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Old Log Theater endures in its neck of the woods

By David HawleyMonday, April 21, 2008 The Old Log Theater is part of a disappearing breed: a for-profit, unionized theater.

The Old Log Theater's 1947 production of "Arsenic and Old Lace."
Photo courtesy of the Old Log Theater
The Old Log Theater’s 1947 production of “Arsenic and Old Lace.”

The satirical joke was a little too cruel.

At an annual awards event to celebrate Twin Cities theater, the entertainment included short comic sketches written and performed by local actors. One, a brief blackout sketch, involved two actors meeting on a street.

“I haven’t seen you in years,” one exclaims. “Did you decide to get out of the business?”

“No,” the other replies. “I’ve been working out at the Old Log.” (Blackout.)

The one-joke sketch so enraged the evening’s emcee that he departed from the written script and launched into an impromptu speech at the podium. “Don Stolz and the Old Log Theater were pioneering quality theater in this state before many of you were even born,” he thundered at one point. “He deserves the gratitude of everyone in this room.”

No, this didn’t happen at a recent Ivey Awards. It happened in 1982 at what was then called the Kudos Awards Show. And the enraged emcee was Dave Moore, a newscaster on WCCO-TV and by then a beloved icon of local broadcasting.

Moore died a decade ago, and the last Kudos show was in 1983. But Don Stolz, now 90, continues to give a curtain speech for every performance at the Old Log Theater, which he has run for more than 60 years in Greenwood, near Excelsior on the shores of Lake Minnetonka.

The Old Log is part of a disappearing breed: a for-profit, unionized theater that has no board of directors, no fund drives, no income other than ticket and concession sales including its attached restaurant. Hundreds, if not thousands, of actors have worked there over the decades, but it still has the reputation of being in theatrical Siberia.

In his curtain-speech remarks, the dapper-looking Stolz usually says a few amusing things about the play, notes some of the groups that have come to the theater for the performance, or mentions birthdays and anniversaries being celebrated. His manner is convivial and folksy — and utterly, convincingly sincere.

Four of five sons have followed their father in devoting their working lives to Old Log Theater, and Don agreed to let them take over the operations fully in 2006 while he cared for their ailing mother, Joan, who died last September. But Don insists on continuing the curtain speeches.

Explains Tom Stolz, the son who acts and directs: “He says the curtain speeches are one of the main draws. People come to see if he’s still alive.”

"Forever Plaid"
“Forever Plaid”

A different play every week
Stolz directed his first show at the Old Log in 1941, when it was a summer-stock company that presented 13 plays in 13 weeks. He was a 23-year-old graduate student in theater at Northwestern University near Chicago, and Old Log, founded the previous year, was being operated by one of his professors, Clement Ramsland.

That summer, a high-school student from Minneapolis named Dave Moore asked if he could work at the theater as an apprentice. He was put up in a ramshackle rooming house where members of the company lived, and his only privacy was a sheet strung between his bunk and a bunk used by the company’s cook.

“He seemed fine with the arrangement, but when his folks paid a visit and saw how he was living, they took him home,” Stolz recalls. Moore eventually returned to do a number of turns over the years, including the title role in “Mister Roberts.”

The first show Stolz directed during that summer of 1941 was Sidney Howard’s “Ned McCobb’s Daughter.” It was a hit, though Stolz credits the success to the excellent casting done before he arrived. In any case, Stolz was asked to stay on.

“I was not too difficult to convince because I didn’t have enough money to leave town anyway,” Stolz remembers.

To keep things going after the summer ended, Stolz and other actors took a show on tour. They were getting ready to give a Sunday performance in Rochester on Dec. 7, 1941, when news about the bombing of Pearl Harbor was announced. The remainder of the tour was canceled and Stolz went back to his parent’s home in Oklahoma to enlist in the Navy.

He spent most of the war teaching navigation in a midshipman’s training program at Notre Dame. The assignment was ironic. “I had never been out of the sight of land in my life,” he says. But the experience was productive because he met a young woman at nearby St. Mary’s College. Being a gentleman, he asked the young lady’s father for permission to marry his daughter, Joan.

“His response was, ‘You’ve got to be kidding’ — and he never ever explained why he said that,” Stolz says with a straight face and his typical deadpan delivery. Indeed, tell a ripping joke and Stolz will nod appreciatively, always a pro, and add, flatly: “That’s funny.” Funny is a business.

From ‘B’ movies to Lake Minnetonka
At the end of the war, Stolz and his wife were living in California, where he was fresh out of the Navy and pounding the streets looking for work in film, broadcasting and on the stage. He landed a few small roles in forgettable B-level movies, along with some radio work. One of the stage productions he was in may have gotten the shortest negative review on record.

It was a British play called “Worse Things Happen at Sea,” which took its title from an English expression about unfortunate events — as in, “Oh, well: Worse things happen at sea.” The production got a one-sentence review and Stolz can still quote it from memory:

“After seeing last night’s opening performance at the Vine Street Theatre, the title, ‘Worse Things Happen At Sea’ seems hardly likely.”

After a few other disheartening experiences, Stolz decided to take a stab at running the 1946 summer season at that little 250-seat theater with the dirt floor on a 10-acre lot near the shore of Lake Minnetonka’s St. Albans Bay. The theater was available for lease, and Stolz returned to Minnesota — just in time to experience the public panic during one of the worst epidemics of polio in the nation’s history. Group gatherings were considered cesspools of contagion.

“By the end of that summer, we had lost everything, including all the money I had saved and the money I’d gotten by selling the car,” Stolz recalls. “I had enough money to buy a bus ticket for Joan and the baby (Peter, born in 1946) to send them back to California. I hitchhiked home and I almost beat them.”

The following summer — in what friends thought was gluttony for punishment — Stolz and his young family returned to Minnesota for another season, opening it with Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie,” featuring Don in the role of Tom. John Sherman, the critic for the Minneapolis Tribune, questioned that choice.

“He said, ‘You can’t open a summer-stock season with something like ‘Glass Menagerie.’ You need a comedy.’ And I replied, ‘You don’t understand. There are only three other people in the cast.’ “

For the next dozen years, Stolz ran the theater in the summers and tried to find ways to make money the rest of the year. “It was vulgar what I’d do to make a buck,” he recalls.

Early on, he found work writing and producing “industrial shows” to liven up corporate conferences for companies like Honeywell and Hamm Brewing. He has lost track of how many industrial scripts he wrote over the years, though he estimates it was more than 100.

‘Axel and His Dog’
But the source of steady work for Stolz came in 1954 when he joined the cast of “Axel and His Dog,” a daytime television show for children on WCCO-TV. The star of the show was Clellen Card, who played a drawling “Scandinoovian” named Axel Torgeson. Stolz, whose face was never seen on the TV screen, portrayed Axel’s dog, Towser. All the viewers ever saw was the dog’s paw, manipulated by Stolz.
The popularity of the show, which ran until Card’s death in 1966, was phenomenal. In 1959, for example, the show’s local rating was three times its nearest time-slot competitor: Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand.”

Clellen and Stolz, who lived near each other in Excelsior, became close personal friends — partly because of shared tragedy. Two of Clellen’s sons were killed in accidents, and early in the run of “Axel and His Dog,” Stolz’s 2-year-old daughter, Joanie, wandered away from their home one day and drowned in the bay.

In 1997, at the urging of History Theatre’s artistic director, Ron Peluso, Stolz included the death of his daughter in a play he was writing about his experiences with Card’s TV show. The play was presented in St. Paul at History Theatre that season, with Tom Stolz portraying his dad.

“Don never came to a rehearsal because he couldn’t bear to see that scene about Joanie,” recalls Peluso, who directed the production and later re-staged it at Old Log. “But he and Joan showed up on opening night and somehow got through it. At the opening-night party in the lobby, a woman walked up to Don and said, ‘I lost my son last year and I felt so alone. Your play made me feel good.’ I thought Don was going to bawl.”

A new theater, a year-round season

By the 1950s, Stolz had hit on a standard summer season: one serious play, followed by two comedies, followed by a serious play, and so on. Shows opened on Wednesday and rehearsals for the next show started Thursday morning.

A new stagehouse had been added to the end of the theater building, expanding seating capacity, but sellout houses were becoming routine. During the off-season, Stolz operated a ticketing business in downtown Minneapolis and in 1958, advance sales topped 10,000 tickets. Stolz decided it was time to build a new, larger theater and go year-round.

The man he hired to build it was Herb Bloomberg, who ran a building company and lumberyard in Chanhassen. The project had a transforming impact on Bloomberg, because a decade later he replaced his lumberyard with Chanhassen Dinner Theatres and jumped into show business.

People who patronize the two theaters can recognize their stylish similarities. Old Log’s 655-seat theater was designed to look like a barn, with high, open-beamed ceilings and a huge lobby dominated by a big fireplace. The sprawling building also includes a dining room with a broad expanse of windows that look out on the woodsy grounds near the lake. But unlike Chanhassen, the theater itself is a stand-alone auditorium.

The Guthrie ‘takes over’

The new Old Log Theater’s first year-round season was in 1960 and it coincided roughly with an earthquake event in the local theater scene: The announcement that Sir Tyrone Guthrie had selected Minneapolis as the home of a classical repertory theater, which opened in 1963. Old Log was still doing short runs of a broad repertoire that included light comedies, to be sure, but also everything from Shakespeare to Eugene O’Neill.

Stolz made the decision to switch the Old Log’s repertoire to light comedies and farces and, eventually, to change from a stock company to a production company, with long runs. In recent years, shows routinely run at the theater for months, and several have run as long as a year. He estimates Old Log shows have been seen by 4.5 million people in the last six decades.

Actors find it a very comfortable place to work. In past years, Old Log provided work for people who went on to big careers: actors Loni Anderson and Nick Nolte, for example, as well as many local broadcasting names including Nancy Nelson, the wife of the late Bill Carlson; Cindy Subbe, who went by Cindy Osborne on television; and radio legends Roger Erickson and Charlie Boone.

One of the last of its kind

The four Stolz sons divide up many of the theater’s tasks. Tom appears in nearly every production and now directs many of them; Dony runs the box office. Tim produces adaptations for children’s shows, handles publicity and advertising, and serves as stage manager; Jon designs and builds sets. The eldest son, Peter, who acted in some early productions, now lives in California, where he has a production job with the San Francisco Opera.

With the exception of Jon, who is a bachelor, all the sons are married and have children — grown children and grandchildren. But none of the third and fourth generations appears interested in running a for-profit dinner theater in Excelsior.

“Nephews and nieces worked here at one time or another, but when they got old enough to have their own families, they decided to do something more sensible,” says Tom Stolz, who has four grown children and six grandchildren.

“I’m overjoyed with where they’re at,” he adds. “They’re more eternal than the Old Log.”

Now that he’s no longer directly involved in the day-to-day operations of the theater, Don Stolz says he’s been working on a book about the Old Log and about his experiences “with this terrible disease called ‘theater.’ “

He still insists on using a manual typewriter and complains that he has trouble finding typewriter ribbons. Nonetheless, Stolz’s manuscript is more than an inch thick and isn’t nearly complete.

“I don’t know if it will ever be published,” he says. “But, you know, I’m not worried about that.”

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Now on stage at the Old Log: “Forever Plaid”

David Hawley, a former arts critic and reporter at the Pioneer Press and author of a half-dozen plays and two nonfiction books, writes about the arts and other subjects.