Pioneering couple set the stage for Chanhassen Dinner Theatres

  • Article by: ANNA PRATT , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 1, 2014 - 12:52 PM

Builders and designers Herbert and Carolyn Bloomberg had a vision for what could be when they opened the Chanhassen Dinner Theatres in 1968.

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The Chanhassen Dinner Theatres in 1988, 20 years after the Bloombergs opened it and a year before they sold the business.

Photo: Duane Braley • Star Tribune file,

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Some people thought Herbert and Carolyn Bloomberg were crazy to build the Chanhassen Dinner Theatres out “in the sticks.”

Already, the couple had designed and built a new facility for the Old Log Theater in Excelsior. After they moved to Chanhassen in 1958, the Bloombergs, who were avid theatergoers, began dreaming about bringing something akin to Broadway to the area.

Chanhassen was then a small town, characterized by cornfields. And not everyone shared their vision. Kris Howland, a spokeswoman for the dinner theater, said, “People wondered, ‘Who would build such a colossal theater in the middle of nowhere? Who will drive out there to see shows?’ ”

However, Herb (as he was known), a builder, believed that development was trending outward from the urban core, and moving west. The entrepreneurial couple pressed on, and they opened the 90,000-square-foot theater in 1968.

His predictions began to play out. Today, the theater is almost synonymous with Chanhassen, and though Herb and Carol, who was an interior designer, died in 2005 and 2006, respectively, their handiwork can be seen in many local developments, especially in and around the west metro. “They were just such a fascinating couple, so accomplished and yet salt-of-the-earth kind of people,” said Howland, who began working for the Bloombergs in 1977.

Nearly 50 years after it originated, the multistage Chanhassen Dinner Theatres is still going strong. In Howland’s view, its longevity has to do with the Bloombergs’ emphasis on producing top-notch shows. From the outset, the theater has worked with professional actors who belong to the Actors’ Equity union — the same caliber to be found on Broadway. “We put our money into the whole cast,” and not a single star. Amy Adams, Loni Anderson and Pat Proft are just a few of the accomplished performers to grace the Chanhassen stages through the years, she added.

The theater is in constant contact with licensing houses in New York. When the rights to shows are being released to the regional theaters, “we’re on their shortlist,” she said.

The dinner theater also builds its own sets, uses live orchestras and serves a sit-down meal. “I think Herb and Carol would be glad to know that their legacy continues. This was a labor of love for them,” Howland said. There were difficult times when they personally sacrificed a great deal to keep it going. At one point early on, they even mortgaged their home to keep the place afloat, she said.

The family ran the business until 1989. Four years ago, a small group of investors and employees headed up by resident artistic director Michael Brindisi bought the place.

Although times have changed — the theater is no longer running four stages as it was at one time — the place has remained true to its original goals to provide a high-quality entertainment. Right now, the Midwest premiere of “Disney’s The Little Mermaid,” is running through Aug. 30. “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” and “Hairspray” are some of its most recent hits, while “Hello, Dolly!” is returning for the first time in 20 years. The theater also has a concert series. Special events, like weddings, help to carry the theater through less busy periods. In some ways, the more diversified model mirrors operations in the beginning, with a pub and a comedy space in addition to a main stage for big musicals.

Occasionally, people come in just to hang out and read or play cards, Brindisi said. “There are a lot of different reasons to come besides theater,” he said. “I think Herb would like it if he saw it now.”

Brindisi said he owes a lot to the Bloombergs. For starters, Herb did business based on trust. “I never had to ask for a contract or an agreement when I was working for him,” Brindisi said. A handshake was enough. “It’s a great way to run a business. It creates a relationship with someone,” he said.

Also, Herb was always around, not “in a high-rise somewhere, who you never see.” Anyone was free to knock on his door at any time.

A sense of frontier

Herb and Carol’s eldest child, Britta Bloomberg, who was 13 when the theater opened, said her parents were inspired by their travels to the southwestern part of the country. The word “frontier” was used for a couple of early shops in the complex, like the Frontier Lumber and Frontier Furniture. The town’s post office was also housed in its original building. “The sense of the frontier resonated with their love of the West. It was the west of the Twin Cities, that was a frontier, too, and that theme ran through the early ads,” she said.

Similarly, the buildings had a western feel, with plenty of wood and stone and other natural building materials. The theater was supposed to be an extension of “our home,” and the first thing people see when they come in is a cozy fireplace, she said.

The couple’s unique style extended to the many local developments and landmarks that they also worked on, separately and together.

Some of their most notable projects included the original clubhouse for Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska, the Quadna Mountain Ski Lodge and Chalet in Hill City, the Gold Bond Lodge on Lake Minnesuing in Wisconsin and the restoration of St. James Hotel in Red Wing, according to Britta Bloomberg.

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  • Neither Herbert nor Carolyn Bloomberg would accept the notion that something couldn't be done.

  • In October 1968, "How to Succeed In Business Without Really Trying" was the opening main stage production of the dinner theater, known as the Chanhassen Frontier. With the Bloombergs are Allan Lotsberg and Susan Schaffer, the stars of the show.

  • The Bloombergs moved to Chanhassen in 1958. Herb, a builder, believed area development was trending out and west. Said theater spokeswoman Kris Howland: “People wondered, ‘Who would build such a colossal theater in the middle of nowhere? Who will drive out there to see shows?’ ”

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