Don Stolz had been producing theater in the Twin Cities for more than two decades at the Old Log Theater when Tyrone Guthrie launched his namesake playhouse in 1963.

"In fact, Guthrie said the reason he came was because Don Stolz and the Old Log had prepared the ground for him, that people here understood theater," said Charlie Boone, a longtime WCCO Radio personality who knew Stolz for more than 50 years and acted on the Old Log stage.

Stolz, who is widely recognized as the godfather of the Twin Cities theater community and whose association with the Old Log dates to 1941, died Saturday night from complications of congestive heart failure at Sholom Home West in St. Louis Park. He was 97.

Before he sold the Old Log in 2013, Stolz had spent 72 years in the big, rustic theater in suburban Greenwood. He employed thousands of actors, including the young Loni Anderson and Nick Nolte, and staged hundreds of shows.

Stoltz also pioneered local programming in Twin Cities television, writing and performing with Clellan Card on WCCO-TV's "Axel and his Dog."

"Minnesota just got smaller in my mind," actor Barbara June Patterson said. "Of all the theaters I worked at, I felt most at home at the Old Log. The audiences there came to have a wonderful time."

Jack Reuler, artistic director of Mixed Blood Theatre, said "nobody is cut from the same cloth that Don was cut from anymore."

Southwestern roots

The son of an Oklahoma Methodist minister, Stolz migrated to the Twin Cities in 1941 after studying at Northwestern University in Illinois. He had agreed to do one show, at the request of a Northwestern professor who was summering at the Old Log.

Stolz ended up staying a lifetime. He bought the theater in 1946 and built the current complex — which includes the 600-seat auditorium and a restaurant — in 1960. When he received an Ivey Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2008, he told the packed house at the State Theatre: "There's nothing more glorious than being honored by the people you work with."

Stolz strongly embraced his history as an actor and insisted on paying performers and artists well.

"He could have spent a lot of money on the building, but he always wanted to make sure everyone got paid," said actor Jim Cada, who worked frequently at the Old Log. "He was a good friend of the actors."

The Old Log was primarily a summer stock house until Stolz took the leap in 1958 and began producing shows year-round. To that point, he had staged Tennessee Williams, Shakespeare, Eugene O'Neill and even the absurdist Eugene Ionesco in repertory seasons.

"It was easier to take risks than today," Stolz said in a 2000 profile. "A play only had to run a week. It didn't need to be a barnburner."

With the advent of the Guthrie and other professional theaters — such as the nearby Chanhassen Dinner Theatres — the Old Log began to tilt toward comic fare, such as British farces, and Stolz became expert at the timing and pace of that genre.

"I remember my first audition for him," said Patterson, who now lives in Nashville. "I got out about two lines and he said, 'OK, rehearsals start Monday.' And I asked him if he wanted to hear the rest of the monologue. He said, 'I don't have to eat the whole pie to know it's good.' "

Lake Minnetonka denizen

Stolz and his wife, Joan, settled on Lake Minnetonka and had six children. Daughter Joannie drowned in 1955, a day that devastated both parents. Don wrote about the experience as part of his play "Axel & His Dog," which the History Theatre in St. Paul produced twice.

"Joan wasn't happy about having that story in there, but it made the play so much more meaningful," said Ron Peluso, who directed the production and became friends with Stolz.

The play recounted Stolz's years working with Card at WCCO-TV (Ch. 4). "Axel and His Dog" ran from 1954 to 1966. Stolz would stay off camera with his arm in a puppet sleeve, portraying Axel's dog, Towser, and cat, Tallulah.

Stolz continued to direct and produce shows well into his 90s. He dressed for the theater every day and was often the first face patrons met when they entered the Old Log. He often sold tickets behind the counter and loved to glad hand.

"Don without a doubt was one of the nicest human beings," Chanhassen artistic director Michael Brindisi said. "He was the father of theater here."

Steve Shaffer was one of Stolz's leading actors for 23 years. He remembered that Stolz was in a car accident one day, and the next day he was in rehearsal — in a lot of pain, but fully alert.

"He had such an intuitive, firm grasp for the material," Shaffer said. "I never remember being at odds with him when we were working."

Concerns about the future of the Old Log became more loudly discussed as Stolz reached his 95th birthday. Software developer Greg Frankenfield struck a deal to buy the place in 2013, and Stolz walked away after more than 70 years.

"I called him after the sale to see how he was doing," Mixed Blood's Reuler said. "And he said the three saddest days in his life were when his daughter died, when his wife died [in 2007] and when he sold the theater."

Frankenfield, in an interview last August, said one year of running the theater had given him "more respect for Don than I ever had."

Actor Candace Barrett, who is in the current Old Log production, "Outside Mullingar," noted in a recent interview the debt that the Twin Cities theater community owed to Stolz.

"We all have a sense of standing on the shoulders of Don," Barrett said.

Stolz is survived by his sons Peter, Dony, Tom, Tim and Jon. His funeral will be at 11 a.m. Saturday, at St. Therese Catholic Church, 18323 Minnetonka Blvd., Deephaven. Visitation is one hour prior to the service.

Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299