The Customer is Always Right

Mary Fallon

"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."

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...."

The auditorium seats 655, and it's usually near full. The stage seems dwarfed by the rows of seats, the log walls, the vaulted roof. On stage is an intricate set, usually a detailed living room designed by Stolz's son--for performances that will feature the acting of a second son, the stage management of a third, and the business oversight of a fourth. All four live in the environs of the theater (in fact, it seems the entire population of Greenwood is made of Stolzes). "It's pretty rare to find anyone working here who doesn't have the last name Stolz," laughs Bob Williams, who has served as Old Log's PR man since Ike was in office. "They're really the first family of Minnesota theater."

Williams attributes most of the Old Log's success to Don Sr., who guides the business, directs all the plays, and seemingly gets his hands into everything else as well. "He's done everything," says Williams. I've seen him out by the well cooking hamburgers at intermission. I've parked cars with him in the parking lot when it's been nothing but a big sea of mud. He's done it all. He knows everybody."

Stolz's connection to the audience--his personification of the Old Log brand--cannot be overestimated in accounting for the theater's success. "We have a loyal audience," Williams says. "They keep coming back year after year. Back in the day when we were doing a play a week, they would come to every play. We also do a lot of group business, which is absolutely necessary for entertainment. I don't care if you're the Vikings or the Twins or the Guthrie or Orchestra Hall--they all need group sales."

Group sales, many stemming from relationships Stolz has built in the business world, represent the Old Log's most important audience. Groups of several hundred come in buses from all over Minnesota to eat dinner, meet-and-greet in the "Cabin," and watch Old Log's comfortable style of comedy. At Christmastime, Old Log stages a children's show. They offer a few open performances, but most of their ticket sales come from school shows. As of the last week in August, 17,000 reservations had been made for this Christmas's Puss in Boots.

Much of Old Log's financial success seems built on its repeat customers and longevity. It's hard to imagine that ticket sales could ever sustain a new theater these days. "People have asked, 'Could you do this today?'" Stolz says. "I don't know. I don't know if you could start a theater without any funding. I believe that some theater has to be subsidized. I believe the Guthrie does. And the climate is different today. I think there are 128 organized theaters in the Twin Cities. Two months from now, there will still be 128, but 20 will be new. There's that kind of attrition."

And lest the Old Log's success seem easy, without challenging new material to put over and new audiences to win, commercial theater brings its own difficulties. Union contracts with actors add at least an extra $1,000 per performer to the weekly cost of a run. And high production costs prevent staging more than a handful of shows a year. Accordingly, the theater reads hundreds of plays a year to find small-cast, single-set plays.

But Stolz would never count the difficulty of selecting shows that will assuredly please his audience as a restriction. Inherent in all his statements about funding, plays, and audience is a simple belief: There is no "artistic" limitation in giving the audience what it wants. What audiences want--and get--from the two or three pieces the Old Log mounts each year are cheerful, brisk productions, usually Broadway comedies and British farces. Recent successes have included Paul Rudnick's I Hate Hamlet and the British import Run for Your Wife (and, a personal favorite, No Sex Please--We're British).

Comedy is Old Log's niche, though Stolz is quick to assert that it hasn't always been that way. "I believe very strongly in the therapy of comedy," Stoltz says. "And I believe very strongly in the catharsis of drama and what it can bring. Our reputation back in 1946 was built on drama: We were one of the first stocks to do Glass Menagerie. We did more O'Neill than just about anybody." But when the Guthrie was founded in 1963, Stolz decided to yield drama to them. Comedies are the Old Log's market niche now, and that dictates their programming.  

And so, for decades, the Old Log has sold the promise of laughter. Perhaps more importantly, though, they sell a brand, an experience: They sell the smell of a fireplace and an auditorium surrounded by old logs. As much as any production, what Stolz sells is the Old Log Theater.

Despite its unwavering orientation toward the customer, the theater hasn't always been profitable. Stolz and Co. have made many trips to the bank to borrow funds. Right now, Stolz says smiling, they don't owe anything to anybody, thanks in part to the success of their current production, The Odd Couple. There's always a worry, though, with every new production, that it won't sell and that they'll be sent back to the bank holding out their pockets.

For Stolz the specter of the 1946 season will always loom as he introduces each new show. Stolz had planned to spend that summer at Old Log along with his wife and infant son; for the rest of the year he would act in Hollywood. But that season, the polio epidemic kept people in their homes; no one was willing to go anywhere crowds could be found. Stolz sold off the family's car and all of their possessions. By the end of the summer he had only enough money to buy his wife and boy bus fare to California. Stolz hitchhiked.

The theater survived, and so did Stolz; but the experience has helped him get through the leaner times. And his wry reflection on that summer speaks as much to art as to industry: "We always knew," he says grinning, "that the only thing we had to lose was everything we owned."

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