Dave Marietta was 7 years old when his sister told him to get a load of the little girl visiting his grandparents upstairs at their duplex near Lake Harriet in Minneapolis.
Excited at the prospect of a new playmate, he went up to check her out. There she was, someone about his size, but with wrinkles. She was chomping a stogie, swilling cheap whiskey, cleaning up at poker and cursing enough to singe a lad’s ear off.
“How ya doin’, kid?” she said.
This was no child, but Ann Rice Leslie, a little-person star of the vaudeville circuit who played a Munchkin in “The Wizard of Oz.”
“That’s when I first realized there was something unusual about my family,” said Marietta, who is the third generation to work in the storied downtown theaters of Minneapolis’ Hennepin Avenue.
Grandpa Cleo was a carpenter and prop guy. Grandma Elizabeth ran the wardrobe union. An uncle was a star vaudeville performer. And Dad ran a sound company.
At 65, the wiry, wry-faced Marietta’s own career spans more than 50 years — beginning when he was a teen learning the urban-mountaineering skills required to change title letters on marquees. Today, he loads dozens of shows a year in and out, each one coming with its own knotty problems and surprise hitches.
Thousands of theatergoers stream through the Orpheum each week, mesmerized by the acting, dancing and special effects onstage. But none of this pageantry would be possible without Marietta — a man who’s rarely seen by the public, and never gets a standing ovation.
Whether it’s making sure the crashing chandelier in “The Phantom of the Opera” doesn’t crash into the audience or the witch in “Wicked” continues to defy gravity, the buck stops with him. Then there is the range of show personalities who must be kept content and in prime performance mode, whether it’s Richard Harris and Julie Andrews or camels, elephants and 101 Dalmatians.
“There is no normal in the theater,” Marietta said, leaning back in the desk chair of his basement office at the Orpheum surrounded by old black-and-white photos of Minneapolis theaters throughout the past century. “Don’t expect it, and you’ll do OK.”
You need to know a little more than that to do OK at a job that involves everything from appeasing roadshow divas to clearing out a couple of feet of floodwater three hours before curtain. But Marietta is nothing if not a master of understatement. And he’s just fine with being unseen and unsung.
“In my job, you don’t want recognition from the public,” he said. “Because if something goes wrong with the physical plant, it’s my fault. This is my house. Everyone who comes in is my guest. That’s why they call me the house man.”
Cranky love for creaky space
Part of the charm of visiting downtown’s Hennepin Theatre Trust stages is the sense of wonder bestowed by them through age. Stepping into the splendor of a bygone era is expected when you buy a ticket.
Maintaining the look of that ol’ Broadway-style magic is also a huge pain in the backside, to which Marietta and his crews can attest.
“This hundred-year-old building gives me fits,” he said, using a tone that implies more reverence than annoyance. “Leaky pipes, elevator inspections, keeping the ceiling from falling down.”
Despite a speaking style that ranges from laconic to terse when he’s under the gun at a load-in, Marietta is a raconteur of the first order, with colorful opinions thrown in like dashes of spice.
“In the days before air conditioning,” he said, while showing off some dinosaur equipment he keeps in a dungeonlike museum in the Orpheum’s lowest level, “they used to run water over ice in a deep well with a CO² compressor, with a hose blowing mist through the air. It would be 90 degrees in the balcony, and they’d be calling the show ‘Tropical Camelot.’ At intermission they’d be rushing for the exits, gasping for air, but didn’t complain or ask for their money back. Now you’ve got some people who want it 73 degrees and some people want it 71.”
From installing the special effects of “The Lion King” to building an indoor ice rink for Dorothy Hamill, Marietta approaches the temporary structures — which will be taken apart a week after they’re assembled — with the passion of permanent artistry. When he started out, stagehands did their work manually, lifting and dropping set pieces with sandbags and ropes. Now he’s got dozens of chain motors doing most of the physical labor, but precision is just as important.
“When we have pipes flying in and out, and actors flying 60 feet in air, you’ve got to have it down to an eighth of an inch accuracy,” he said.
Marietta is quick to credit others for his well-run operation — “having smart professionals around you is the key” — and they throw it right back his way.
“What makes Dave Dave is that the show is the thing,” said Jerry Knock, Marietta’s front-of-house counterpart. “Cutting through all the other hoopla that comes with the variety of performances, the essence is always that people come to see a show and he always has that front and center in his mind. His heritage has helped frame this attitude, I’m sure!”
Carpenter Frank Drown has known Marietta for nearly 30 years. He calls his boss “meticulous, kind of anal,” but his crews are known for just getting things done — fast, which also saves money.
Drown recalls once building a couple of special-order platforms in the pit for “Spamalot.”
“The road manager said, ‘It takes guys in other towns a day and a half; you did it in four hours.’ His way is: Don’t overthink it. Just do it, walk away and see what’s next.”
Putting out fires
At this seasoned stage in his career, Marietta has overseen the production of several hundred shows. He’s got things down to where he can practically run everything from his office, where “I have the show intercom, cameras trained on every corner of the building, controls for the emergency generator, house lights and fire alarm and, most importantly, the football game on TV.”
Thanks to more stringent codes, the theaters are a lot safer now, but Marietta remembers the old times.
“The house lights used to start on fire,” he recalled, “so we had a guy stationed downstairs to whack them when they got stuck.”
He’s a tinkerer and putterer, even in his off time, teaching himself how to do things on YouTube, including electronics conversion.
“I converted this building from DC to AC, and I got the Guthrie’s old light board to convert it, too. When I get bored with that, I switch to woodworking for awhile.”
Jim Sheeley, president of Historic Theatre Group, which manages the Orpheum, State and Pantages, said that Marietta sometimes has a “kind of grumpy exterior” but that he really cares about the shows.
“The Orpheum is actually a part of him, and the people who tour here see the respect he has for theater,” Sheeley said.
He recalled being taken under Marietta’s wing as a young production manager.
“I hadn’t worked with a union crew before and I was being very hands-on, telling them how to hang instruments,” Sheeley said. “Dave was head of electrics then. He pulled me aside and said, ‘These guys know what they’re doing; pay attention to them and you’ll go far.’ The guys still around from back then are comfortable with me and know me as not just some suit.”
Having witnessed the long hours their old man put in over the years, Marietta’s kids haven’t followed in his footsteps. But he doesn’t seem to mind. He spends his off hours indulging his latest hobby, flying drones, on the property he shares with his wife, Mary Ann, in Circle Pines.
“My backyard is a nature preserve,” he said. “These egrets have a convention in one of the big trees every day. All of a sudden one bird will fly off to another tree, and after awhile another one will, like they just got kicked out of the group. Later on, a couple of eagles show up and boot all of them out of there. I figure the big group of egrets are Democrats having a meeting. They still believe in democracy. The ones who fly off are the independents. And those eagles who don’t want anyone talking or voting, they’re the Republicans.”
You can take Marietta out of the theater. But you can’t keep him from creating his own little shows.