Wise Guys

What can a precarious arts scene learn from the oldest continuously operating theater company in the country?

IN THE SUMMER OF 1941, Don Stolz arrived on the shores of Lake Minnetonka to direct a play. He was a graduate student of theater at Northwestern University, near Chicago, and one of his professors had invited him to lead the second season of the Minnetonka Players, a summer-stock troupe he’d helped assemble in what was then a resort area for summering Twin Citians. The actors performed in a dirt-floor stable, a different play every week. ¶ Stolz has been there ever since, save for a brief intermission serving in World War II, at what is today the Old Log Theater in tiny, tony Greenwood. “I didn’t have enough money to get out of town,” he jokes. Now 91, he has operated the theater and its adjoining restaurant since 1946, for the last couple of decades with the help of his sons Tom, Tim, Dony, and Jon. The Old Log, by its own account, has continuously operated as a professional theater company (not simply a venue) longer than any other theater in the country, playing to some six million patrons. With its multi-month shows and generous employee benefits, the theater has helped sustain several generations of local actors—including, in the ’60s, Nick Nolte and Loni Anderson.

In all that time, the theater’s business philosophy hasn’t changed. “Upon you, our audience, depends largely whether this theatre will succeed or fail” read the announcement of the Players’ first show. The Old Log was, and remains, a commercial theater, surviving on ticket sales, along with revenue from its restaurant. It’s a rare distinction: Of the estimated hundred or so theater companies in the Twin Cities, all but a handful are nonprofit. And while many struggle to stay afloat, the Old Log keeps rolling along—despite the fact that, in 70 seasons, it has never taken a dime of public money.

WHEN THE OLD LOG BEGAN, there were no nonprofit theaters—the tax distinction had yet to be created. In fact, other than traveling shows, there were no other professional theater companies at all in the Twin Cities. What had been a thriving theater district in Minneapolis had died out in the Great Depression, and it would be another 23 years before the Guthrie Theater opened.

By 1960, the Old Log was regularly selling out. Stolz decided to stage a year-round season and build the current 655-seat theater—more than four times larger than the Jungle Theater in Minneapolis and only slightly smaller than the McGuire Proscenium Stage at the new Guthrie. The Old Log dining room was also enlarged, to 350 seats. At least half of all attendees come for dinner and, at $24 a person, restaurant sales are a crucial revenue stream. Over the years, the Stolzes have also built up a group-sales trade that brings in bus-fulls of patrons from as far away as Winnipeg. Such moves have paid off: While other theaters cut back, attendance at the Old Log remains steady and its children’s show have been packed.

But for-profit doesn’t always mean profitable—the Stolzes have been to the bank for loans more times than they care to remember. For them, operating commercially is as much a philosophical choice as a business strategy. “We wouldn’t be too comfortable spending other people’s money,” says Tom Stolz. Instead, the family courts patrons the way other businesses pursue customers. Nearly every aspect of the operation serves to endear audiences to the theater, from Don himself working the ticket counter to his famous pre-show speeches from the stage, pointing out birthdays and prominent patrons. Where other theaters might display a particularly good review, the Old Log features a plaque declaring, “Don Stolz, Small-Business Man of the Year.”

Don is quick to clarify that embracing ticketbuyers is not the same as pandering. “We built our reputation on serious plays,” he says. Waiting for Godot, even Eugene Ionesco’s obfuscating Rhinoceros. Tyrone Guthrie himself took in the occasional Old Log show. Of course, to remember this era you may have to be nearly as old as Don.

By the time the Old Log expanded, it was clear what customers wanted: laughs. So the theater staged two comedies for every drama. When the Guthrie began to dominate the drama market, the Old Log focused even more narrowly, on the farces that now dominate its stage, with slamming doors and enough PG-13 innuendo fill a season of Two and a Half Men. Now, Don says, they risk losing their loyal audience if they change: “People are disappointed if they come and they don’t laugh.”

THE STOLZES AREN’T OPPOSED to publicly funding some theaters in order to push the art form and still keep tickets affordable. But they also believe that relying heavily on ticket sales has helped them focus on their audience’s interests. Too often, they say, public funding allows troupes to lose track of who they’re creating their art for. “They get a grant and say, ‘Now we can do whatever play we want to do,’ ” Don says. “Well, the plays they should do are the plays the audience wants to see.” The audience may not always know what they’ll enjoy, he says, but their perspective should be foremost. “Otherwise,” Tom says, “that’s getting your cake and eating it, too. And that’s not what theater is about. If it isn’t for the audience, then why are you doing it?”

Whether the Old Log’s practices could translate to other theaters—or even should—is debatable. As public funding for theaters recedes, many nonprofits have indeed turned to audiences to make up the difference—not through higher prices, per se, but through donations. Such contributions now account for more than 40 percent of the average nonprofit theater’s funding, according to a study by the National Endowment for the Arts. But catering to this audience—typically wealthy, older individuals—has inherent risks, say critics of the model.

“Where the money is coming from has an effect on the product,” says Alan Berks, a Minneapolis playwright and co-editor of MinnesotaPlaylist.com, which chronicles the local theater scene. How can you reach a broad audience, he asks, or produce edgy work, if you’re focused on catering to your most generous patrons? “It’s a big disconnect.”

In general, the goals of commercial theaters aren’t compatible with those of nonprofits, says Teresa Eyring, executive director of the Theatre Communications Group in Washington, D.C., which lobbies for nonprofit theaters. Most commercial producers, she says, try to make as much money as possible off one show at a time. Nonprofits, while staging the occasional blockbuster to pay the bills, typically commit to full seasons and learning opportunities for as broad an audience as possible.

Not that the Old Log acts like a typical commercial theater. Eyring, who spent more than a decade in the Twin Cities theater scene, allows that the Old Log combines profitability with almost nonprofit-level accessibility. Its average ticket price—from $19.50 to $32—is on par with that of most midsize theaters.

Much about the Old Log, of course, has uniquely positioned it for success, from its headstart in the theater scene to its family operation, which has allowed for a rare continuity. In fact, its success may have as much to do with who’s running the place as how they’re doing it. Don became beloved for his work on the landmark WCCO-TV children’s show Axel and His Dog that ran in the 1950s and early ’60s (he was the dog and the cat). And during the off-season, he made money scripting corporate conference shows—at least 100, he figures—for the likes of Honeywell and Hamm Brewing. “It was vulgar what I’d do to make a buck,” he has said.

“It’s really a tribute to Don to have made it on ticket sales for so many years,” says Ron Peluso, the artistic director of the History Theatre in St. Paul, which once produced a play about Stolz’s TV work. “Don pretty much lives at the theater. Nobody does it like he does.”

Don himself isn’t sure anyone could start a theater like the Old Log nowadays. Peluso, for one, isn’t sure he’d want to try. “Managing a theater is hard enough much less a restaurant—those guys are running two very volatile operations at once.” He laughs at the thought. “I wouldn’t do it.”

Tim Gihring is the senior writer and arts editor of Minnesota Monthly.