Our History... A Journey in the Making
Over 10 million guests have visited Chanhassen Dinner Theatres since it opened in 1968. Since that time, more than 220 productions have graced our stages. As our guests, your history with us continues to make our future possible.
Chanhassen Dinner Theatres Opens for Business
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It began as a vision. Herbert and Carolyn Bloomberg lived in Chanhassen, a tiny, not-quite-yet –suburban-area outside of Minneapolis-St. Paul. In 1965, the couple's interest in owning a theatre of their own began to take root as they were building the Old Log Theatre for Don Stoltz a few miles down the road in neighboring Excelsior. Herb and Carol loved their seasonal visits to New York and on every trip they'd always take in a number of Broadway shows. They began to toy with an idea, "Wouldn't it be wonderful to have a little bit of Broadway in Chanhassen?" They'd acquired a substantial plot of land in the heart of downtown Chanhassen, which at the time, consisted of a gas station, lumber yard, a supper club, a few homes, a farmyard and a cornfield. It was the perfect location to build their 90,000 square foot entertainment complex. And they had big dreams for what it would become. They combined their talents, Herb as a builder and developer, and Carol as an interior designer, and created what they called "The Frontier." The theatre opened on October 11, 1968. The finishing touches were being made up to the very last second! Diners attending on opening night reported they could smell the hint of fresh paint in the air and hear hammering going on backstage. The first play was How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying
. It was performed on the Main Stage and was directed by Founding Artistic Director Gary Gisselman.
From the very beginning, the Bloombergs felt strongly that Chanhassen Dinner Theatres would not follow the standard, cookie-cutter "star system." Within the star system, dinner theatres would bring in a star lead and sink all their dollars into paying the star. The rest of the production budget was compromised to accommodate the star. Audiences would get a star, but the rest of the production quality would suffer. Bloombergs wanted the overall production quality to be high – across the board. Instead of spending money on "stars," they would insist upon professional actors, all members of Actors' Equity, live musicians in the orchestra and a high quality dining experience – served tableside. Also from very early on, the Bloombergs decided that Chanhassen Dinner Theatres would be a producing theatre - all production elements (from building scenery to costumes) would be designed by local design teams and created on-site in the theatres' shops. To this day, these decisions elevated Chanhassen Dinner Theatres to national renown and have contributed to the theatres' sustained success.
It was a very exciting time for the Bloombergs. They'd put everything into this wonderful dream and knew they were taking a risk. After all, Chanhassen was located 25 miles outside of the metropolitan area. Access to Chanhassen was a narrow two-lane highway and the population in the region hadn't yet begun to grow. But as a developer Herb knew the city was destined to flourish and the western suburbs with their proximity to Lake Minnetonka was a solid place to be. And he was correct; within a little more than a decade Chanhassen was categorized as a bona fide suburb, the population was growing at an astonishing rate, and plans for four-lane highway construction were being laid.
It's true. The theatre was built on what used to be a cornfield. Many skeptics were doubtful of Bloomberg's vision and whether it could ever be a success. Today, with 275 employees, and more than four decades later, Chanhassen Dinner Theatres is proud to be the nation's largest professional dinner theatre; it is also the largest commercial tourist destination in Carver County, and the largest privately owned restaurant in Minnesota.
Theatre turns first profits, I DO! I DO! opens in the Playhouse
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Bloomberg had plans to add more entertainment options for guests but started conservatively. He built a 90,000-square-foot complex, large enough to accommodate new options without having to close down the operation for any major reconstruction. When "The Frontier" opened, there were plays being produced only on the Main Stage, seating 560 guests. On the lower level, there was a much smaller space called the Downstairs Room, where comedy improvisation was performed by a group called "The Downstairs Competition." The first legitimate play to be produced on The Downstairs Playhouse stage was Under Milkwood, and it opened in May, 1970. In those days Chanhassen productions enjoyed relatively short-runs lasting anywhere from 4-6 weeks. The non-musical classic, Arsenic and Old Lace, was the second production on the Main Stage. Out of all Main Stage productions since 1968, only eight were non-musicals. Since Georges Feydeau's A Flea in Her Ear was staged in 1976, only musicals have been performed on that stage.
It took a few years of toil, drama and experience the popular sitcom,"WKRP in Cincinnati," and appeared in a variety of films as well. It was during that year that the theatre began to take off, due to the success of Fiddler on the Roof, and also in large part, to a sweet little romantic musical-comedy about marriage called I Do! I Do! that opened on February 18, 1971 and was slated to run six weeks. Two actors, David Anders and Susan Goeppinger were contracted to play the roles of Michael and Agnes. They arrived on the first day of rehearsal as complete strangers, happy to have landed the roles and have six weeks of steady employment. But then tickets sales picked up and the theatre decided to extend the run. Sales continued to be strong, so it was extended another six months. And so it went. After marking their 500th performance, David and Susan were married in real life! The play interestingly mirrored the couple's real life relationship and they went on to have two children, a boy, then a girl – just as it happened in the play. People came from far and near to see the married couple perform. Many guests made an annual visit to see the play on their anniversaries and couples were getting engaged left and right. I Do! I Do! creators Harvey Schmitt and Tom Jones came to see the show, Mary Martin (who had played the role on Broadway opposite Robert Preston) visited, and People Magazine did a story. It had become a theatre phenomenon. There were no immediate plans to close the production.
In 1971, Ron Perlman ("Hellboy," "Sons of Anarchy") arrived on the scene while studying at the University of Minnesota, and worked behind the scenes for I Do! I Do! In the same year, a delightful young actor, Linda Kelsey, known for her leading role opposite Ed Asner in "Lou Grant," played in A Flea In Her Ear on the Main Stage.
Also in 1971, Gary Gisselman cast a young actor from the East Coast named Michael Brindisi to play the accordion in the cast of The Matchmaker. This marked Brindisi's Chanhassen Dinner Theatres' debut. Over the years, Brindisi came and went. Broadway called, and Brindisi was signed to do the first national tour of Grease and Once in a Lifetime with John Lithgow. He returned to Minnesota and was hired as Artistic Director for Bemidji's Paul Bunyan Playhouse. He later co-founded Albert Lea's Minnesota Festival Theatre with his wife Michelle Barber. From 1971 to 1987 he appeared as an actor in many Chanhassen productions. Do you think he had any idea of what the future held?
In 1973, a courtyard restaurant and banquet space known as The Clerestory was enclosed and reconfigured into the third dinner theatre space called The Courtyard. This two-level theatre space presented primarily "straight plays." Since the seating capacity was only 180, and since the horizontal stage space was relatively small, most plays presented had smaller casts and interesting themes. A few of the more notable productions staged in the Courtyard included: Bill C. Davis's Tony Award-winning, Mass Appeal, A.R. Gurney's The Dining Room, and Beth Henley's Pulitzer Prize-winning, Crimes of the Heart. This theatre also hosted a variety of adult comedies, dramas and murder mysteries including: Joe Orton's What the Butler Saw, Sleuth, Dial "M" for Murder and Ira Levin's Deathtrap. Many of these plays appealed to sophisticated theatre-going audiences.
Through much of the 70s, a bar in the theatre complex called "The Bronco" was a popular local hangout. It was a two-level club featuring large, custom-made, red leather rectangular bars. "The Bronco" featured a large dance floor, brick fireplace, frontier-western decor and live music on the weekends showcasing top acts, most local and some national, including Daisy Dillman, The Ozark Mountain Daredevils and Jimmy Buffet. In 1978, after a few short years, it was determined that the nightclub would close to be converted into another theatre space called "The Bronco Opera House" (now known as The Fireside). The Bronco officially opened as a theatre space in 1978 with the play Vanities. With a seating capacity of 230 people, this theatre was especially unique in that the dining location was completely separate from the theatre seating. The theatre was designed to be terraced and featured "continental-styled" theatre seats. They were wider in size with extra leg room between rows, making the theatre super-comfortable for guests.
Michael Brindisi becomes Resident Artistic Director, Renovations, Theatre Sold
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The 1980s represented a time for change in the life of Chanhassen Dinner Theatres. Founding Artistic Director Gary Gisselman directed CDT's first production in 1968 and nearly every play through 1980. Gisselman left Chanhassen at that time to accept the position of Artistic Director with the highly-regarded regional playhouse, Arizona Theatre Company in Tucson. As a little girl, Tamara Kangas was cast in the 1981 production of The Sound of Music in the role of Marta, second youngest of Captain Von Trapp's seven children. She would be back.
In 1985 Chanhassen staged West Side Story, which went down on record as being one of Chanhassen's greatest successes from an attendance standpoint, filling in at over 92% capacity. It starred largely a New York-based cast. It was followed in 1986 with A Chorus Line, again largely featuring a New York cast. This production was guest directed by Trish Garland, who had starred in A Chorus Line on Broadway, and choreographed by Jerry Mitchell, Broadway performer (The Full Monty, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Peepshow), choreographer and director (Legally Blonde, Hairspray), Tony Award winner (La Cage aux Folles) and Bravo's "Step it up & Dance." While the show represented a departure for Chanhassen and was a critical success, audiences were not so sure about it. Both shows were very costly endeavors. Following these productions, Chanhassen returned to its standard policy of using local professional directors and talent.
When Gisselman left guest directors were hired on a show-by-show basis until 1987, when the Bloombergs asked Michael Brindisi (actor, director and protégé of Gisselman) to accept the position of Resident Artistic Director. It was a long-awaited benefit to have Brindisi on board. Finally there would be an on-site artistic head to watch over Chanhassen's productions full-time. Managing Director Britta Bloomberg stated, "We need the hands-on quality that an artistic director lends. A production's quality needs to be meticulously maintained. Brindisi is the man for the job." Brindisi's goal was to restore and elevate the theaters' artistic reputation. Said Brindisi, "It's important to remember the period that made the Chanhassen exceptional; and I'm speaking of the time when Gary Gisselman was here. He strove, within certain limits, to choose plays that were a bit extraordinary for dinner theatres to be doing. I would like to see that integrity return." And that became Brindisi's goal.
In the late 80s, Bloomberg took on two new construction projects to the Chanhassen Dinner Theatres' enterprise. He started on the rooftop! The Director's Room was designed to accommodate small groups of 20-36 guests in an exclusive "box" overlooking the Main Stage. At the same time, he created a tiny box with four seats and room for private dining as well. This is known today as "Herb's Box," since Bloomberg was known to slip into the box several times during the week to enjoy the show from this choice viewing location! Shortly thereafter, an addition was built onto the front of the building creating a more elegant entrance. Two floors of new office space were added to accommodate the expansion of the group sales, marketing and accounting departments. The box office was also expanded to accommodate the new computerized ticketing system, a major enhancement for the theatre.
1988 marked CDT's 20th anniversary. Actors' Equity Association in New York declared Chanhassen Dinner Theatres to be the largest employer of members of Actors' Equity Association within the dinner theatre industry.
In 1989 the Bloomberg family sold Chanhassen Dinner Theatres to entertainment entrepreneur Thomas K. Scallen and International Theatres Corporation, based in Minneapolis. Previously, Scallen ran other well-known entertainment businesses including The Harlem Globetrotters and The Ice Capades. Stated Scallen, "We have long admired the tremendous work done by the Bloombergs in building Chanhassen Dinner Theatres into the premier operation of its kind in the Midwest." Scallen continued, "For more than a quarter century the Chanhassen name has been synonymous with quality." Shortly after purchasing the theatre, Scallen assigned Brindisi the added the title of Vice President. Brindisi's long-time colleague and theatre company manager, Solveig Huseth-Theis, was then named as the theatre's general manager.
Core Acting Company, I DO! I DO! Closes, World Premieres, Amy Adams
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In April 1992, Michael Brindisi introduced a concept for a year-round acting company, called the Core Acting Company. The initiative offered year-round acting contracts to 18 seasoned actors to guarantee those actors employment for one-year ensuring that those actors' talents would belong to CDT exclusively. Chanhassen was the first and only professional dinner theatre in the country to establish anything like this. While the program would cost the theatre more, it was designed to make an investment in the theatres' future by making a renewed commitment to production quality, something Brindisi felt was necessary to the future success of the business.
I Do! I Do! closed June 20, 1993 after a mere 7,645 performances over 22.5 years! The play is on record for being the longest-running musical with its original cast. Actors David Anders and Susan Goeppinger had continued in their roles since the play opened in 1971.
There were some exciting theatre partnerships developed with other local theatres during this time. One of the most significant was a relationship between Ordway Center and Chanhassen Dinner Theatres to co-develop works. The plan was to share expenses and run plays in each location: Ordway's McKnight and Chanhassen's Fireside. The first project was the World Premiere of Dan Goggin's Nunsense II. The play opened at the Ordway's McKnight early in 1994 and later transferred over to CDT's Fireside where it enjoyed an additional 9-month-run. Following that was a newer work called Honky-Tonk Highway. The earlier Nunsense project sealed a relationship with Nunsense creator Dan Goggin and Chanhassen Dinner Theatres. Goggin was impressed with the Chanhassen operation as a quality producing theatre company. In 1995, when Goggin had written his 3rd Nunsense work, he called Chanhassen Dinner Theatres directly to produce his new creation, Sister Amnesia's Country Western Nunsense Jamboree. In 1998 Goggin was back again, this time for his brand new holiday hit, Nuncrackers.
In 1994 Chanhassen Dinner Theatres developed its first educational summer program called, "First Act" summer theatre camp for kids and teens. Kids age 8 – 18 were offered week-long summer theatre camps taught by members of CDT's acting company and design staff. Kids came together to learn the fundamentals of theatre (voice, movement, stage combat, stage makeup, lighting and scenic design) in a fun and professional atmosphere. To date more than 10,000 students have attended what is now called "Chan DT Musical Theatre Camp" since it began. It's unusual, but some camp "graduates" have been known to be cast on stage in Chanhassen productions!
In 1995 Michael Brindisi traveled to Colorado to preview a production of Crazy for You where he took notice of a talented young performer and offered her a contract to appear in Chanhassen's Crazy for You. The actress was Amy Adams and she was thrilled to make Chanhassen her theatre "home" for the next four seasons appearing in four Main Stage Musicals: Crazy for You, State Fair, Brigadoon and Good News. In 1999 Adams auditioned for the film "Drop Dead Gorgeous." Brindisi let her out of her contract for the opportunity, and within months she was Hollywood-bound. Amy remains a friend of CDT where she returns from time to time. Her CDT friends are enormously proud of her multiple Oscar nominations and film credits which include: "Junebug," Disney's "Enchanted," "Catch Me If You Can," "Sunshine Cleaning," "Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day," "Doubt," "Night at the Museum II" and "Julie & Julia."
2000s to Present
More World Premieres, Theatre Sold, Tamara Kangas Erickson Returns
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During these years audiences were coming to Chanhassen to enjoy its stellar musicals. With Michael Brindisi at the helm and Thomas K. Scallen serving as Producer, decisions were made to produce large and small musicals on all stages. Chanhassen Dinner Theatres produced its last "straight" or non-musical work with Neil Simon's I Ought to be in Pictures in 2001.
Michael Brindisi is quick to give credit to his gifted artistic team. They include Tamara Kangas-Erickson, whom you may remember began acting at CDT in 1981 as a small child. She returned to Chanhassen as an adult performer in 1996 and began choreographing all Chanhassen Dinner Theatres' productions in 2004. Andrew Cooke has served as Music Director since 2009; Nayna Ramey has served as Scenic Designer since 1988; Rich Hamson as Chanhassen's Costume Designer since 2007 and Design Assistant since 1988. Sue Ellen Berger as Chanhassen's Lighting Designer since 1985; Russ Haynes has served as Sound Designer since 1999; Susan Magnuson has served as Wig and Makeup Designer since 1971.
Chanhassen Dinner Theatres' dedication to the art and reputation for producing high-quality theatre made it possible to obtain first rights to license new musicals released to the regional theatre market by New York licensors. Such was the case with many musicals during this decade: Cats/2003, Beauty and the Beast/2005, Les Miserables/2007, The Producers and Altar Boyz/2008, and Footloose and All Shook Up/2010. That positive reputation and a remarkable relationship between Brindisi and the Rogers & Hammerstein Organization in New York resulted in an exciting new theatrical project. In 2005 the two began talks to co-develop a classic MGM movie musical for the stage and Irving Berlin's Easter Parade was born. It celebrated its World Premiere on Chanhassen's Main Stage in February 2007.
Dan Goggin and his Nunnsense series of World Premieres continued. In 2002 came the 5th installment with Meshuggah-Nuns; in 2005, the 6th with Nunsensations, and following in 2009 was the 7th World Premiere with Nunset Boulevard. Goggin preferred opening his new shows in the Midwest, where audiences were tough but honest. He stated, "Midwest audiences provide the best gauge for laughter and Chanhassen is the perfect one-stop production shop."
In March of 2010 Thomas K. Scallen and International Theatres sold Chanhassen Dinner Theatres to a small group of dedicated employees and a local investment group - and Chanhassen Theatres, LLC was born. It was an exciting day when owners Michael Brindisi, Tamara Kangas-Erickson and Steven L. Peters announced that the Chanhassen Dinner Theatres would continue its legacy. The new management team and its board of directors, including primary investors Doug Lennick and Jim Jensen, quickly developed the mission statement:
"Chanhassen Dinner Theatres is committed to delighting its audiences and creating life-long memories with a high quality, end-to-end theatre, dining, and service experience."
We pledge to bring our loyal customers the quality theatre experience they've come to expect. Looking ahead, we are committed to honoring the legacy of this venerable theatre for future generations, we are thrilled to invite you along on our exciting venture, and we thank you for your loyal patronage!
History in Photos
Oscar nominee, Amy Adams, appeared in several CDT productions between 1996-1999.
CDT had World Premiere productions of many of the Nunsense shows, including Meshuggah-Nuns (2002), pictured above.
David Anders & Susan Goeppinger starred in I Do! I Do! from 1971-1993. CDT's production is on record for being the longest-running musical with its original cast.