Call it an evening of memories, a night of laughter and tears. Some 200 actors, directors, technicians, musicians, ticket-takers and cooks gathered one evening last week to say goodbye to a certain theater at 2605 Hennepin Ave. S. that has been their inspiration, their professional home and their training ground for 49 years.
“We have come,” said Caleb McEwen, the event’s emcee, “to honor a hasty decision made in the Embers parking lot across the street that stretched to five decades.”
The Brave New Workshop, one of the nation’s oldest, if not the oldest, comedy-satire theaters, is packing up its wagons and moving two miles north to 727 Hennepin Av. S., in downtown Minneapolis, to a narrow five-story building that once housed Teener’s Theatrical Costume shop. Offices for the Workshop’s ever-growing corporate services operation and its improvisation school, the Brave New Institute, will be housed there, while its shows will continue across the street at 824 Hennepin, in a building the Workshop has owned since 2011. The Phoenix Theater has bought the facility at 2605 and intends to renovate.
Memories flowed Wednesday night. Workshop founder Dudley Riggs, 82, a former circus aerialist and juggler – the only boy, as he used to say, who fled the circus to join a family – recalled the odd circumstances of his move to 2605 in November 1965.
He had been evicted from his prior location, the Café Espresso on East Hennepin, where since 1961 he had been putting on shows satirizing local politics and offering a distinctly non-Midwest menu of Viennese pastry and extra-strong coffee made on what was then thought to be the only espresso machine west of the Mississippi. Riggs opened the show each night with a monologue drawn from the next morning’s Minneapolis Tribune.
“The judge said we had to be out by midnight Sunday,” Riggs said. “There was no show Sunday, as I recall. So several of us dismantled the theater and loaded it onto a rental truck, not knowing where to go and figuring the Workshop at that point was totally out of business. The City Council guy had said, ‘Good riddance. We finally got rid of those troublesome actors and their beatnik coffee.’ That’s a quote, by the way.
‘I was thinking about a yard sale’
“We had no place to go. The truck was costing us a lot of money. I was thinking about a yard sale. (Tech director) Paul Stenbock and I, both with walking pneumonia, were sitting at the Embers when we saw the guy put up a sign at an auto repair shop across the street that said ‘For Rent.’ So I went across the street and rented the building on Wednesday. We moved everything in on Thursday, putting the touring company lights in what is now the lobby, taped newspapers to the windows and did the show, as promised, on Friday night.”
Riggs was so busy setting things up that he forgot to tell the actors the theater had moved. One of them was Pat Proft.
“I got out of the car on East Hennepin and saw a note on the door: ‘We Have Moved.’ And it gave the address, he said. “So we drove over here trying to find it. We got here, and there was Anita (O’Sullivan) taping newspapers to the windows. There were only five people in the audience that night. We told them it was a rehearsal.” Other cast members: Mike McManus, Tom Sherohman and the gifted sketch actress Ruth Williams, one of the pillars of the company in those years.
Nine shows a week — three on Saturday
Over the years that small audience grew and grew. Satire, for one reason or another, found an audience in a town where the prevailing view, at least among ubiquitous Lutherans, was that it’s not nice to poke fun at people. By the late ‘60s, the Workshop was poking fun in nine shows a week – three on Saturday. Actors earned a hefty $75 a week. The theater was an oven in the summer. The noisy air-conditioner had to be turned off during the show, then quickly turned on again at intermission. Actors took salt tablets to keep from dehydrating. But, hey, they figured, that’s show-biz.
Reflecting its time and the inclinations of the performers, the Workshop went through various styles and phases. Starting out as a writers’ theater — the chief contributor being the revered Irv Letofsky, back then a reporter and editor at the Tribune, with additional input from the cartoonist Dick Guindon — the Workshop evolved in the early ‘70s toward sketches created through improvisation under the guidance of Paul Menzel and Del Close, a major figure in the field who came from Chicago’s Second City to direct several shows. That format has been brought almost to a science in recent years in the skilled hands of McEwen, who has directed every show but three since 2001.
Show titles got zanier: “Martha Stewart: Prison Vixen,” “Minnesota Summer: It’s Not the Heat, It’s the Stupidity,” “Atheism Means Never Having To Say You’re Lutheran” and McEwen’s directorial debut, “When Extreme Things Happen to Boring People or Massacre at Lake Woebegone.”
‘Nothing is sacred except the circus’
Riggs’ motto was “Nothing is sacred except the circus,” just a stone’s throw from Paul Krassner’s emblem: “Irreverence is our only sacred cow.” “Some people protested the shows,” said Riggs. “They’d see a poster out front – ‘The Vietnam Follies’ – and throw a brick through the window, or ‘The All Dirty Revue’ and throw a brick. The window got smaller and smaller. Turned out it was the same guy each time. He’d get drunk at the bar across the street, walk by the theater, get mad and throw a brick.”
Riggs’ office, a tiny room near the kitchen, became a legend all its own. Occasionally, a cast member stuck his head in the door (this writer being one of those cast members in the late ’60s and early ’70s), but there was no room to stand. An old roll-top desk was loaded several feet high with photos, memos, parking tickets and hundreds of 3-by-5 cards.
One night before a show Riggs walked through the swinging door into the lobby and encountered a young man pointing what looked like a gun at him who said, “Your money or your life.” Riggs turned around, shut the door behind him, walked into his office, grabbed a gun he kept handy and fired two shots into the ceiling. The guy fled. “This was a tougher neighborhood back then,” Riggs said.
Alums make their mark
As time went on, Workshop alums, among the 600 or so who have graced the stage at 2605 (or at Riggs’ ETC at 7-Corners, which opened in 1971) began to make their mark in show business. Among them: Nancy Steen, Al Franken, Louie Anderson, Penn & Teller, Peter Tolen and Proft, a writer responsible for quite a few of the funniest films of past decades (”Police Academy,” “Wrongfully Accused,” “The Naked Gun” series).
Proft had just graduated from high school in Columbia Heights when he got a call from a friend, McManus, saying that Sherohman had just dropped out of a Workshop show on East Hennepin to do a play, and they needed a replacement. “So I went over and got into the show,” he said. “At that time at the Workshop, if you showed up, you were in the show. The thing is, comedy is all I ever wanted to do. I grew up watching Laurel & Hardy. Everything I did in high school was like a film. So I stayed in the shows for several years, and later in L.A. Tom and I got to work together, doing TV shows and movies. This is where I got to do what I do. I got to learn stuff. Dudley and Irv Letofsky – they were so important to me. This is one of the best rooms for comedy I’ve ever been in.”
Proft told a story about Ron Douglas, an African-American who acted in a couple of Workshop shows in the early ‘70s before pursuing a career as a stand-up comic on the West Coast. “It was Ronnie’s first show, so he didn’t really know the layout of the building,” Proft said. “In a sketch he played a robber who was holding me up. Each show he would try to make a different entrance, trying to fool me. One night he figured he’d go out the front door and come in through the back.
“Imagine this: He’s dressed like a robber – a black guy in a mask. He goes out the front door, around the corner and is coming down the alley. Now he’s gonna come in the back door. But it’s locked. He’s pounding on the door and running around in the alley dressed like a bandit. Outside, people are looking at him and scared out of their minds. Here’s a black guy in a Lone Ranger mask. We finally got the door open.”
Leaky roof, blown fuses
The main theater room, which seats 204, is justly admired for its intimacy and good acoustics, whereas the building itself is a hornet’s nest. “This place was never intended to be a theater. It’s been falling apart since I started here in ’96,” said McEwen. “The roof leaks when it rains. The bathrooms are terrible and the wiring is worse. If the stage lights were on and somebody plugged in a curling iron in the women’s dressing room downstairs, all the fuses would blow, and they were all old-school fuses. I remember on an opening night, as we got ready for the show, we had candles burning onstage. I was always the one who went out and talked to the audience on those occasions because I could give the illusion of calm.”
In 1997 Riggs sold the Workshop to John Sweeney; his wife, Jenni Lilledahl; and Mark Bergren, who left two years later to pursue other ventures. Sweeney saw his first Workshop show in 1993 and, like Saul on the Road to Damascus, he saw the light. He was converted. That’s what he wanted to do with the rest of his life, improv comedy, and so he gave up a flourishing career in high finance to become a performer. “I also met my wife here, who remains my best friend,” he said. “And then I ended up buying the place.”
In 1998 Sweeney and Lilledahl moved the Workshop to Calhoun Square, keeping 2605 as the site for the improv training school. But Calhoun Square didn’t work out financially, so in 2002 they returned to 2605. For four years during this time, they produced a separate show at the Palace Theater in downtown St. Paul, “MINNESOTA! It’s Not Just for Lutherans Anymore.” And they formed a publishing company, Aerialist Press, subtitled Publishing Without a Net.
“We tried for years to buy this place,’ Lilledahl said, referring to 2605. “If we bought it, we could fix it up.” The owner ran a mail-order business in the basement of the building. “We called it the Iron Cross and Hot Rod store,” Sweeney said. “They sold Nazi uniforms and Ku Klux Klan memorabilia, mostly to Utah, and were doing about a million a year.”
The building had been on the market the past three years, Lilledahl said, which prompted them to start looking seriously for a new location. They checked out the Music Box Theater on upper Nicollet but ended up buying the former Hay City Theater on Hennepin, where the past three years they’ve seen their attendance rise 30 percent. Last month they bought the Teener’s building.
Later in the program, Sweeney and Proft honored a special guest, Sherohman, a veteran Workshop actor and director who suffered a stroke a couple of years ago and is confined to a wheelchair, which was positioned near the stage. They presented him with a memento, a small stained-glass window that had been part of the décor at both the old Café Espresso and at 2605. “Tom and I go back a long time with our comedy,” Proft told the audience. “I love this dude.”
At the moment, as these troupers close a chapter on 49 years of history, the Workshop’s future looks rosy. Buildings crumble, casts move on. “I see the workshop continuing forever, no matter where it is,” McEwen said.
Perhaps appropriate to that thought, it was remembered that Riggs used to end his monologues with an almost mystical intro to the show, a segue to what the audience was about to see. He would say, “And now, through the magic of make-believe, lies and deceptions and through the courtesy of the First, Second and Fifth Amendments of the Constitution of the United States of America, we bring you the Brave New Workshop.” He would then blow into the air, as if blowing out a candle, at which time the lights would BLACK OUT.