Triple Espresso has brewed big money for small venues
Nov. 28, 2004
When you think of big-money theater, you think it’s shows like “The Lion King” and the latest “Christmas Carol” that are hauling in the big bucks, right?
Well, yes. But consider “Triple Espresso,” the laugh-laden show that three entertainers from the Twin Cities cobbled together back in 1996 for a performance in the fellowship hall of a suburban Presbyterian church.
More than $32 million in tickets have been sold since that first church-hall effort, and the three originators — Bill Arnold, Michael Pearce Donley and Bob Stromberg — are still performing it with all the focused enthusiasm of an opening night.
Meanwhile, the national and international marketing of the show has evolved into a kind of “Triple Espresso Inc.” The show is currently running in four other cities — Cleveland, San Diego, Denver and Tulsa — and the producers expect the combined holiday gross income to be about $250,000 a week.
World production headquarters for the enterprise is a storefront office next door to the Music Box Theatre on Nicollet Avenue in downtown Minneapolis, just a block from the city’s convention center. The show has been running continuously at the Music Box since 1997, but that’s just the throne room of the empire.
Executive Producer Dennis Babcock uses huge wall-mounted charts to keep track of “Triple Espresso” incarnations. Thirty actors have gone through a laborious training process to replicate the piston-precision performances of the original roles: the cloying lounge-act pianist (Donley), the irrepressible goofball vaudevillian (Stromberg) and the deliberately inept, deadpan magician (Arnold).
68 WEEKS IN DES MOINES
Babcock’s charts keep track of who’s who, and where each actor is playing at any given time.
The show is in its eighth year in San Diego. An eight-city, 10-week tour of Ireland just wound up, and the 2005 schedule includes productions opening in Green Bay, Wis.; Charlotte, N.C.; and Oklahoma City.
“Other cities have requested us in 2005, but obviously, we can’t do all of them,” Babcock said with a touch of regret, though he’s excited about negotiations to open productions late next year in Belgium and Holland.
“The plan right now is to rehearse the cast here at the Music Box and then to translate the show into Flemish,” he says.
A former Guthrie Theater producer with a lot of experience in subscription-season marketing, Babcock has employed an innovative way of putting “Triple Espresso” on the road. In some cities, he piggybacks the show onto existing subscription seasons, where it is promoted in a lineup with more typical road-show productions like “Rent” or “Phantom of the Opera” — shows that have to be staged in big performing halls.
“Triple Espresso,” however, is always performed in smaller venues, usually seating between 250 and 400 patrons. The host producers offer the show to thousands of season subscribers who fill the smaller performance space for weeks while also generating word-of-mouth promotion for new customers.
To date, “Triple Espresso” has played in 33 theaters — it ran for 68 weeks in Des Moines, for example — and it’s had more than 6,800 performances. By the middle of next year, Babcock is confident that it will surpass the 7,645 performances that were given of “I Do! I Do!” during its nearly 23-year continuous run at Chanhassen Dinner Theatre.
“Not bad for the little engine that could,” he says.
LAND OF LONG RUNS
Long runs are nothing new to theater, but the Twin Cities seem to have a particular affinity for them. Locals may recall “I Do! I Do!,” which set theater records for longevity, or “Forever Plaid” and “Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding,” which had four- and five-year runs, respectively, at theaters operated by local producer Sandy Hey.
“How to Talk Minnesotan” ran for five years in various versions after opening at the Plymouth Playhouse in 1997, then went on the road and even turned up in an abbreviated version performed in casino ballrooms. The creators even came up with a version called “The Best of How to Talk Minnesotan.”
“The trick is to find the kind of a show that gets a lot of return business from people bringing in their friends and visiting guests,” said Curt Wollin, who directed “How to Talk Minnesotan” and has made a career out of audience-friendly, long-run shows. One of his earliest, “Pump Boys and Dinettes,” opened in 1985, ran for years at the Plymouth Playhouse and has since been resurrected by Wollin in 31 different productions.
But it ain’t easy being funny. Stromberg, the grinning, goofy member of “Triple Espresso,” still thinks about ways to fill the occasional pauses that he finds in a performance — maybe with a telling gesture, a funny reaction. The key to the show, he says, is belly laughs.
“People don’t laugh like that very often, but that’s what we get with this show,” he said.
“I think people who have seen the show come back with friends because they want to see them laugh,” added Donley.
“We’re always getting better at doing this,” Arnold said.
All three members of the trio had experience with stand-up solo work when they decided to collaborate on a show. Local director Bill Partlan, who saw the first church-hall performance, says it was a gag-packed, bit-filled vehicle from the start.
Partlan, then artistic director of the Cricket Theatre, added “Triple Espresso” as the capper to the 1996 season — which, as it turned out, was the final one for the Cricket before it folded. He has been directing the show and its many casts ever since.
It has become a conventional play, Partlan says, with a plot, some mild conflict and a resolution.
But “Triple Espresso” also has elements that seem to typify long-running shows. Babcock quickly lists them:
“It’s a clean show — you can bring the kids and grandparents to it. It’s a safe show — you can bring people from your company to see it and not worry about them being offended. And it’s a show that you can see more than once, one that’s not just for the theater crowd.”
Sandy Hey, who brought “Beehive,” “Forever Plaid” and “Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding” to her theater, calls long runs a “gift you have to work at.”
“People think it’s like falling off a log — just open the doors and the people keep coming — but it’s not true,” Hey said. “You’re constantly reinventing all the time, saying ‘Look at me, look at me.’ ”
But Donley says there’s a magic that sustains eight years of “Triple Espresso” in Minneapolis.
“Sometimes during a performance I can’t believe that we’re doing this show, can’t believe we’re getting this response,” he said. “It’s much larger than us. It’s a lot of fun to be in — in many ways, more fun to be in than to watch.”