Not long ago, Don Stolz was helping out at the box office before a performance at the Old Log Theater when a woman walked up, looked around to make certain no one could hear and whispered, “Can you tell me, is Don Stolz still alive?”
Stolz, 91, regarded her for a moment and then replied, “Just barely.”
He was fibbing. Stolz turned day-to-day operations of the theater on the shores of Lake Minnetonka’s St. Albans Bay over to four of his sons in 2006, but he still makes curtain-call speeches nearly every night and works in his office nearly every day. His latest project is a volume of memoirs, “The Old Log Theater & Me,” that was just self-published through Edina-based Beaver’s Pond Press.
At 437 pages, the book is likely the product of reductive editing. After all, Stolz first worked as a director/actor at Old Log in 1941 and has owned the theater and directed most of its productions since 1946. That’s a lot of ground to cover in one book.
Memoirs serve multiple purposes — an exhaustive chronicle of specific events, a compilation of anecdotes, a sharing of acquired wisdom, a resume of accomplishments and acquaintances, a settling of old scores. With the exception of old scores — if he ever had enemies, he’s outlived them — Stolz tries to pack all of these things into his book and still make it flow.
He succeeds, for the most part. The flow slows a bit by the sheer glut of his effort to chronicle, almost year by year, the hundreds of plays that have been staged at Old Log during seven decades. But he enlivens it with funny anecdotes — such as the time a New York actress walked out because she couldn’t find any men in the cast who were willing to sleep with her (she remains unidentified, of course) or the time he was forced to sub for an ill actor, carried the script on stage and got a huge laugh for consulting it during a prolonged kissing scene with actress Sharon Anderson (who later became a popular local talk-show host).
Stolz has written a lot of scripts over the years — scripts for radio and television and scores of scripts for so-called “industrial shows” that are performed for corporate audiences. So it’s not surprising that his book frequently breaks into dialogue, most of it witty and some of it witty under fire.
During World War II, for example, Ensign Stolz was a navigator on a troop transport ship that came under attack by suicide Kamikazi planes during the Battle of Okinawa. The ship’s captain slept through most of the attack, but finally woke up when a 20 mm gun above his cabin opened up on one of the suicidal diving planes.
“Captain Creehan came roaring out of his emergency cabin wearing only his BVDs,” Stolz writes before launching into dialogue.
Captain: What was that?
Stolz: Twenty millimeter gun fire.
Captain: Whose twenty millimeter?
Captain: What were they firing at?
Stolz: An enemy plane. Thank God they got it.
Captain: Why wasn’t I called? Captains don’t sleep through battles.
Stolz: No, sir.
Captain: I’ll relieve you from the con as soon as I can put on my pants.
Is it any wonder that the Old Log staged “Mr. Roberts” a number of times?
And there are the photographs: The book is chock full of great pictures that go way back — including pictures of Stolz when he was young enough to play Tom in “The Glass Menagerie.” Promotional pictures from Old Log productions go all the way back to the days when the Old Log was a 278-seat summer-stock playhouse where the audience sat on long benches, visited outhouses during intermissions and where summer storms inevitably flooded the floor under the first three rows in front of the stage.
Stolz weaves the stories of his personal life through his chronicle of theatrical disasters and triumphs, including a funny account of courting and marrying a good Catholic girl from South Bend, Ind., named Joan Marie Fuller (Joan died in 2007). When informed by a Catholic priest that their children would have to raised Catholic, Stolz, who was the son of a Methodist minister, admitted that it bothered him.
“I’d just hate for them to grow up thinking they’re right and everyone else is wrong,” he told the priest.
Writing in the present, Stolz added about his sons: “They did grow up thinking they were right and everyone else is wrong — not about religion, but about theater — an attitude they may have inherited from me.”
If that sounds a little egotistical, one shouldn’t be surprised. You don’t struggle to keep a theater going for 70 years without a sense of surety and mission. Theater is ephemeral — after closing night, the set is struck and all that is left are memories. Hence this book, which tries to remember so much and ends with this observation from the oldest voice of theater in the Twin Cities:
“Theater is and will always be a celebration of the spirit of man — a celebration which can, and often does become an act of worship.”
“The Old Log Theater & Me” is available at local Barnes and Noble bookstores and at a number of smaller bookstores, especially in the West Metro. Needless to say, copies can also be purchased at the theater.