Fifty years ago this week, Herb and Carol Bloomberg opened Chanhassen Dinner Theatres with a production of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.”
The couple hoped to succeed in the burgeoning business of offering dinner and a show in the same venue. The concept had been born in August 1953 when six actors from New York bought a run-down tavern in Richmond, Va., and turned it into what would become the country’s first dinner theater.
Dinner theaters peaked in popularity in the ’70s, with 147 professional dinner theaters operating around the country in 1976. But many began closing in the next decade and today only a handful of them remain. Chanhassen Dinner Theatres is one of the survivors.
Chanhassen Dinner Theatres has spent the year celebrating its golden anniversary, and the company premieres its 234th production, “Holiday Inn,” on Friday, the day after CDT officially hits 50. The evening will feature special guests in the audience, including founding artistic director Gary Gisselman, several members of the original “How to Succeed in Business” company and the oldest CDT actor, Rita Vassallo.
To celebrate 50 years, here are 50 things you might not know about Chanhassen Dinner Theatres.
1. In its first 50 years, CDT productions have drawn more than 12.5 million people.
2. In 1950, when Chanhassen had a population of 182, the Bloombergs bought a cornfield where CDT now stands.
3. Herb Bloomberg spent the ’50s establishing himself as a builder. After he completed renovating and expanding the Old Log Theater in Excelsior in 1960, Bloomberg and his wife were inspired to open their own theater.
4. Carol Bloomberg was an acclaimed interior designer who decorated several governor’s mansions, the Quadna Ski Resort in Hill City, Minn., the St. James Hotel in Red Wing and what would become Chanhassen Dinner Theatres.
5. The year before CDT opened, Carol Bloomberg bought a rare collection of engravings by British painter and printmaker William Hogarth that dated back to the 1700s. The collection remains on loan to CDT by the Bloomberg family.
6. In the summer of 1968, several spaces opened in the CDT complex (then known as “The Frontier”), including a bar, liquor store and the Downstairs Playhouse, home to an improv group.
7. Ticket prices for “How to Succeed in Business” ranged in price from $4.95 to $8.95 per person. And that included dinner, the show and tax.
8. The inaugural menu included Seafood Newberg, braised beef tenderloin tips, roast sirloin and spaghetti and meatballs. It also offered the first incarnation of Chicken Chanhassen.
9. The initial recipe for Chicken Chanhassen featured a chicken breast stuffed with Danish ham and Swiss cheese. Chefs have altered the dish over the years, but it’s remained a popular favorite with guests. In 2000, CDT dropped it from the menu but quickly revived it after an outcry. “There was a mutiny from our customers,” said resident artistic director Michael Brindisi. “They practically picketed the place.”
10. The current version of Chicken Chanassen features a chicken breast filled with Minnesota wild rice stuffing and topped with Hollandaise sauce, served with steamed vegetables on the side.
11. Admission to the Downstairs Playhouse was $1.50, with food and beverage available for an additional charge.
12. Under the direction of John Davidson, the Downstairs Playhouse’s Underground Expression improv troupe wasn’t afraid to tackle sex, politics, women’s liberation and the Vietnam War.
13. Audiences didn’t bite. The Downstairs Playhouse closed about a year after it opened.
14. The first year turned out to be tricky to pull off financially for the main stage, as well. It hosted only two more productions in 1968, “Arsenic and Old Lace” and “The Fantasticks,” and each ran just a few weeks.
15. It also proved challenging to find the right entertainment for the small, 100-person capacity Downstairs Playhouse. On a casting trip to New York, Gisselman hired Broadway actor Susan Goeppinger for the November 1970 return of “How to Succeed in Business.” The pair discussed the Downstairs Playhouse and Goeppinger shared an idea: “You should take a look at ‘I Do! I Do!’ for that space. It’s got two actors and a piano.”
16. After 17 main-stage shows across nearly 2½ years, the February 1971 production of “A Flea in Her Ear” was the first to earn a profit.
17. In 1971, Gisselman cast Goeppinger alongside David Anders in “I Do! I Do!” for a six-week run in the Downstairs Playhouse. Audiences loved the pair and the show quickly earned its first of many, many extensions. In 1972, not long after the show’s 500th performance, Goeppinger and Anders got married.
18. In 1970, the Clerestory Room opened as a restaurant known for its Sunday brunch. Four years later, the space was converted into the Courtyard Theatre and reopened in June 1974 with “A Thousand Clowns.” It remained active through 1995, when it was converted into an events venue.
19. In 1976, Hospitality Magazine listed Chanhassen Dinner Theatres as the 22nd largest privately owned restaurant in the nation and the largest in Minnesota. Just two years later, it had risen in the ranks to the 11th largest nationally.
20. A decade after the on-site bar opened in 1968, the space was converted into a fourth stage called the Bronco Opera House (and, later, the Fireside Theatre).
21. In a 1979 Los Angeles Times review, critic Dan Sullivan called CDT “a most astonishing place and the country’s finest dinner theater.”
22. Gisselman left CDT in 1980 to become resident artistic director for the Arizona Theatre Company in Tucson. The plan was to hire guest directors on a show-by-show basis. Howard Dallin was hired as artistic director later in the year, but he was gone within 12 months.
23. In March 1981, at the age of 11, Tamara Kangas (Erickson) made her CDT debut as Marta in “The Sound of Music.” Twenty-three years later, she returned to the company to fill the position of resident choreographer.
24. For CDT’s 15th anniversary, the company produced “Annie,” which ran for an unprecedented 13 months. Merchandise for the show included a Cabbage Patch Doll-sized T-shirt.
25. In August 1984, several cast members of the Fireside production of “Quilters” reported feeling “a benevolent spiritual presence” on stage with them. No one was fearful, but management brought in a psychic medium, who could not confirm any otherworldly visitors. Still, it marked the beginning of the legend of the CDT ghost.
26. CDT was among the first regional theaters given the rights to produce “A Chorus Line” in 1986. Original Broadway cast member Trish Garland directed the show, which had an ominous opening night when a sprinkler system failed and flooded the back stage, causing a long delay. While it earned great reviews, only 41 percent of the seats were filled during its eight-month run. It also received the most audience complaints in CDT’s history due to its coarse language and adult content.
27. In July 1987, Gisselman returned to guest direct “Fiddler on the Roof” and cast Brindisi as Motel the Tailor. When Gisselman returned to Arizona, Bloomberg asked Brindisi to “keep watch” over the show. Later that fall, Bloomberg hired Brindisi as artistic director.
28. One of the first things Brindisi did was equalize pay. “I took whatever money I was allotted and spread it evenly throughout the cast, so one guy wasn’t making three times more than another,” he said. “We’re now very competitive with the Guthrie and the Ordway, and we’re very close to what the other theaters are paying.”
29. The ongoing stress of keeping four theaters running led to CDT’s “Black Friday,” when 17 employees were fired on a single day in May 1988.
30. After lengthy negotiations, Thomas K. Scallen, president of International Broadcasting Corp., bought Chanhassen Dinner Theatres in June 1989. Scallen also owned the Ice Capades and Harlem Globetrotters.
31. On June 20, 1993, “I Do! I Do!” closed after 7,645 performances for 688,900 guests over 22 years. During its run, it became the longest-running play with the original cast in the history of the American stage. (The pair were replaced for vacations and Goeppinger had a stand-in during her pregnancies, but Anders missed only two performances due to illness.) Goeppinger and Anders returned to star in the main-stage production of “Fiddler on the Roof” the following month.
32. In August 1993, Brindisi was promoted to general manager and managing artistic director. One of his first orders of business was to hire Dick Stanley as CDT’s tuxedoed greeter. “I thought if Walmart can do it, we can do it,” Brindisi said. “I want people to feel welcome from the moment they arrive. If people come in, don’t know where they are going, get tickets from a grumpy box office, get seated by a host who doesn’t smile and wait 20 minutes for a server, how do you think they’re going to like the play?”
33. Management brought in Stevie Ray’s Comedy Troupe to headline the Downstairs Playhouse for a three-month run in early 1994. The group returned that fall for a yearlong stint. In 2010, Stevie Ray’s Comedy Troupe officially took over the Playhouse and continue to stage Friday and Saturday night shows there.
34. In March 1996, CDT reported its 1995 attendance numbers were the highest since 1988. That summer, Brindisi hired a young Amy Adams as a replacement actor in “Crazy for You.” She ended up spending three years at CDT. After Adams scored a supporting role in the locally shot film “Drop Dead Gorgeous,” she moved to Hollywood. She has since starred in everything from “The Fighter” to “Justice League” and has earned five Oscar nominations.
35. Herbert Bloomberg died on Dec. 4, 2005, at the age of 92. Carol Bloomberg died a year later at 81.
36. In 2006, the developers of a new $380 million dinner theater in Suzhou’s Cultural Art Centre in China sought the assistance of CDT staffers, who flew to China to show them how it’s done.
37. CDT’s 2006 Christmas show, “Grease,” drew a record 97 percent capacity crowd over its 4½-month run. Actor Laura Osnes, who played Sandy, left midway into the production to compete in the NBC reality competition “Grease! You’re the One That I Want.” She won the show, which led to a lead role in the Broadway revival of “Grease.” Osnes stayed in New York and went on to star in “South Pacific,” “Anything Goes,” “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Cinderella,” and earned Tony Award nominations for “Cinderella” and “Bonnie.”
38. In 2010, Brindisi and Kangas Erickson found a group of investors willing to buy Chanhassen Dinner Theatres from Scallen and finalized the deal that March. Each took on added responsibilities, with Brindisi overseeing food and kitchen operations and Kangas Erickson heading up sales and marketing. Three years later, CDT purchased the land on which it stands from the Bloomberg Cos.
39. In June 2012, CDT staged “Xanadu,” a musical adaptation of the 1980 film, which ran for more than 500 performances in New York. As on Broadway, CDT’s production featured onstage seating for up to 20 audience members and “Xanadu” earned rave reviews from local critics. But with just 34 percent of the seats sold, it turned out be an expensive reminder that CDT audiences aren’t that eager to see an unfamiliar musical. “I loved the show, it was fantastic,” Brindisi said. “But it was the biggest flop in our history. You just never know. You think you have it figured out, but you never know.”
40. That same summer, CDT opened the bar and restaurant Brindisi’s Pub, which has blossomed into a popular local hangout. The staff also began offering live music in the Fireside Theatre, which led to the launch of a still-active concert series that includes tributes to such acts as the Beatles, Eagles and Aretha Franklin as well as holiday concerts each December. “We were losing money because (with theatrical productions) on four stages, we were competing with ourselves,” Brindisi said. “Diversifying our entertainment worked. I’m happy to say we are profitable and have been for the past four years.”
41. In 2017, CDT revived “Grease” for a 7½-month run that played to a 93 percent capacity audience. During one of the curtain calls, actor Andrew Hey (Doody) proposed marriage on stage to Shinah Brashears (Frenchy). She said yes!
42. Productions on CDT’s main stage run eight performances a week, with no show Mondays and matinees on Wednesdays and Saturdays. The stage goes dark for only a week between productions, and the only holidays it’s closed are Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.
43. In its 50 years in the business, CDT’s kitchen has served 25 million rolls, 2.2 million sirloin steaks, 400,000 pounds of prime rib and 4.2 million Chicken Chanhassens.
44. Unlike most dinner theaters, CDT hires professional actors, members of Actors’ Equity Association, the professional actors’ union based in New York. Musicians in the orchestra are members of the Twin Cities’ Musicians’ Union.
45. In June, CDT held its first employee reunion and invited current and past staffers from all departments to join an outdoor parking-lot party with live music and food trucks. More than 1,200 people attended.
46. Two months later, CDT staged a one-off revue dubbed the Gala. It featured both on- and off-stage veterans from throughout the theater’s history. Proceeds went to the Chanhassen Dinner Theatres/University of Minnesota Duluth theater department scholarship program. Amy Adams couldn’t attend, as she was filming a movie, but sent a congratulatory video that aired for the crowd.
47. Brindisi said the 50th anniversary events have been a blast. “I’ve reconnected with Gary Gisselman, my mentor. Seeing all the actors from the past has been really fun as well. I’m in the third act of my career. Sometime in the near future, I’ll pass it on to someone else. But for now, I’m enjoying the nostalgia.”
48. “Holiday Inn” is actor Michelle Barber’s 70th CDT production, a record for the company. Keith Rice holds the title of most productions for a male actor with 47. Actor/dancer Mark King has appeared in 44 shows since 1995, missing only one production during that time, 2008’s “Swing!”
49. Last month, CDT opened ticket sales to its email list for its spring 2019 production, “Mamma Mia!,” which opens March 1. The next day, the theater set a record for the largest single day of ticket sales in its history.
50. Chanhassen Dinner Theatres patrons are not afraid to share their opinions, both negative and positive, with the staff. Brindisi has fond memories of one in particular. “A man wrote me after seeing ‘Phantom of the Opera.’ He said he realized after seeing the play it was about not missing opportunities in his life and that, as a result, he called his divorced wife and said, ‘We should get together and rethink what we had.’ They did and got remarried. I like to tell this story because this is the power we have, to change people’s lives.”