The Customer is Always Right

For nearly 60 years, the Old Log Theater has practiced the art of making a profit

"ATHEATRE IS BORN!" the flier announced. "On May 31, if you attend our show, you will witness the birth of a theatre--a theatre which, we hope, will grow to a ripe old age. Upon you, our audience, depends largely whether this theatre will succeed or fail."

In the spring of 1940, members of the Minnetonka Players distributed these leaflets around the Minneapolis area, inviting passersby to "the first summer repertory theatre in the state of Minnesota." Half a century later, the Minnetonka Players have disbanded, but what they birthed, the Old Log Theater, is approaching its 60th birthday and is now, by its own account, the nation's oldest continuously running professional theater. In the course of these decades, Old Log has seen more than 6 million people attend its shows. And in the same period, Old Log has not taken a dime of grant money.

"I've always been interested in commercial theater, nonsubsidized theater," says Don Stolz, producer, artistic director, and company member since 1941. "I wanted to run a theater that paid its own way. People like to come here and know they have just as much to say about how this theater is run as anyone else in the community. There's no board of directors, no guarantors, no committees, no grant that determines what way we're going and what we're going to do. When you know that the success of a play depends on whether you like it or not, it's gratifying. Our whole focus is audience."

Mary Fallon

Audience. The magic word. Any theater person will utter these three syllables with reverence. Contributors, guarantors, committees, and grants can provide a leg up, but no matter how many grant proposals a theater writes, it still looks at each ticket buyer as manna, each empty seat as one more step toward bankruptcy. For Old Log, though, audience forms its entire ethos. Stolz says, "I don't know how many times I've seen theaters that receive a large grant and they say, 'Oh this is wonderful! Now we can do whatever plays we want to do.'" Stolz pauses for effect, then leans in and whispers, "Well, the plays that they should want to do are the plays that the audience wants to see. They may not know they want to see it, but these decisions should always be from the basis of the audience. If you want to build a business, you place the client, the customer, first."

Accordingly, before every performance, Stolz stands in front of the auditorium's light-blue curtain and welcomes his customers to his business. He introduces the play, and then, with the aid of note cards, welcomes groups, points out prominent audience members, and announces birthdays and anniversaries. The curtain talk, wafting through the rustic room with its high ceiling and exposed timbers, casts a folksy spell over the proceedings--a jarring and seemingly amateurish effect for audiences raised on the anonymity of the city.

But only part of Old Log's success comes from this homey atmosphere: Their professionalism has set the bar for other theaters in town. The audience, Stolz maintains, should be comfortable. "We do it in the way we park them, the way we treat them at the box office," Stolz says. "We try to make things as manageable, as joyous, as convenient, as significant, as happy as we can."

The Old Log Theater is located in Greenwood, a wealthy, wee community (about one-half of a square mile) on St. Albans Bay of Lake Minnetonka. You get to the theater by heading to Excelsior and turning onto Old Log Way. The theater lies at the end of this road on 10 acres of land dotted with log-sided scene shops, storage rooms, and offices. In 1940, the Old Log began its life in a little stable with dirt floors. In 1958, when the theater had pre-sold 10,000 tickets before hiring any actors, Stolz knew it was time to expand. Now the old building is a scene shop and, with the help of the good creditors at Northwest National Life Insurance, has given way to a new stage.

The current Old Log complex was completed in 1960--the same year the theater began a year-round production schedule--and the mood it provides seems just as much a part of the organization's success as the plays there. As you walk across the green-beige planks of the porch and through the theater's front door, you are greeted (sometimes by Stolz) at the box office, a dark wooden booth that is half modern office, half state-fair booth. Resting on the counter is a neatly stacked pile of Bob Aden's The Way it Was: A Highly Personal Account of the Old Log Theater's Early Years. Just past the lobby is a 400-seat restaurant, styled in what might be called barn chic. At least half the audiences come early for dinner (cost: $16.50)--a steady revenue source for the Old Log.

Covering the walls outside the auditorium are rows of '60s-era, hazily lit photos of Old Log greats: a young Nick Nolte wearing a Coors T-shirt; an even younger Loni Anderson as a brunette. Trophies and plaques dot the shelves: "Don Stolz, Small Business Man of the Year," "Don Stolz, thanks for making Dairy Queen's 50th birthday so memorable...."

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