There was a bit of traffic jam in the Fitzgerald Theater as fans filed into the Hot Tuna concert. The holdup wasn’t caused by a security check or a rush to hear the warm-up band. Concertgoers stopped, stood and stared at a wall. Perched in a small alcove 6 feet off the ground was … well, what exactly was it?
“Is it animatronic?” asked Jacki Mitchell of Red Wing. “A puppet? A robot?”
“No, it’s alive,” said her husband, Mike. “I think it’s a dog.”
Whether for a concert, a comedy show or lecture by a famous author, visitors to the Fitz get a show before the show, thanks to a 9-pound mutt named Vienna.
The unofficial house dog of St. Paul’s oldest theater, Vienna has become the canine Welcome Wagon, comfort touchstone and icebreaker, winning fans on both sides of the footlights.
She seems to enjoy the alcove, but she’s just as comfortable nestling on a speaker, napping in the lighting booth or being backstage, where she’s hung out with actress Sally Field, comedian Paul F. Tompkins and singer-songwriter Neko Case. She met Gov. Tim Walz when he rehearsed his inaugural address. And when the acoustic group Lucius played to a sold-out crowd last spring, singer Jess Wolfe brought Vienna out, introduced her to the crowd, then held the placid dog in her arms as she sang.
While Vienna is considered an honorary resident of the 1,000-seat venue, she technically belongs to Dietrich Poppen, the lighting director at the Fitzgerald. He likens his miniature poodle/Shih Tzu mix to a fantasy creature. On her Instagram page, he calls her a “floofy slothy bear wookie ewok luck dragon mogwai filled with pure love.”
Poppen’s constant companion is named for a coffee drink. A Vienna features two shots of espresso infused with whipped cream, then twirled and topped off with chocolate sprinkles.
“It’s an apt description of her,” Poppen said. “She’s small and sweet and energetic.”
Poppen arrived at the Fitz six hours before the curtain would rise on Hot Tuna to help the band’s crew with what’s known as “the load-in.” While they toted instruments and unloaded gear, Vienna settled herself on a tall speaker on the corner of the stage, where she patiently watched the action.
“The Fitzgerald is not a bring-your-dog-to-work kind of venue,” admitted Poppen. “But there’s a difference between dog-friendly and Vienna-friendly.”
Workers, attendees, even those who perform at the Fitz, seem to agree.
“Well, hey, pooch, what’s up, man?” said production manager and musician Myron Hart, who broke from his chores to scratch the dog’s head, make kissing noises and take her picture.
As Hart, Poppen and the stagehands set up amps, positioned guitars, tested lights and anchored microphone stands with sandbags, Vienna settled in for a nap, but obligingly roused herself for a series of pets, pats and belly rubs.
After the setup, Hot Tuna bassist Jack Casady, who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of Jefferson Airplane, wandered in for sound check. Even the legendary musician wasn’t immune to Vienna’s charms.
“So this is the house dog,” said Casady as he shook Vienna’s paw, then turned to compliment her owner. “She’s fantastic. I have a King Charles that Vienna would just love. I’ll show you my boy,” said Casady as he reached for his cellphone to show photos of his dog, Chester.
Poppen took the exchange in stride.
“Artists who I admire, respect or even worship take pictures of my dog. She helps me meet my heroes; they approach me,” he said. “Last year Chris Isaak was here and wanted to meet Vienna, then we proceeded to talk about owning small dogs for a half-hour.”
House sound technician Dan Zimmermann understands the connection.
“Vienna absolutely makes it more fun for people who are performing here, especially the ones who are suffering from pet withdrawal,” he said. “The only downside is sometimes rehearsals have to stop while people love on her.”
Sealed with a kiss
Poppen grew up in South Dakota and majored in theater at South Dakota State University, where the small department allowed him to “learn everything,” from technical gigs to acting in student productions.
“When I realized that I wanted to do ambitious things in theater, I knew I had to go to the Twin Cities,” he said.
Through a college acquaintance, he got his first job as an assistant stage carpenter, then went on the road as a stage manager. He now works mostly at the Fitzgerald, but also is a scene, sound and lighting designer for various companies and occasionally appears on stage as an actor or musician.
Four years ago, Poppen decided it was time to settle down enough to adopt a dog. He spotted a picture of a two-month-old puppy posted on a rescue website. No one had claimed her after she’d been found wandering in St. Paul.
“I’m a big dog kind of guy. I like a dog that I can roughhouse with,” he said, “but the minute I saw her I said, ‘That’s my dog.’ ”
After filling out the adoption paperwork, Poppen paid her a visit at her foster family’s home, where the dog sealed the deal.
“She came running out and kissed me, then fell asleep in my arms. It wasn’t up for debate,” he said. “She was mine.”
The day after he brought her home, Poppen had a rehearsal for a musical production in which he was playing drums.
“I wasn’t ready to leave her but I thought, ‘She will freak out if I bring her, she’ll run and hide when the noise begins.’ But I brought her anyway and she just sat on my lap while I played,” he recalled. “She was calm, chill, just wanted to be near me.”
Shortly after he brought her home, Poppen squatted to tie his shoes and the dog scampered up his back to settle on his shoulders, where she often stays when he’s working.
“She rarely touches the ground. She’s on a speaker, on a perch, in my booth or riding on my back. She looks like a weird scarf or a bad haircut,” he said.
The one and only
Loud noises or changes in lighting don’t startle her; she seems to relish having her fur combed into wild looks and doesn’t object to being dressed in jackets, hats and other costumes. She has a cushion in the Fitzgerald’s lighting booth when she wants to snooze.
When she’s separated from Poppen, she doesn’t appear anxious, but she tries to keep an eye on him. Poppen does one better. When she’s in her lobby alcove perch posing for snapshots, Poppen has his GoPro camera trained on her so he can monitor her on his phone.
The only problem with Vienna, of course, is the problem with any beloved dog: The time with them, from puppyhood to elder dog, goes too fast.
That may be why people who meet Vienna often ask Poppen if he is planning to clone her.
“It’s not science fiction. It can be done and from what I’ve heard it’s usually with dogs who are hyper-intelligent, hyper-empathetic, like she is,” he said. “But, no, that’s not for me. There could never be another Vienna.
“For as long as I have her, I have the original, the only one. That’s pretty special.”
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance broadcaster and writer.