Bain Boehlke, a pioneer who helped to establish the Twin Cities theater community, has been named the 2009 McKnight Distinguished Artist. The award recognizes a career as actor, director and designer that spans more than 50 years and continues at the Jungle Theater, which Boehlke founded in 1991.

"This is so moving, because when you direct and run a theater, it's sort of a lonely thing in terms of any acknowledgement, other than the critical response, which isn't always kind," Boehlke said in an interview Thursday afternoon. "I didn't expect this."

Boehlke was at the center of a regional-theater aesthetic that came up through artists who were born in Minnesota and stayed to practice their craft here. Among his many collaborators have been Jim Stowell, Martha Boesing, John Clark Donahue, Roberta Carlson and Wendy Lehr.

"We all learned it here by our bootstraps, and this gives those of us in that environment an authenticity that is hard to come by," Boehlke said.

Children's Theatre mainstay

Boehlke, who was born in Warroad, Minn., and schoolmates began producing theater in an old barn before he moved on to the University of Minnesota. In 1960, he gathered a group of actors that included Lehr, and they toured the Upper Midwest. By 1965, he and Lehr were mainstays along with Donahue at the nascent Children's Theatre Company in Minneapolis. During the next 13 years, they stamped their indelible mark on hundreds of thousands of patrons with such signature shows as "Cinderella."

"Even today, I go into Lunds and people hear my voice and ask me, 'Weren't you the Ugly Stepmother?'" Boehlke said in an interview last spring, as he and Lehr prepared to act in "The Gin Game" at the Jungle.

Boehlke produced a documentary on Dietrich Bonhoeffer after leaving CTC and acted in theaters in Arizona, Louisville, and Honolulu. During a vacation to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, the inspiration struck him to start the Jungle Theater in Minneapolis.

"I saw this little poster with two palm trees and snow balls falling and it said 'The Jungle Theater,'" he said.

A Lyn-Lake success story

Four years later, he come across a vacant storefront at Lake and Lyndale and recalled the name. He was 51 when he started what was conceived as a co-op theater with 99 seats. It constantly sold out shows and by decade's end, Boehlke and managing director George Sutton had built a new 150-seat theater up the street from the intersection. The institution will celebrate its 20th year in February. Not only an artistic success, the Jungle has been credited for sparking an economic revival in the neighborhood.

"The Jungle's contributions have long supported healthy community development along Lake Street," said Kate Wolford, the McKnight's president.

Boehlke has directed and designed the lion's share of productions. If he wasn't directing, he was acting -- such as his performance in "House of Blue Leaves," "Gin Game" or "A Life in the Theater" last fall. Away from the stage, he had a memorable short scene in the 1996 film "Fargo," playing a town resident who was relaying a tip to investigators.

Boehlke, who celebrates his 70th birthday in July, is on sabbatical from the Jungle this year, leaving Joel Sass, associate artistic director, in charge. After traveling extensively, Boehlke plans to return to the theater in 2010.

"I don't think in terms of retirement," he said in a Star Tribune interview last fall. "I think in terms of transformation and change."

The McKnight Foundation began the Distinguished Artist Program in 1998. Boehlke is the second theater artist chosen, following Lou Bellamy in 2006. Other winners include composer Dominick Argento, publisher Emilie Buchwald, conductor Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, writers Bill Holm and Robert Bly and ceramic artist Warren MacKenzie. The honor includes a $50,000 cash award.

Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299