NOTE: First off, my apologies to anyone who read this post when I originally put it up a few days ago, in which case you found it riddled with irritating typos. It was a very late night and I got lazy and failed to proof the copy. My bad. And if you tried wading through the story in that unfinished condition my sincerest apologies again. It won’t happen a second time.
Here’s another story from deep in my archives, this one from 1990, about Dick Mueller and the revival he led of his Firehouse Theatre in Omaha. Though this bid to remake the former dinner theater into a nonprofit began promisingly enough it soon fell under its own weight. The tone of this piece is expressly optimistic because that’s how Mueller sounded a couple years into the experiment. Even though the Firehouse didn’t make it in its reinvented state, the topic of theater and arts sustainability, which was very much on Mueller’s mind at the time, remains as cogent today as it was then. Only a few weeks ago a well-known local theater, the John Beasley Theater & Workshop, announced it was on the verge of closing unless it could secure donations and pledges in excess of $10,000, which it thankfully did. Mueller did not have the best opinion of the Omaha theater scene then, and I wonder what he thinks of it today. In some respects, there’s been no change from the status quo, in that Omaha now as then has little in the way of professional, Equity theater. However, several new theater companies have sprung up in the intervening years and the Great Plains Theatre Conference has emerged as a vital event and presence.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the Midlands Business Journal
It is tempting to frame Firehouse Theatre founder Dick Mueller’s story in dramatic terms. The 53-year-old impresario, director and actor has the youthful gleam and gait of, well, a Golden Boy whose future success seems assured despite adversity.
Like the boxer-violinst of the Clifford Odets play, Mueller is both a fighter and a dreamer who has battled steep odds to make his fondest wishes come true. He’s the Golden Boy of Omaha theater. He has recently rebounded from bankruptcy and the closing of the Firehouse to reopen the theater and set it on a bold new course he hopes will shake up lethargic old Omaha.
A life in the theater has been Mueller’s destiny since a night in 1961 when he saw a play and was stagestruck.
The Omaha native sang professionally at the time with a quartet called The Bachelors, which began at his alma mater – Central High School. The group was making the rounds on the national nighclub circuit and recording on the Epic Records label when Mueller followed a hunch and caught a new Broadway show. The show was Lerner and Loewe‘s My Fair Lady and “that theater experience is probably why I’m sitting here today in 1990,” said Mueller from the Firehouse stage. “I had no idea what theater was. I thought the ultimate entertainment experience was in a nightclub.”
He said, “I bought a standing room ticket for $3 and saw the original production of My Fair Lady, and there was no question in my mind when I walked out of that room three hours later that I was wrong – the nightclub did not offer the ultimate experience.
“Since then I’ve had 10 or 12 nights in the theater that really changed my life and I think it happened for other people in this room,” he said, referring to the Firehouse. “It has to do with what happens between a playwright, a good director and good actors telling a good story. It doesn’t happen very often, but you’ve got to have some of those nights…otherwise you stop going back to the theater. It can’t happen to me here (the Firehouse) because you really have to be a virgin. If you’re too involved in the production it won’t happen.”
Mueller turned his back on a singing career to do the starving actor’s bit. He returned home some years later a veteran of Broadway tryouts and Saratoga summer stock to start the Firehouse Dinner Theatre in 1972 in the then-fledgling Old Market. It was an instant hit. He and the theater, which dropped the buffett a few years ago, are synonomous. One cannot be discussed without the other.
After years of near uninterrupted success – revivals staged by the likes of Joshua Logan, critically praised world premieres and strong box office performances the Firehouse slumped in the mid-’80s. Eventually, Mueller declared bankruptcy and the theater closed New Year’s Day, 1989. The New York Times even chronicled Mueller’s travails in a January 1, 1989 article.
Always the scrapper and visionary, Mueller announced almost immediately he would be back. His never-say-die tenacity, combined with about $50,000 in donations from a fund-raising appeal, got the theater back on its feet and reopened by that April.
Mueller surprised many local arts observers by resurrecting the Firehouse in a new guise, Frustrated by his theater’s future hanging on uncertain box-office receipts – its primary source of income since Day One – the reorganized the for-profit business as a nonprofit corporation.
Mueller, who was the theater’s sole owner at the time of its demise, has given up proprietary interest and turned the facility’s management over to a board of directors and professional staff. He’s glad to do it, he said, because now as artistic director he can focus on the plays without worrying about the business.
Jeff Taxman, 37, has been hired as the theater’s managing director, and both he and Mueller sit on the board, whose president is Louis Lamberty.
So within two years the Firehouse has gone, as Mueller put it, “legit” – from a full-fledged commercial dinner theater to a non-profit producing organization with ambitions of being what he terms “the Heartland’s regional theater.”
According to Barbara Janowitz of Theater Communications Group in New York, which publishes American Theatre magazine, the Firehouse metamorphosis is indeed “unusual.”
Mueller said the jump from the for-profit to the non-profit world was his only option to secure the theater’s financial future and one he’d been contemplating.
“To be honest, this place has been 20 years of my life and I always saw it becoming a non-profit regional theater because I’d like to see it last. It wasn’t something that I wasn’t prepared to see happen at some point. I only wish it happened under better circumstances, but…by the time we ran into the wall financially the non-profit corporation was already in existence and just sped up the transition process.”
He didn’t want to sell the business to new owners who eventually might get tired of it. “Then it just dies and goes away,” he said.
He feels some factors made it diffiult for the Firehouse to survive on ticket sales alone. Principally, he blames the depressed economy of the mid-’80s for cutting into one of the theater’s most vital markets – the rural tourist trade.
“This theater has always drawn from hundreds of miles away. Bus loads from small towns put together by tour brokers or banks come to Omaha for their theater. And we lost an awful lot of that business because the people who supported it lost their income and in many cases lost their farms or buisnesses,” he said.
“Group sales have always veen a mainstay of this theater. We do 10,000-piece mailings to every tour group within 500 or 600 miles of here.”
The Greater Omaha Convention and Visitors Bureau ranked the Firehouse as one of the city’s top tourist attractions as recently as 1988. Mueller said the theater’s sales efforts to groups outside Omaha promote other attractions “because we feel it’s easier for us to get people to Omaha if there’s a variety of great experiences. We’ve been a minor Chamber of Commerce here for 18 years.”
He estimates “at least 50 percent” of its annual ticket sales are to patrons outside the city. He said after a slow start the theater is regaining its audience now that the bankruptcy and closing are old news and the farm economy has recovered.
“Thank God we’re beyond it and we’re building back. People have forgotten about that. We worked real hard to make good to all those people who had season tickets and gift certificates because we didn’t want them to think bad about our efforts to run this place.
“We opened with very little strength a year-and-a-half ago, but life is getting better for us. We wouldn’t be here today if it hadn’t started to come back a little already.”
The current production, Driving Miss Daisy, has “the largest pre-sale of group business of any show I can remember,” he said. Two mid-week matinees have been added “because the demand is there and probably 90 percent of that demand is from out of town. I hope we’ll build on that momentum and in a year from now it’ll be even better.”
Jeff Taxman said the realities of the business are such that “it takes 30 to 40 percent of the house to cover the cost of running the theater” or break even. “Daisy looks like it’s going to do better than that, so this will be a surplus.”
One of Mueller’s long-range goals is to average 80 percent of capacity per year. “Eighty percent would be a big surplus position and would create the capital to do all kinds of innovative things,” Taxman noted. The theater’s best one-year box-office showing netted a 70 percent house average.
Another factor Mueller said adversely affected the Firehouse was the competitive advantage he feels non-profit theaters have in seeking donations, grants and other public and private forms of funding generally unavailable to private business.
“We had no means, unless someone was crazy, to get donations because people wouldn’t get any tax benefits by giving their money to us,” he said.
“The funding of the arts, in some respects, has legislated business out of the arts. This place did very well as a commercial theater for a long time and today it’s very difficult for us to compete with the advertising that even small community theaters are seemingly able to muster. You add that to their volunteer help…and I think the non-profit world was successful to the detriment of the commercial world in the arts.”
He feels fortunate the Firehouse is an established entity now that it seeks funds from the same pool or resources as other non-profits. “I think it would be impossible to start something new in Omaha today. You’re not going to get funding right away because that’s sort of locked in – in the funding apparatus out there,” he said.
“And the public is not as curious and willing to function on their own as they were 15 years ago, so it’s more difficult to get people in the seats.”
He believes one reason why people are less adventurous is the lack of professional theater locally. The Firehouse, which uses Actors Equity performers, is the city’s only professional theater operating year-round and paying its actors a living wage. “The place plays 52 weeks, or close to it, a year,” said Taxman, “and that’s a unique aspect of what we do.”
“I’d like to see another professional theater right accross the street. I think it would be good for us, but I also think I’m totally alone in that philosophy,” Mueller said. “If they can excite their audience then I’ve got a chance of getting their audience.”
He added that another theater would also bolster Omaha’s shallow talent pool by enticing more artists to come here and more natives to stay. He noted Omaha was a theater hotbed in the early ’70s, when the Firehouse, Westroads Dinner Theater and The Talk of the Town all operated. “It was great fun and it was much easier to cast because there was more talent.”
Mueller feels Omahans suffer an acute case of provincialism in warily embracing new arts groups or concepts: “The arts community gets very protective of their own organizations and takes a very limited view. It’s always puzzled me.”
He wants to assuage any fear other theaters might have that the Firehouse is somehow a threat to them. The scenario reminds him of when the Guthrie Theatre opened amid “epidemic fear that it was going to kill all of the community theaters in Minneapolis. And, you know, the Guthrie did nothing but good for the theater community. It busted it wide open. None of those fears, I suspect, had any basis in reality.”
While Mueller has received a few letters indicating Omaha can survive nicely without the Firehouse, he said most of the reaction to its reopening has been positive.
Taxman, who is designing the theater’s development program, said, “I find those people I talk to are very happy to visit and are excited about the idea. The real measure in terms of opening checkbooks is still an open question, but we’ve only been at it three or four weeks.”
Mueller said that besides a $15,000 grant from Douglas County “our non-profit status has not produced any mother-lode. We’re still pretty much making it on our own.”
Taxman is working to change that. He is writing grant applications to private foundations, corporations and government agencies as well as coordinating a direct mail campaign aimed at the theater’s long-time patrons – its season ticket holders and group tour participants. He expects to conduct a community-wide public campaign by the fall.
He said individual giving is vital in demonstrating to grant review panels “there’s a lot of local support” and is confident that support will come. He anticipates the theater’s fundraising efforts to show “some significant” gains within 12 months. The theater, he said, sells itself.
“This is an institution that generates 90 to 100 percent of its nut from earned income. So every dollar you give really is leveraged 9 or 10 times in terms of the organization’s effectiveness. It’s been around for a long time and has a long track record of excellent performances.
“One of the positive aspects is that the amount of money that has to be raised to make this place work and healthy is not a staggering number. And because of that I think its future is very viable – without the community sagging under the burden of another institution to support.”
The Firehouse budget is $978,000. The theater is labor-intensive and about half the weekly $4,500-$5,000 costs of staging Daisy, for example, are for actors’ salaries. An expense that has risen dramatically in recent years is the royalties fee, which for Daisy is about 10 percent of the weekly box office take. Mueller recalls doing Noel Coward for $100 a week.
“The overhead of the theater is really very efficient and stable, so the variable is really the production costs,” said Taxman.
Another priority is recruiting board members who share Mueller’s vision of the theater. Although no longer the owner or manager, he is still very much the Firehouse Svengali. He’s proud and protective of its past and bullish on its future.
“This room has provided just a little over 9,000 weeks of gainful employment for theater talent – actors, directors and musicians – since it opened. And I don’t believe there’s ever been a theater in Nebraska that has even come close to that,” he said. “That room is as good as any in the country for a Daisy or Steel Magnolias, which is the kind of kind of material I really like to do – actor-intensive, not spectacle. Intimate theater.”
He said that while the “dinner theater concept made this place,” the new Firehouse is more to his liking. “It makes a much better, more comfortable and cleaner theater. Eighteen years ago dinner theater was really an exciting new thing and there are still some places making it work, but I think it’s had its major day.” Besides, he said the Firehouse can book dinner for patrons downstairs at Harrigans (a nouvelle pub) if they do wish.
Mueller wants the theater to continue doing what it’s done best in the past and to branch out in some new areas.
“I would like to see us do at least one new production a year. In five years it would be nice to think one of those had made it to New York or Chicago as a modest success.”
The Firehouse has presented four world premieres and is bringing another , Lawrence Broch’s Joan in October. Mueller is considering restaging a work that premiered there in 1982, Dale Wasserman’s Shakespeare and the Indians. To this day he rues not having the time or foresight to perfect that play and then take it to London, where he thinks audiences would have eaten it up.
“But that takes perspective and having other people to shoulder some of the day-to-day operations. We didn’t have that luxury then.”
The Firehouse does now and that’s why Mueller is anxious “to turn Omaha on its ear” with more premieres and “a broader menu of material.”
“I feel what we’ve done for 18 years is pretty much the program. It’s true I’d like to expand on that, but it’s not like we’re turning our back on everything we did and going in a different direction. We know we can do certain showd every bit as good on this stage as the Guthrie or Broadway could do on those stages. We’ve got a pretty decent national reputation right now and I’d like to see that improved.”
He does see a possibility of producing on other stages when it’s appropriate to the material, as the Firehouse did at the University of Nebraska at Omaha with Battle Hymn.
He also said the theater may one day tour productions. One thing he rules out is forming a resident acting company.
What he wants most, however, is for the Firehouse to lead a theater renasissance of sorts in Omaha. For the city to be a theater center where people can have more experiences like the one in New York 30 years ago that changed his life.
“I’d love to see every theater in town producing those kinds of experiences because then we’d have a potential audience in town that is far larger then what it is now. Good theater begets more and hopefully better theater and less is on the way to a ghost town.”
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