Author: Hannah Petty
Winter can get to be a little dull. Fortunately, places such as Screamers Dining & Cabaret provides some much needed entertainment all year round. A combination of live entertainment, signature cocktails, and delicious steak are all you need to bring back some of that color that the weather may have stolen. The restaurant recently hit it’s one year mark this past January, and it plans on a long stay in its Haymarket home. I met with owner and Lincoln resident Kevin Witcher to learn more about this hidden gem.
Collective Culture: How did you get the idea for Screamers?
Kevin Witcher: I was living in the D.C. area after finishing undergrad here in Lincoln. While I was there I came across this restaurant that, though it wasn’t their primary theme, had servers and hosts who would sing periodically with the piano player. The owner noticed that people responded well to this, so he encouraged the workers to continue to join in and get up and sing. So that sparked in my mind “what if that was the primary theme of a restaurant?”. I kind of just tucked that away in the back of my brain until I moved back here to Lincoln 4 years ago. I saw all the growth in the Haymarket and thought that it would be a good place for what I’m trying to do. I also wanted to tie it into the university, so I made the theme of this location an homage to the show choir I was a part of at UNL: The Scarlet and Cream Singers. That’s where the name comes from, Screamers. I sang with that group for 5 years during my undergrad. Scarlet and Cream disbanded in 2008, but the group is still very close-knit. The group meant a lot to us, so it feels good to kind of have a piece of it still existing through the restaurant. Scarlet and Cream gave those of us wanting to work in musical theater a place to really learn and grow. We learned a lot from our director Ray Miller about how to be performers. And I want Screamers to kind of be that now for young talent. Kids going to the university work here and I try to give them some mentoring and helpful tips about how to be performers.
CC: Did you always know you wanted to open up a place like this?
KW: No, it didn’t come to mind until seeing that D.C. restaurant. I always kind of saw it as a place near a university where the kids who had to work through school could have a place where they could work, use their talents, and make more money.
CC: You mentioned your choir director, Ray Miller. Was he a big part of your life?
KW: Oh yes, and the life of the group. For a lot of people, he was more than just a director, he was like a second father figure. He gave lots of advice, on life in general, not just music. He helped people find jobs and housing. He would call all of us his kids. He was always involved with his kids. Up until the time he died, he would get in his RV, he and his wife, and they would drive all across the country to see their kids, especially those still performing. We have a big picture of him above the center booth along the wall. We call that the ‘Miller Booth’, a little tribute to Ray.
CC: Tell me a bit about how the performances here work. Do you perform?
KW: I do, along with my staff. All of my servers are the entertainers. Primarily the servers, but we also have bartenders who sing, a host who sings, and there’s also a chef who sings. We do mini sets throughout the course of dinner or lunch. So we’ll do two to three songs in a set, take a little break so people can visit, then come back and do a few more songs. That way people get the live entertainment they’re looking for but we’re not always singing at them and they don’t feel like they can’t visit. It also gives a natural flow to people finishing up and wanting to leave, because when someone’s on stage singing live you feel almost pressured to stay. So we give them those breaks so people can feel free to come and go as they like. We try to make the atmosphere very interactive and light. We encourage people to keep talking, and we’ll keep singing.
CC: Is there a specific genre you stick to with music?
KW: No we don’t have a specific genre. Our philosophy is that we want to have a little something for everybody. That’s the way Ray approached programming our shows. We did lots of medleys. He liked medleys because you could get a lot of different things in them as opposed to doing a bunch of single songs. You get a little bit of everything when you do a medley.
CC: Do you guys have any special drinks or foods?
KW: We have a full signature cocktail menu that is quite popular. It has 5 specialty mules named after the Jackson 5. All the names of the signature cocktails have some kind of musical reference, like the ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ is a fruity take on a Long Island Iced Tea. Our actual Long Island is named ‘New York, New York’. Then we have ‘New York State of Mind’ which is our Manhattan. We have ‘Love Potion #9’ it lights up, it bubbles, it smokes, it shakes. And then we have a large menu as far as the food goes.
CC: What inspires you to run the business the way you do?
KW: One of my favorite sayings is “Be the change you want to see in the world”. We’re a new restaurant with not a lot of resources. We’re still getting our name out there, but we’ve already done so much on the philanthropic level. Every day that we are able to be operational is a gift and a blessing to us, and we should share our blessings with others. So we’ve done fundraising events for various people or causes. We’re stepping out on faith that as long as we’re being charitable and taking care of those in our community, that it’ll all come back to us.
CC: Is there anything else you would like our readers to know?
KW: I want people to know that Screamers is rooted in the community. It means a lot for us to be a part of this community. We are doing our best to support the arts in the community. We work with high schools and community theaters to give them the opportunity to do fundraising events or teasers for their upcoming productions. We are really wanting to be a place where people feel like they can come for a great meal and a fun experience. We want people to feel like they can pop in here for a quick meal just like at any other restaurant. The only difference is that we have performances. It’s not an all-night affair. It’s very important that people know we are a family friendly restaurant. People hear ‘cabaret’ and think it’s an adult event.
Kevin and the staff at Screamers welcome people of all ages to join them for a meal and a show. The walls are covered in Scarlet and Cream memorabilia, all featuring past and present Lincoln dwellers. This personal touch gives Screamers a very welcoming environment. Dedicated to the people and events that helped him grow, Kevin now provides a place to help make people feel just as at home and happy as it makes him.
Screamers Dining and Cabaret is located at 803 Q street in downtown Lincoln.