With a baseball cap tipped low over his forehead and a wardrobe of rumpled T-shirt and jeans, Michael Brindisi looks more like a popcorn-hawking ballpark vendor than a major-domo of the American theater.
President and artistic director of Chanhassen Dinner Theatres — the nation’s biggest company of its kind — Brindisi is the king of a field often seen as a redheaded stepchild. Can you serve prime rib and coconut shrimp and rousing theater, too?
Former Children’s Theatre leader Jon Cranney used to joke that dinner theater is like a dog: “You fawn over it long enough and eventually the dog thinks it’s a person.
“I always thought of Chanhassen like that — this dinner theater that thought it was a real theater. And, by god it is. Michael has enlarged it and given this big gift to this community.”
This summer, Brindisi was showered with congratulations at a glittery gala marking Chanhassen’s 50th anniversary. The suburban theater’s history mirrors his own — the 70-year-old director first performed there in 1971, became artistic director in 1987, then a co-owner in 2010 when he and his wife, actress Michelle Barber, cashed out their retirement savings to lead a group that brought the theater back from the brink of financial ruin.
Their tenacity has paid off handsomely. Every day but Monday, luxury coaches from across the five-state region disgorge giddy patrons at the theater’s front door, where a tuxedoed host and a piano combo greet them.
That welcome is part and parcel of an experience that has made Chanhassen what Brindisi calls “a special events destination.” Its current main-stage musical, “Holiday Inn,” was sold out over the holiday season. “Mamma Mia!” is set to open March 1, and is selling faster than any show in the theater’s history.
Brindisi’s vision extends beyond the razzle-dazzle entertainment to the nitty-gritty of how the business is run. He’s created an entertainment mecca. Visitors to the sprawling four-stage complex can take in an improv comedy show, see a concert or just hang out at the pub.
“Michael is the soul of this place,” said choreographer and co-owner Tamara Kangas Erickson. “Here’s a guy who waited out many, many storms and carried on in some very difficult times. And to survive the difficult years to where we are now — it’s great to see it.”
Dinner theater combines two businesses with notoriously high failure rates: restaurants and live entertainment. No matter, professional dinner theaters sprouted in the 1960s and ’70s. By the early ’80s there were more than 70 nationwide. Fewer than 10 remain, with Chanhassen as the standard-bearer.
The theater was the dream of Herb Bloomberg, a suburban real estate developer, and his interior decorator wife, Carol. After being hired to build Old Log Theatre near Lake Minnetonka, they decided to create their own in Chanhassen, then a village southwest of Minneapolis surrounded by farmland.
Instead of hiring TV has-beens to entertain people chomping down so-so food, they aimed for something like Broadway, with high-quality talent and meals to match. To run the theater, they hired a dynamic young Twin Cities director, Gary Gisselman. Dinner and show cost $4.95 to $8.95 for his first production, the Pulitzer-winning musical “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” in 1968.
It was Gisselman who first scouted Brindisi. He became a mentor, then a close friend.
“Gary wanted to be director of a regional theater, so he treated Chanhassen like one,” Brindisi said. “He set our north star.”
Gisselman also proved to be a personal godsend for Brindisi, a kid from west Philadelphia who ended up in Minnesota after flunking out of Temple University.
Straight out of west Philly
The elder of two children born to a barber who moonlighted as a semipro quarterback and a mother who worked in a pastry concern, Brindisi wasn’t sure what career path he might take.
He loved playing sports — basketball, football, baseball — as well as accordion. But, like many theater people, he had a special teacher. Mr. Mayer led the 10th-grade band in which Brindisi played alto sax.
“He asked me if I had ever seen a Broadway show,” Brindisi said. “I said no, and he took me to see the pre-Broadway tryout of the musical ‘Golden Boy.’ The curtain goes up and there’s Sammy Davis Jr. running down the staircase.”
Suddenly the guy in the ball cap broke into song.
“Summer, not a bit of breeze/Neon signs are shining/through the tired trees/Lovers walking to and fro/everyone has someone/and a place to go.”
Brindisi’s voice rose with passion as he recounted the moment. “All that power, all the energy, everything — I wanted part of that.”
His parents, however, wanted Brindisi to go to college and get a respectable job. He enrolled at Temple but never went to class. Instead, he acted in plays. Four of them, in fact.
Hello, Albert Lea
A counselor steered him to a new liberal arts school in the southern Minnesota city of Albert Lea.
Lea College lasted only seven years — long enough to plant Brindisi in Minnesota and launch a career as impresario.
“There was tension between the college and the local town because they were nervous about having these wild college kids from the coasts,” he said, giddy at the memory. “So I put together a revue and auditioned a lot of people from the school and the community. It was hugely successful; sold out both weekends at the local high school and brought everybody together.”
The show impressed the college dean. “He said, ‘If you do one of these shows a year, we’ll pay for your tuition.’ ”
Fresh out of college, he auditioned for Minneapolis sketch comedy king Dudley Riggs. He wasn’t as funny as he thought he was, but folks at Riggs’ Brave New Workshop wrote a perfect sketch for him called “The Schlep,” about a misfit who told bad jokes at parties but redeemed himself by singing and playing accordion.
Gisselman saw it, and asked him to audition for Chanhassen’s upcoming show.
“I wanted to be an actor, but he created a role for me as an accordionist and singer between the four acts,” Brindisi said. “That’s how I got my Equity [union] card.”
He soon struck out for the East Coast, aiming for Broadway. Those were tough years. “I once slept on Brighton Beach for two days,” he said. “Being broke in New York is no joke.”
He toured the country with “Grease” for 56 weeks, leading to his only Broadway credit, “Once in a Lifetime,” in 1978. “That’s where I met John Lithgow and Treat Williams,” he recalled, smiling.
Still, Minnesota kept calling. Brindisi would return to Chanhassen periodically, playing the tailor in 1979’s “Fiddler on the Roof.” He met his future wife there while they were doing different shows.
“He was so darn cute,” Barber said. “I just loitered outside the male dressing room until one day he looks up and says, ‘You’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.’ I thought, ‘Hey, doll, you’re mine!’ ”
The two went on to found the Minnesota Festival Theatre in Albert Lea, maintaining ties to the community that gave him a new lease on life.
Tryout for a new role
The couple were happily commuting between Albert Lea and Chanhassen in 1987 when Brindisi was cast in “Fiddler” again.
A rotating cast of caretakers had filled in as artistic director after Gisselman left in 1980 to launch a regional theater in Arizona. On his recommendation, the Bloombergs asked Brindisi to watch over the show’s long run, make sure the pacing was consistent and hire replacement actors as needed.
In essence, it was a tryout to see if he could manage the theater department. He impressed the owners, and they hired him in December 1987.
“I think of the passion he brings, the commitment and the caring — those things make him special,” said Britta Bloomberg, daughter of Chanhassen’s founders.
Brindisi has nothing but kind words for the Bloombergs. But just 18 months into his tenure, they sold the theater to the late Thomas Scallen, a Minneapolis dealmaker and showman whose properties included the Ice Follies and the Harlem Globetrotters.
“I don’t like to say negative things about people who aren’t here anymore,” said Brindisi, “but it was really rough working for him — his ego got in the way.”
Unlike nonprofit theaters such as the Guthrie, which can tap private donations and public grants, Chanhassen is a for-profit enterprise that lives or dies by its ticket sales. Even in the best of the Bloomberg years, it sometimes lost money.
At the end of Scallen’s two decades as owner, the economy tanked, box office revenue dried up, and he desperately tried to find a buyer. A deal with Greg Frankenfield, now owner of the Old Log, fell apart, threatening the very existence of the theater.
Brindisi had drawn up a business plan. He and Erickson put together a purchasing group with a Scallen associate, Steven Peters, owner of Iowa-based VenuWorks.
Chanhassen’s artistic director never took a business course, but he can parse a balance sheet just as easily as a script. A hands-on leader, Brinidisi is at the theater practically every day. He checks in with the kitchen staff. He looks over the physical facilities. He learns by watching others.
One thing he saw during the Scallen years was that “the business was rarely, if ever, profitable, because we were cannibalizing our audience” by offering too many stage productions. “I wanted to diversify the income stream.” He offered that advice to Scallen, and was told to stay in his lane.
Finally, he had a chance to test his ideas.
First, he decided not to have theater shows in all four playhouses. His team tried a live-music dance club that didn’t work. Neither did a kids’ karaoke. But a concert series clicked. Chanhassen invited Minneapolis improv company Stevie Ray’s Comedy Cabaret to present regular shows. It added a pub. And it ramped up the wedding and special-events business.
“Now all of our streams are profitable,” he said.
The group also invested in the theater, replacing the roof, resurfacing the parking lot and adding a boiler.
But there are things Brindisi will not change, especially his suitless wardrobe.
His wife has given up.
“When he finally got the job at Chan, I would iron his T-shirt, because he wouldn’t wear a good shirt,” Barber said.
“It’s not out of disrespect for the job,” she said. “It’s that he’s gonna put his energy into the staging, the set design, running the business. Neither Leonardo [da Vinci] nor Albert Einstein looked so hot.”
Guests are like family
Come showtime, you can often see Brindisi hanging out at the back of the house, or greeting patrons up front.
“He’s so Italian that way,” Barber said. “He wants everyone who comes to Chanhassen to feel like family.”
The company’s success has meant that Brindisi can take vacations for the first time in his life. He and Barber went to Paris a few years ago for an anniversary.
Their daughter, Cat Brindisi, a Chanhassen veteran herself, is now making a life as an actor in New York. He enjoys fine wine, movies — and pinball games.
He wishes his parents were still here. It took a long time for them to cotton to the idea of their son as a theater professional. He remembers the moment that changed. It was at Chanhassen in 1979, when Gisselman directed him in a musical called “The Robber Bridegroom.”
“When my dad came to see the show, Gary went up to him and said: ‘Your son can do whatever he wants to do.’ My father lit up. He had such respect for Gary. And hearing that, he put a picture of me up in his barbershop.”
Brindisi walks with a draggy foot, owing to an operation in 2013 to remedy cervical stenosis — a neurological condition in which the spinal column is pinched by vertebrae. He still has tingling in his fingers. But he’s not slowing down.
“My doctor asked me what I do for a living, and I said I sit on a stool and say, ‘It’s not funny yet!’
“I can do this for another 10 years.”