s wonderful being together,” Abigail says.

Although it’s an odd relationship to have parents and children as business partners, the arrangement has brought the family closer than it otherwise would be. “It’s drawn us closer as a unit,” Angelina says. “We each have our separate jobs, but we have to work as a unit, too.”

The Emters do more than perform at their theater. Roger is the engineer, Renae the accountant, Adam the webmaster, Alida the gift shop manager, Angelina the music arranger, and Abigail the showroom designer. Plus, all six serve the food, clear the tables, and wash the dishes, meaning most work days last nine hours.

“Performing is always fun, but the dishes get old,” Adam says. “No one likes doing dishes for a family of four or five, much less dirty dishes for 80 or 90. But the fun of performing makes up for the dishes.”

Renae plays the keyboard, while Roger and their four children play button accordions, which have typewriter-like buttons to push, unlike a standard accordion’s piano-like keys. The children also play at least one other instrument and all six sing.

When all five accordions are playing a polka or patriotic song, the room is full of energy. Toes tap among the crowd, which is composed mostly of people over 50.

But the crowd is emotionally moved the most when Abigail and Alida team up to perform A Sister’s Love, a song they wrote together. The refrain of the song, which they dedicated to Angelina, goes “best friends we’ll always be.”

They’ve been best friends and classmates. Renae and Roger began homeschooling their children in 1992 to provide the flexibility to travel for performances. The homeschooling allowed them to perform more than 750 shows throughout the United States, Canada, and Mexico, including appearances at the Kennedy Center and on Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion radio show.

“What makes us so unusual is that we not only perform together, but we’ve had an extra four hours a day spent together a day because of the homeschooling,” Roger says. “We have literally spent our entire lives together. We perform together, go to church together, and have fun together. We’re rarely apart.”

That desire to stay together is what motivated the family to establish the dinner theater. Adam had reached college age and Angelina and Alida were close behind, so the Emter family needed a stable performing venue if it was to continue spreading good feelings.

Ruby Prochnow of Jamestown is among the Emters’ guests who are happy that they did. “You see people come here with broad smiles and leave with smiles even broader,” she says. “People are just in awe of how they keep teenagers involved in a family group. It’s a real inspiration to families to see that it’s possible.”