New beginnings for Old Log Theater?

  • Updated: January 17, 2012 - 11:10 PM

The show must go on at the Old Log Theater near Lake Minnetonka, as it has for seven decades. But there are rumblings of changes ahead.


“There’s something magical about the building and the grounds,” Don Stolz says of his Old Log Theater. “Part of it is the architecture, part is the history, and part is that anything around Lake Minnetonka has a romance to it.”

Photo: Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune

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Impresario Don Stolz has watched the curtains rise and fall thousands of times at the Old Log Theater near Lake Minnetonka since 1941.

Lately he's been thinking about a different kind of curtain call.

His own.

"I am 94 years of age, and I just thought that I should explore some possibilities for the boys in case they wanted to sell," he said.

Stolz caused a minor sensation last month when he showed up at a City Council meeting in Greenwood, a quiet city of 688 residents just northeast of Excelsior. He was there to get a reading on how the council might receive a proposal to build cottages on the 11-acre enclave that's the theater's home.

"One of the developers wanted to know how many units the city would allow him to build on this property, so we agreed to go to the council with him," Stolz said.

That was probably a mistake, he said, because he has no intention of selling the theater in the near future.

"Our prime desire is for the Old Log to go on just the way it is," Stolz said, noting that last year he invested in new seats and carpeting for the 625-seat theater and sold 25,000 tickets for the holiday production of "Cinderella."

But time is passing for Stolz, and "the boys" are in their 60s. Four of five sons work at the Old Log: Tom as a director, writer and actor, Dony in the box office, Tim as the stage manager and writer of children's shows, and Jon as set designer.

"We would all dread to see it close, but it's going to happen some day," said Tom Stolz. None of the grandchildren has any interest, he said.

Generations of patrons and thousands of fans are following what might happen with the theater, which has produced more than 600 plays in its history, including two children's plays each year since 1960. Stolz took it over in 1946 after five Wayzata business people founded it in 1940.

"For the kids' shows we see people who are bringing their grandchildren and say 'I came here when I was my grandchild's age,'" said Tom Stolz. "That's what I'll miss the most whenever we're done here."

The Old Log Theater overlooks 11 acres of wooded land near Lake Minnetonka, with tall maples shading open grass, a wetland and a pond. Don Stolz remembers planting some of the trees, and he has watched the seasons change for the 65 years that he's been running the theater. The original theater is a log building, used for performances until 1960 and now for storing stage equipment and scenery.

"It's a serene piece of property, and it's beautiful regardless of the time of year," Stolz said last week as he walked the grounds.

It's also the largest undeveloped land parcel in the city, prime real estate bordered by million-dollar homes that face the lake. A steady stream of developers has approached Stolz with all kinds of proposals for more than a decade, but he has been resolute that the land is not for sale, and the shows must go on.

That's why Greenwood Mayor Deb Kind was surprised to learn that Stolz was talking with local architect and builder Jon Monson about "what-ifs" for the property.

Monson presented the council last month with a "very, very preliminary" concept to build 18 detached single-family homes, designed as small-scale cottages that would fit with the scale of the original neighborhood. The plan also would transform the current theater into 10 or 12 condominium units, and restore the original Old Log Theater into a 180-seat performance center.

"If I'm involved, that would be crucial for that to be part of the project," said Monson, whose Landschute Group is based in neighboring Excelsior and has 33 years of history in the area.

Two weeks ago the Greenwood City Council discussed the matter again and decided not to take any action on rezoning the property unless or until a formal application is submitted. Mayor Kind said last week that if there are to be changes that result in some kind of cluster development, she and others would favor "hanging on to a bit of the past" if possible and preserving historic buildings on the site.

Monson has made no specific offer to Stolz for the property and said he won't do so until the family says it's ready.

Midnight shows

While nothing is imminent, it's clear that Stolz, always the director, is both looking to the future and remembering the past. As he sat in the theater's massive wood-beamed dining room last week, he recalled how the theater's early years in the 1940s -- before television was common in homes -- consisted of summer performances: 13 plays in 13 weeks. In 1941, when Stolz directed his first play there, the summer was so hot that he scheduled midnight shows since no one had air conditioning. "People would show up to cool off," he said. "We did pretty well."

A biking and walking trail now stretches along one side of the property, but Stolz remembers when it was an active railroad track. "Trains used to come by right in the middle of the third act," he said. An actor on stage would just take out his watch and look at it until the train had gone by, and then put it back in his pocket and go on with the show, he said.

Other things also have changed. Stolz used to travel to New York twice a year to spot promising actors and lure them to the Old Log, but now there's plenty of local talent and more theater than ever in the Twin Cities, he said. Actors Loni Anderson and Nick Nolte worked at the Old Log early in their careers, as did local television news anchor and actor Dave Moore.

Stolz said that new plays also tend to be shorter: two acts instead of three.

"Audiences no longer want a full evening out of the theater," he said. "They have to get home and watch the last two innings of the Twins game. I don't blame them. I like to do that, too."

Stolz said the theater has changed with the times without losing its character. "There's something magical about the building and the grounds," he said. "Part of it is the architecture, part is the history, and part is that anything around Lake Minnetonka has a romance to it."

Stolz said the Old Log has survived so long -- and without any subsidies -- because it has always put the audience first. What keeps him going, he said, is pure enjoyment.

"Theater should be a celebration of the spirit of man," he said. "If you do it correctly, it will occasionally become an act of worship even."

Stolz recently got a call from someone writing a history of the Actors' Equity Association, a labor union that will celebrate its 100th anniversary next year.

"They told me that Old Log is the oldest Equity theater in the country, and I'm the oldest active Equity member in the country, so I talked with them for quite a while," he said.

And then Stolz smiled. "It simply means that you're old."

Tom Meersman • 612-673-7388

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