Elaborate dinner theater recreates 70s air travel

Elaborate dinner theater recreates 70s air travel
Copyright 2019 CNN
The Pan Am Experience is one-part re-enactment, one-part dinner theater and one-part memorabilia overload. The attraction mixes top-quality food with elaborate detail to recreate what it was like to fly a Boeing 747 with one of the world's most beloved airlines long before its bankruptcy and dissolution in 1991.

It’s a Saturday in the outskirts of Los Angeles, and about 50 people are ready to board an airplane for a colorful and memorable journey back to the 1970s.

Compared to most international flights, this one is short — only four hours. And though the flight will transport everyone on the passenger list to another place and time, it logs a whopping total of zero air miles, as it never actually leaves the ground.

Welcome to the wild and wonderful world of the Pan Am Experience. One-part re-enactment, one-part dinner theater and one-part memorabilia overload, the attraction mixes top-quality food with elaborate detail to recreate what it was like to fly a Boeing 747 with one of the world’s most beloved airlines long before its bankruptcy and dissolution in 1991.

“People always talk about how it’s not the destination but the journey that’s important,” says Talaat Captan, who co-founded the experience with Anthony Toth back in 2014.

“We believe that. People come to us to travel somewhere and not go anywhere. To them, the value is in the experience.”

This summer marks the five-year anniversary of the attraction, and it has gotten more elaborate every year. Props have become more authentic. Actors have developed characters. There’s also now a fashion show, and the uniforms represent one of the largest collections of vintage flight attendant uniforms anywhere in the world.

The Pan Am Experience is as close as you can get to experiencing Pan Am without engaging in actual time travel, which is why people are so keen to climb aboard they book their seats months in advance.

Cleared for take-off

The experience begins outside a row of warehouse buildings in Pacoima, an L.A. suburb near Burbank. Guests enter from the parking lot on a red carpet and find a studio decked out like a 1960s airplane terminal. In one corner: A series of airline ticket counters, including an exact replica (computer and all) of a Pan Am desk from the era. On the other side: A lounge that comprises circular bars surrounded by stools and furniture made from old airplane parts.

The back of the room is lined with a screen depicting the exterior of a Pan Am 747, circa 1971.

Guests check in at the Pan Am desk with Captan, who gives them paper boarding passes exactly like the originals from back in the day. A gate agent ushers them to the lounge, where drinks are complimentary.

About an hour in, a voice blares over the crackling loudspeaker: “Would the flight crew please report to the ticket counter?”

Without missing a beat, “Captain” Toth and 14 “flight attendants” dressed in vintage garb enter and head to the ticket counter for their “assignments.” Crew members then proceed up a jet bridge toward the plane screen in the back of the studio, open a cabin door and invite guests to join them. Their message is clear: All aboard!

The main event

Flight attendants seat guests in one of three sections of the plane: Clipper Class, which was the original business class; First Class; and the Upper Deck Lounge, which historically was part of First.

Once everyone is comfortable, the “purser” gives a series of announcements, and flight attendants go through safety demonstrations. The script is a mix of throwback warnings and modern wit: “Unless we have an earthquake tonight, there won’t be much movement, so your seat belt isn’t really necessary.”

After a welcome video from Toth, flight attendants wheel out magazine carts, distribute magazines, take drink orders and bring hot towels in buckets of dry ice, creating an almost magical smoke.

Finally, the meal begins. A white-jacketed maître-d brings out menus. Flight attendants pull out retractable tables and set them with Pan Am-branded tablecloths, dishes and silverware. Upper Deck Lounge guests get a caviar course first. Then everyone chooses between appetizers of shrimp cocktail and caprese salad.

Following a fashion show of Pan Am uniforms from the late 1960s and early ’70s, a throwback dinner is served: Chateaubriand sliced tableside or roast chicken, both served with carrots, green beans and potatoes. (There’s a pasta option for vegetarians, too.) As guests eat, disco plays on the cabin speaker system.

Trivia and another fashion show of uniforms from the 1980s follow dinner, leading into a wine-and-cheese course, Cognac, coffee and chocolate mousse cake or fruit tart for dessert.

A third and final fashion show of airline uniforms from all over the world closes the night.

Cigarettes and other details

Throughout the experience, it’s clear that Toth and Captan have spared no expense to make the flight authentic.

That means the seatbelt buckles are original, complete with the Pan Am globe logo etched into the top. It also means each of the table floral arrangements has sprigs of baby’s breath, just like the arrangements of the 1970s.

Even the cigarettes — props that puff smoke when you blow them — are eerily lifelike.

“Back in the 1970s, everybody on board airplanes smoked,” says Toth. “There was no way we were going to recreate this experience without trying to recreate that.”

Drink offerings include 1970s-approved Harvey Wallbangers and Tab soda. Hot towels smell the way they used to: Flight attendants soak them in some of the same scents as Pan Am used historically. The seat fabrics reflect the fading sun and moon designs of the day.

Another mind-boggling detail from the original Pan Am planes: The “nose wall,” a needlepoint artwork at the front of the First-Class cabin that depicts a sailboat on the water on a sunny afternoon.

For guests who have a history with the airline — former flight attendants or family members of former Pan Am employees — these tiny touches are more than an appreciated detail; they’re a link to the past.

“As soon as I saw the First-Class cabin, I started crying,” says Michelle Fedder, who started her career as a flight attendant with Pan Am and recently met three former colleagues here. “It was like they took my memories out of my brain and brought them back to life.”

Brice Cooper, creative director at Pan American World Airways, the New Hampshire company that licenses Pan Am trademarks worldwide, agrees.

“What they’ve done here in recreating the vibe and feel of flying on Pan Am is nothing short of remarkable,” he says.

Evolution of a dream

The Pan Am Experience is really Toth’s brainchild.

The 52-year-old has been obsessed with planes since his childhood, and fell in love with Pan Am while flying to Europe one summer to visit his grandparents in Italy. He acquired his first pair of airplane seats when he was 16, and started making trips to the airplane graveyard in the Mojave Desert to buy airplane parts in his 20s.

Eventually, he had enough parts to build the ground floor of the 22-foot-long Pan Am set in his garage. He moved the set to a storage facility so he could break out his prized spiral staircase and create a second floor.

That first set forms the bones of the Pan Am Experience today.

Sometime around 2014, after the ill-fated television show, “Pan Am,” mutual friends connected Toth and Captan, who had heard about the set and wanted to see it up close. He was blown away.

Captan, a long-time movie producer who immigrated to the US from Lebanon when he was 17, had the idea to use the set to host an event, and a trial dinner sold out at an aviation memorabilia collectors’ show in a matter of minutes. Demand was so high, the duo ended up hosting more events. Later that year, Captan moved Toth’s set into Air Hollywood, his aviation-themed film studio here. The Pan Am Experience has been flying high ever since.

Vegas, here we come?

Nowadays, the Pan Am Experience takes off every Saturday at 6 p.m. sharp, and about half are open to the public. Tickets for the dinners are sold in pairs and range in price from $475 to $875, depending on seating class.

The next two public dinners scheduled for March 9 and March 23 are sold out, and there’s a waiting list for dinners later in the year.

Captan and Toth hope to open an outpost in Las Vegas.

Details of the expansion are still under development, but Captan says the new experience likely would include turbulence and white noise. More seats on the set and a separate bar and gift shop open to the public throughout the week also are likely.

“My hope is that people who never got a chance to fly Pan Am get an opportunity to see how fantastic air travel was back in the era, while those who might have been able to experience it bring back memories that remind them of the good old days,” says Toth. “This is a part of our history worth celebrating.”