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Chanhassen Dinner Theatre
Calendar Listing, Showcase: Twin Cities Magazine for the Performing Arts. HLM Graphics. Volume 1- Issue 2. 1971. Courtesy Stephen Peabody.
According to their rather extensive history on its website, Chanhassen Dinner Theatre was started in 1968 by Herbert and Carolyn Bloomberg, two theater lovers who decided they wanted to bring Broadway to Chanhassen. Herb Bloomberg , a businessman and builder, had previously built the Old Log theater in 1965. The first play was How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, performed on the main stage and directed by Gary Gisselman. Rather than spending money on “stars,” the Bloombergs nurtured local talent, paying at a professional, union rate. In the 1970s, the Bloombergs added more stages, and began a run of ‘I Do! I Do!”, starring David Anders and Susan Goeppinger (who ended up getting married in real life), which finally ended its run in the 1990s, though it originally had been slated for only three weeks.
Please listen to an excerpt of our interview with Shirley Venard (below) where she talks about Chanhassen. Also, John Cranney talks briefly about Chanhassen in our interview with him. Also see oral histories with John Davidson, John Lewin, Bob May, and Shirley Dircks (Venard), available at Hennepin County Library’s website, and Nancy Peabody’s reflections on Chanhassen from her memoir:
Peabody, Nancy Kilde, My Life in Theatre, May 16, 1998. This 25-page unpublished memoir about Nancy Kilde Peabody’s life in theatre in Minnesota is full of details and stories about her association with different Minnesota theaters as a piano accompanist.
The Chanhassen Dinner Theatre opened its doors in September 1968. Its first show was “How to Succeed”, and David Anders was in the cast, and after twenty-seven years is still on the payroll of the Dinner Theater. A most talented, stalwart, cooperative actor, with a voice of stunning power and versatility.
Gary Gisselman was the managing director then, and he hired our revue group, re-named “The Competition” to entertain in the downstairs theater. The cast was Gerald, Lela, Sharon and Alan with me in a little pit. We did various mixtures of things from our past revues and had a mildly good time with it, although it was “informal”, i.e. drinks and murmured conversation were served throughout. This was a new kind of theater for me, interesting and educational in its way like the Aqua Follies, but not particularly satisfying or delightful.
But it did lead to my next job and the conclusion of chapter three and the reign of the two Garys over my life. The Chanhassen Dinner Theater is a lavish establishment and was to be an important part of my life for many many years, but the beginning of the adventure was not propitious. The casual relaxation of “The Downstairs Competition” was followed very soon by what one critic called “The Schulz rocketburst”. “The Fantasticks” is a sure draw, and so a good choice for a handsome dinner theater struggling to get a grip on the public pulse.
Gary Gisselman mounted a fine production which opened November 20, 1968 to rave reviews. On November 23 he was fired by Herb Bloomberg and Randy Maddux, the chief of operations and a close friend of Gary Schulz. Maddux was an actor of sorts too, and had worked at the Minneapolis Repertory Theatre in several shows. He had finally married Schulz’s long time devotee, Jane Knudson. A lot of interesting dynamics in this collection of relationships, but the bottom line is that Maddux was in a position to fire Gisselman and hire his old friend Shulz, who was at this time sort of frittering away his awesome talents at the Edgewater Inn.
My recollection is that I got a phone call literally in the middle of the night from an excited, driven Schulz, commanding my presence the next day to re-rehearse what was now HIS production of “The Fantasticks”. I was paired with Anita Ruth on the other piano, and she was to be on the Chanhassen payroll for many a year as pianist and subsequently musical director for many shows.
The experience was uncomfortable to say the least. The cast was bewildered and resentful and quite naturally loyal to Gisselman. I was part of the interloping takeover and felt it keenly, particularly since I had such a great admiration for both Garys. The show ran for four weeks, four of the worst weeks of my life.
On February 18, 1971 there opened, without too much fanfare, a production of the Tom Jones/Harvey Schmidt musical “I do! I do!” a jolly two-person romp about love and marriage. It starred David Anders and Susan Goeppinger. It played in the downstairs theater of the Chanhassen Dinner Theater complex, and the accompaniment was one piano, played by Anita Ruth. The reviews were cheerful and positive. In early May I got a call from Anita. She was interested in playing for “Man of La Mancha” at the Friars Dinner Theater in downtown Minneapolis, and would I like to take over “I do! I do!” for the remainder of its run? I asked how long is that? Oh, a few weeks, probably mid-june.
I should have asked, what year.
I finally terminated the job permanently on December 2, 1979, having spent nearly a third of my professional life performing one show. It was an eventful and well-paid eight and a half years, and the show continued to run until well into its twenty-second year, with Frank Olivieri at the piano for a longer time than Anita and I put together. It became a cultural icon of the Twin Cities, with customers returning again and again for anniversaries and special family occasions. We did a performance for couples married fifty years and had virtually a full house (about 125). Tom Jones came to one anniversary celebration of its opening, and Harvey Schmidt turned up unannounced and unexpected one night.
"Dinner Theaters — Fastest Growing Audience," St. Paul Dispatch. December 3, 1972.
"Guys & Dolls," Minnesota Daily, Novmeber 26, 1975. Review.
Freeman, Patricia, and Nelson, Margaret, "6,500 ‘I Do’s’ Make for One Sturdy Marriage for Susan Goeppinger and Fellow Actor David Anders." People Magazine, May 1, 1989.
Papatola, Dominic P., "Chanhassen Dinner Theatres Founder Dies," December 5, 2005. Obituary describing Herb Bloomberg's life.
Lynk, William M., Dinner Theatre: a survey and directory. Greenwood Press, 1993. Discusses the dinner theater phenomenon across the country and discusses Chanhassen. Includes sample menu.
Whiting, Frank M “Minnesota Theatre From Old Fort Snelling to the Guthrie”, Pogo Press, 1988.
Whiting cites the following source:
Deborah Dryden. “Chanhassen, the Cadillac of Dinner Theatres”. Theatre Crafts 14:5 (October, 1980)25-26, 78-79
This page is part of a research project by Sheila Regan, made possible in part by the people of Minnesota through a grant funded by an appropriation to the Minnesota Historical Society from the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund. Any views, findings, opinions, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the State of Minnesota, the Minnesota Historical Society, or the Minnesota Historic Resources Advisory Committee.
This publication has been financed in part with funds provided by the State of Minnesota from the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund through the Minnesota Historical Society
©2012 by Sheila Regan