Bob Pratt was working as a security guard at the Orpheum in downtown Minneapolis in 1979 when he got an unexpected invitation to meet the theater’s new managers. They wanted to hire Pratt away from the firm that employed him.
He shook hands with Fred Krohn and David Zimmerman, then noticed a quiet, curly-headed guy sitting off to the side: “Did anyone ever tell you that you look a lot like Bob Dylan?”
Nice thing to say to your new boss.
Dylan, who owned the theater from 1979 to 1988, will return for a three-night engagement starting Tuesday.
A 1921 vaudeville-venue-turned-moviehouse, the Orpheum was shuttered for years until Dylan rescued it.
“I certainly think he felt that it would be a good investment rather than merely a community betterment project,” said Krohn, who remains involved with the venue as a booker for Hennepin Theatre Trust, which runs the three historic downtown theaters redeveloped by the city. “That’s the way I sold him on getting involved.”
A promoter and entertainment lawyer, Krohn wanted to bring the smash Broadway musical “A Chorus Line” to town. He thought the Orpheum would be perfect, and set out to find someone to help him buy it and fix it up.
He had worked with Zimmerman, Dylan’s younger brother and a Twin Cities music producer, on a marketing and distribution campaign for Dylan’s 1978 movie “Renaldo & Clara.” Now they teamed up to prepare a pitch for the superstar.
“I went to David’s house, sat in the kitchen; Bob walked in and I talked to him for maybe two hours,” Krohn recalled last week. “I was blown away by how much real estate knowledge he had. He had obviously done some work on my proposal. He asked a lot of really good questions.”
So for what Krohn called “a ridiculously low amount of money — under a million bucks,” a deal was struck with the Orpheum’s owner, movie mogul Ted Mann.
“We did some fast and dirty rehab of the place — put new carpet down, gave everything a once-over spray of beige paint and called it an opening,” Krohn said.
After that successful staging of “A Chorus Line” in July ’79, the Orpheum presented touring musicals — “Man of La Mancha” with Richard Kiley, “Showboat” with Forrest Tucker, “Timbuktu” with Eartha Kitt and Geoffrey Holder — and music stars, too.
Pratt, who was in charge of backstage security, got to know Liza Minnelli during a multi-night run. After he brought her some post-show pizza, she wanted to go to the Green Mill the following evening for deep dish.
No tables were available when Pratt walked in to check. “So we ate the pizza in her limo as we sat parked in some residential neighborhood,” said Pratt, who is now a Minneapolis schools special-education assistant. “I wasn’t supposed to do that. The next day I was in deep water with her wardrobe people. ‘Do you know what it’s like to try to shoehorn her into these costumes?’ ”
While Pratt baby-sat the stars, stage manager Scott Stein became Dylan’s de facto personal assistant. He’d accompany the recently divorced dad and his kids on trips to Valleyfair amusement park in Shakopee and such movies as “The Buddy Holly Story” at the Hopkins Theater.
“It was summer camp with the kids,” Stein remembered. “Nice innocent kids. He was a real family guy.”
One night, Stein took Dylan to the Cabooze bar to see bluesman Luther Allison. And the gofer arranged to have a 150-foot satellite tower built at the Dylan/Zimmerman farm west of the Twin Cities so they could get HBO.
Stein had Dylan’s credit card to make purchases for the theater and the farm. “I remember buying a lawn tractor and they never asked for ID,” recalled Stein, now retired in Hawaii.
“One time I was in the barn and there were all these gold and platinum awards with bird crap all over them. I brought one in to Bob and said, ‘Hey, look what I found in the barn.’ He said, ‘That’s exactly where they belong. Go put it back.’ ”
Stein’s sister, Margie, became a nanny for Dylan’s children in the summers and wound up marrying Dylan’s first cousin. (Dylan threw wedding showers for her and also for Stein.)
The kids sometimes hung out at the Orpheum. Pratt recalls oldest son Jesse answering phones in the box office. Dylan’s uncle, Mel Edelstein, who had run movie theaters in Hibbing, ran the Orpheum’s food concessions for a while.
David Zimmerman was there daily, but Dylan wasn’t around much because of his touring schedule. Staffers recall him sticking his head in the box office to see how it worked. And he attended a few shows, including concerts by John Prine, Tom Waits and gospel star Andrae Crouch (this was during Dylan’s so-called Christian period).
Even though the always guarded Dylan was a silent partner — no staffers took his photo — touring performers seemed to know who the real owner was, Pratt said.
“They would come to me and say: ‘Is it true that Bob Dylan might be in the audience tonight?’ ”
In 1988, Dylan sold the Orpheum to the Minneapolis Community Development Agency for $1.4 million.
“He wasn’t at the closing, but he signed the documents,” remembered Tom Hoch, who worked for the city and is now president and CEO of the Hennepin Theatre Trust. The new owners completely rehabbed the Orpheum at a cost of $8.2 million, Krohn said.
Dylan returned there in 1992 for a five-night stand. His Orpheum paycheck this week might be more lucrative than what he realized on his 10-year investment.
When: 8 p.m. Tue.-Thu.
Where: Orpheum Theatre, 905 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls.
Tickets: $55-$135. www.ticketmaster.com.