What started as a quirky idea to get around the statewide smoking ban appears to be spreading like wildfire.

Dozens of bars are expected to stage "theater nights'' this weekend in which patrons are dubbed actors. The law, which went into effect in October, permits performers to smoke during a theatrical production. "Two weeks ago, we had one bar doing this,'' said Mark Benjamin, a criminal defense attorney who launched the theater-night idea. He estimates 50 to 100 bars could be on tap for theater nights this weekend based on phone calls, e-mails and requests for the how-to-stage-a-theater-night packet that he's devised. And many bar owners are passing on the information quickly among themselves without getting in contact with him.

State Health Department officials didn't return calls Thursday, but said earlier this week that they are waiting for a state attorney general's opinion on the legality of theater nights. State legislators who championed the ban said last week that the loophole likely will be plugged and the bar theater nights will end.

But until that happens, Kenn Rockler, executive director for the Tavern League of Minnesota, said he's getting calls and e-mails from bar owners.

Lisa Anderson, owner of Mike's Uptown bar in Hill City, said that last Saturday she staged a "theater night" and packed in four times the usual crowd that has come in since the smoking ban took effect.

Anderson said she has been helping other bar owners who want to put on their own tobacco productions.

"I'm going to continue to do this,'' she said. "It increased my business.''

So will Brian Bauman, owner of The Rock nightclub in Maplewood, which staged a theater night Tuesday and nearly doubled the usual crowd.

At least 10 other bar owners wandered through his bar that night, taking stock of the event's success.

It won't work for every bar or restaurant because some are carving out a niche with nonsmokers, he said.

"We're a rock bar and the majority of the people who come here smoke,'' Bauman said. Until the state puts a stop to this, "we have every intention of doing this again. ...We have our karaoke night and we have our rock night. Now we will have our theater night.''

Mary Lynn Smith • 612-673-4788