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America's Cup Could Lower Curtain on Teatro ZinZanni

The interactive waterfront dinner theater may go out of business if it can't find a new location

Dancing waiters, an opera singer announcing dinner courses melodically, and Joan Baez, improbably, in blond finger waves, a beaded dress and feather headdress, speaking in British and French accents — this is all part of the circus world conjured up by Teatro ZinZanni in San Francisco, one of the Bay Area’s few dinner theaters.

Founded in Seattle in 1998, the interactive-theater-with-forks-and-knives experience has entertained an estimated 788,000 tourists and Bay Area residents since it opened on Pier 29 in 2000.

Even with ticket prices over $100, the popular attraction has weathered more than one economic downturn. But its future is now threatened by another high-profile entertainment event that supporters say will be a boon to San Francisco’s bottom line.

In January, the Port of San Francisco announced that 70 or so businesses, including Teatro ZinZanni, would have to move to make way for the next America’s Cup sailboat race, in 2013. Of the group of soon-to-be evicted port tenants, which also includes Bauer’s Worldwide Transportation, Teatro ZinZanni is one of the largest, with 88 full-time workers and 30 part-time ones.

Unless a new location is found soon, Teatro ZinZanni’s owners say this could be their last year in operation.

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The theater, which is a nonprofit, regularly donates its tent to charities, including Bread & Roses and Zaccho Dance Theatre, for fundraisers. Teatro ZinZanni estimates that the various charities have raised more than $2 million through fundraisers in its venue over the course of a decade.

If something does not change in the next few weeks, “we’re dead in the water,” said Norman Langill, Teatro ZinZanni founder.

“It’s important that we get a site, important that the site be long term,” said Langill, who also operates the production in Seattle. “Our commitment is for years.”

The city of San Francisco said that finding a new home for the theater was a priority.

“We’re helping because they are a longstanding cultural institution that brings a lot of people to the waterfront,” said Anne Taupier, project manager at the Mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development.

(The theater was already threatened with relocation by the anticipated development of a cruise ship pier and has been operating on a short-term lease.) An alternative site was identified earlier this year, but it fell through after the nonprofit had invested about three months and around $42,000 making plans for it.


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