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Bemidji playhouse faces competition from new theater ventures
By Tom Robertson
Minnesota Public Radio
May 8, 2002

The Paul Bunyan Playhouse in Bemidji is the longest continuously-running summer stock theater company in Minnesota. But, lately, it's fallen on tough financial times. Playhouse officials say they've had trouble filling seats the past two years. They say part of the problem has been a sluggish economy and fewer tourists. But the playhouse is also facing competition from several new theater companies, and there are plans to bring even more theaters to Bemidji.

The Paul Bunyan Playhouse
The Paul Bunyan Playhouse stages its productions at The Chief Theater in Bemidji. The playhouse has been in existence for 52 years.
(MPR Photo/Tom Robertson)

You don't have to look hard to find live theater in Bemidji. There's a well-established community theater group. Bemidji State University stages plenty of plays, and so does the high school. In the past year, Bemidji got two more new theater groups. Michael Grittner is art director for Bemidji's oldest theater company, the Paul Bunyan Playhouse.

"It's pretty rare for a town of this population to have this much going on," says Grittner. "It's really a cultural kind of Mecca now."

The playhouse is the crown jewel of theater in Bemidji. It's been around 52 years. A mix of professional and amateur actors perform plays each summer on a downtown stage. Executive Director Karen Millar-Moe says this summer is a make-or-break season.

"The last two years, our musicals haven't been sold-out houses. That's what we need in order to cover the summer, and go on into the winter season and pay the bills," says Millar-Moe. "We have a lot of debt from the last two seasons. We've kind of been running behind."

Millar-Moe blames the slump on a couple of things - an uncertain economy and a cool summer last year that kept tourists away.

A new Bemidji theater called the Forste By got started last June, and lasted about six months. Millar-Moe says the Forste By's owner launched an aggressive program.

Doug Peterson
Doug Peterson, former mayor of Bemidji, is involved in another theater project in town, the Forste By Theater. The theater only lasted six months, but the theater's developer has plans for a larger resort and theater complex on the shores of Lake Bemidji.
(MPR Photo/Tom Robertson)

"He was running several events a week throughout the summer," she says. "And even though we have a high tourist population, there is a saturation point where there's so many tourist dollars or so many entertainment dollars, and we can't support them all."

The Forste By Theater offered two kinds of entertainment. Several nights a week, it staged a "Saturday Night Live" style review. A couple times a month, it brought in well-known performers like Mickey Rooney, Herman's Hermits and the Moscow Boys Choir.

Doug Peterson, a spokesman for the theater, says it was something of an experiment. Peterson, former mayor of Bemidji, says it wasn't meant to compete with the Paul Bunyan Playhouse.

"It was a learning experience for us," says Peterson. "That's basically why we took on the endeavor - to...send up a test balloon to find out how this type of entertainment would work in our area."

In the end, the Forste By didn't draw much of an audience. It closed its doors last winter. But the theater's developer, John Zacher of Walker, has bigger plans. Zacher has a purchase agreement on a huge chunk of prime lakeshore property on Lake Bemidji. It's the former site of the Georgia Pacific plant.

"We're all going to have to learn to talk to each other, to communicate, to find ways to work together to make this happen, to give everybody the opportunity to be in the theater."

- Paul Bunyan Playhouse's Mike Grittner, on the abundance of theater in Bemidji

Peterson says Zacher's dream is to make Bemidji "The Branson of the North," referring to the popular Missouri tourist destination. Peterson says plans include a motel complex, indoor water park, and one or more theaters.

"If we're drawing the majority of our audience from Wisconsin, from North Dakota, South Dakota, Canada - because those people wouldn't drive to Bemidji to go to any of the other theaters that are here - they may drive to Bemidji to come to a resort hotel complex on the water," he says.

Some say having an abundance of theater is a good problem. Paul Bunyan Playhouse Artistic Director Mike Grittner says the challenge will be finding enough actors and technical support people to go around. But he says the thriving theater scene is great for the community.

"It's exciting in that we're all going to have to learn to talk to each other, to communicate, to find ways to work together to make this happen, to give everybody the opportunity to be in the theater," says Grittner.

There's another fledgling theater company in Bemidji. KG Entertainment is hoping to get a foothold in town. But its creators say they won't compete directly with the Paul Bunyan Playhouse. They'll take their shows on the road during the summer season.

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