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
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
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."
Espresso' stays hot after 7 years"
June 4, 2003
still hot and it tastes fresh.
Espresso: A Highly Caffeinated Comedy" last
month celebrated its seventh year at the Music Box Theatre in Minneapolis.
In that time, the little three-man comedy has grown to become an
international hit with productions from California to Maine, from
Ontario to London.
Soon to appear
in Denmark in its first non-English version, "Triple
Espresso" shows no signs of slowing down -- at
the box office or artistically, as a return visit to the Music Box
demonstrated last weekend.
Donley, Bob Stromberg and Bill Arnold have lost none of their zeal
for the show they wrote together, yet one senses a professional
gloss and tight pacing that results from years of repetition. That
is not easy to pull off, and it testifies to their stage concentration
than play, this confection proposes that Hugh Butternut (Donley)
is celebrating his 25th anniversary as lounge lizard at the Triple
Espresso coffeehouse. He has invited Bobby Bean (Stromberg) and
Buzz Maxwell (Arnold), his former mates in a trio that broke up
after a disastrous performance on "The Mike Douglas Show,"
to help mark the occasion. Back they go, through their shared history,
unearthing painful and unresolved conflicts -- the essence of comedy.
Espresso" gives each man several occasions to fly solo
with his particular talent. Stromberg uses his loose and limber
body with great skill, but watching him reminded me that physical
comedy starts inside. Stromberg's spirit animates his work with
a precision born of method, not just technique.
the droll, dry one -- combines Bob Newhart's taciturn visage with
a knack for magic. He spends his first spotlight mangling a series
of illusions, sort of like the clumsy uncle who thinks he's so cool
as he screws up a card trick. His second spot is the real deal,
an amazing run through some fine legerdemain.
the show musically, plays the straight man to Stromberg's fop and
pitches in with a few spot-on improvisations at the piano.
are hilarious and executed beautifully, but perhaps more important,
the humor seems to flow organically from character. In the course
of two hours, you get to know Hugh, Bobby and Buzz, see the differences
in their personalities and enjoy who they are. That helps "Triple
Espresso" transfer its magic to other casts, allowing
other actors to build within a real character and react to situations
directed the original version of this show and still provides an
outside pair of eyes to help shape and guide the actors. It's working,
for there is no sleep in the coffeehouse.
Espresso still buzzing six years later
Minneapolis Star Tribune
Oct 10, 2001
Talk about your caffeine
buzz. Three guys sat down over coffee almost seven years ago and
they're still on a spree that's taken over their lives. What's
more, Michael Pearce Donley, Bob Stromberg and Bill Arnold have
no intention of coming down from this high.
the phenomenal comedy that these three men brewed in January 1995,
just entered its sixth season at the Music Box Theatre in Minneapolis.
Last week, the three creators flew off to Milwaukee to open a six-week
run. In January, they hope to crack into Portland, Ore. And sometime
early in the new year, "Triple Espresso" will
become the longest continuing show in San Diego theater history
-- 53 months.
The show has jagged from
Florida to New York, Massachusetts, Illinois and Wisconsin. In "Triple
Espresso" world headquarters right across Nicollet Avenue
from the Music Box, a map shows what markets are targeted next.
A dryboard keeps track of the actors who are either playing in the
current productions, or training to enter the casts. A storage room
is stacked with T-shirts, refrigerator magnets, coffee mugs, bottled
water (heresy!), pens and hats. "Triple Espresso"
has become a corporation employing 28 people and 20 actors, with
sales of $3.7 million a year.
"It has the strongest
word-of-mouth audience that I've ever witnessed," said executive
producer Dennis Babcock, who got hooked on "Triple Espresso"
when he stopped by for a taste in 1997. An independent theater producer,
he soon found his time consumed by this project and moved his office
out of his home basement and into the storefront on Nicollet.
"It's been an incredible
blessing to all of us," said Babcock.
That sentiment is stirred
often during conversations with the principals of this unlikely
enterprise. When asked how aggressively the company is trying to
move into new markets, Stromberg details a calculated methodology
and concludes by saying "We're trying to be careful with this
Dream comes true
It was Stromberg's idea
all those years ago to get this show percolating. He'd admired the
work of Arnold and Pearce Donley and wondered if the three of them
could put together "the funniest show out there," he said.
They gathered in Pearce
Donley's basement and started to build. Stromberg brought experience
as a mime, a guitarist and a conference entertainer to the table.
Arnold was a stand-up comedian and magician, while Pearce Donley
was a serious musician -- working lounges, doing solo keyboard tours,
singing. They tinkered with bits and pieces, eventually nailing
down about 70 minutes of material. Now, all they needed was an audience.
On a Sunday evening, the
three coffee beans brought their act to Christ Presbyterian Church
in Edina for a family entertainment night. About 600 watched, and
it went so well that a month later, they played a similar event
at Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie. That's when serendipity -- which
seems to play a part in all great success stories -- dipped down
in the person of Bill Partlan, the Cricket Theatre's artistic director
at the time.
Partlan saw the show at
Wooddale and brought it to the Cricket for eight weeks. Ironically,
it was the highest-grossing show in the history of the Cricket,
which closed shortly after the run.
Emboldened by this success,
Stromberg, Pearce Donley and Arnold met with Babcock and asked how
they could keep the coffee hot. Two investors pitched in $150,000
to build a production, and the little company took off. Of course,
the Cricket was defunct so the Music Box Theatre was available.
In addition, the show was booked in several other cities. By the
second year, the initial investors had been bought out. After four
years, the box office had totaled $13 million. Attendance has grown
from 60,000 in 1997 to 135,000 last year. In the Twin Cities alone,
about 67,000 a year stop by for a cuppa show -- which makes "Triple
Espresso" one of the top-attended theaters in town.
In the long term, Babcock
talks about taking the show international, targeting metropolitan
markets of 2 million or more and using existing theater companies
that could slot "Triple Espresso" into their
seasons with the possibility of extensions. That gives the show
the benefit of a company's subscription audience.
There are some wrinkles
on the horizon, though. Pearce Donley has young children who will
be entering school in the next few years.
"They've always traveled
with me," he said, explaining that whenever "Triple
Espresso" opens in a new city, the original cast establishes
the show for six to eight weeks. But once the kids are in school,
they won't be able to come along, and Pearce Donley doesn't want
to be away from them for that long.
The worst outcome, however,
is that the original cast would perform only in Minneapolis.
What's so magic?
It was the day after "Triple
Espresso" reopened for the fall season in the Music Box
when Arnold, Stromberg and Pearce Donley sat down with a visitor.
The rapport built over 1,800 shows together is obvious. So is the
bond that has developed among three men who really have remade their
lives. They joke about Stromberg missing a few lines the previous
"We lost Bob a few
times last night," said Pearce Donley.
Stromberg smiles sheepishly
and admits that even though you'd think the show is down pat in
his head, a month of vacation had him drifting.
"But we're good at
fishing each other out," said Arnold.
There is a sweetness to
the laughter, appreciative and thankful.
"We've poured our
heart and soul into this," said Arnold.
The keys to this success
story are simple to pin down. The show has a thin but clever story
line about three performers reunited after a faux bitter breakup.
They recount their careers over two-plus hours, but really, the
plot is an excuse for these three performers strut their stuff.
is the strongest I've ever seen," said Babcock, who spent 17
years at the Guthrie Theater, including two as managing director.
"People see it 15 to 20 times. It's clean, it plays to all
ages. My daughter, who's 6, got it. My dad is 80 and he loves it.
We really believe all we need to do is get people in to see the
When they're not on stage,
the creators are still working on the show, trying to increase the
number of laughs-per-minute, and fine-tuning so that little laughs
set up moderate laughs that set up big laughs.
"It's the ecosystem
of laughs," said Arnold.
They also train other
actors to work the show when they are absent. For example, with
Stromberg, Pearce Donley and Arnold opening the show in Milwaukee,
Robert O. Berdahl, Patrick Albanese and John Bush are keeping the
Minneapolis show hot. Pearce Donley noted that he'd spent four hours
recently working with a replacement on one 10-minute section. It
has to be right.
You might think a logical
step for such a successful show would be New York, but Stromberg
said a few producers who saw the show early counseled against taking
"They told us, 'You've
got such a good thing here. Why go to New York and risk all that?'"
No, this is too precious.
All three performers seem humbled by their success and by the ability
of the show to connect with audiences.
"As people are leaving,
they tell us incredible stories," said Arnold. "One said,
'This was the first time I've seen my father laugh in 21 years.'"
Espresso's" record, it may be around in 21 years to get
corny, 'Espresso' is funny
April 4, 1997
From its title, you might
think that the manic energy behind "Triple Espresso"
owes itself to designer coffee. In spite of the '90s name, however,
the hyperwackiness that ensues throughout this three-man variety
show has its roots in old-fashioned, crowd-pleasin' vaudeville.
For the next two months, the Music Box Theatre in Minneapolis will
be transformed almost nightly into the Triple Espresso Cafe, where
cheesy, pearly-toothed singer Hugh Butternut (Michael Pearce Donley)
perpetually celebrates his 20th anniversary on the coffee shop's
Like any lounge lizard
worth his sequins, Hugh bases his repertoire around old '70s nuggets.
His stage persona, so sincerely dorky that one can't help but laugh
along, lies somewhere between Elton John and Up With People.
After a supperpeppy opening
that involves audience banter, Hugh notices his two old show-biz
partners in the crowd. Buzz Maxwell and Bobby Bean (Bill Arnold
and Bob Stromberg), still smarting from the trio's breakup years
ago, eventually join Hugh onstage and recount the silly history
of their glory days in the limelight.
Of course, the brightest
limelight that Maxwell, Butternut and Bean ever shared may have
been a 60-watt bulb in the basement of a Kiwanis Club in 1974, but
no matter. The three still operate under the illusion that they
coulda, shoulda, woulda hit the big time.
owes its charm largely to the performers' ease in conveying shameless
corniness. The show's comic material, written by its three performers
and shaped by director William Partlan, spreads the laughter out
between each of the trio's specialties.
Highlights include Stromberg's
jovial physical comedy and Arnold's deadpan magic act (in which
he sheepishly asks the audience, "Could you all close your
eyes for a minute, please?"). Donley shines as the lead singer
in the group's ridiculous attempt to hit it big in Africa, belting
out a medley of dreadful old pop (including "Having My Baby"
and the theme from "Rocky") to an ill-conceived tribal
This three-man variety
show set in a coffee shop gets its manic energy from old-fashioned,
crowd-pleasin' vaudeville. Often laugh-out-loud funny, the material
is wholesome enough to appeal across generations.
Parting Shot is Funny, Spirited Triple Dose of Talent, Comedy
If "Triple Espresso"
is the Cricket Theatre's last shot, then it's pleasant to report
that the parting volley is funny, spirited and something that the
whole family will enjoy.
playing at the Cricket's former home in the Music Box Theatre, is
more an extended cabaret act than it is a play. It features the
diverse but considerable talents of musician-comedian Michael Pearce
Donley, deadpan magician Bill Arnold and singer-comic-mime Bob Stromberg.
For the better part of
two hours, these entertainers -- often involving the audience in
the fun -- display their individual and combined talents in a loose
story about the reunion of Maxwell, Butternut and Bean, a not very
talented or lucky trio of cabaret performers (not unlike themselves).
Much of the abundant humor
comes from the rather sad personality each of the men adopts in
bringing this story to life and laughter.
Donley is an ambitious
singer with grand plans but not much sense, as evidenced by his
accepting a bank-balance-busting gig on Zaire Cable TV. Arnold is
reclusive and angry, still steaming over the disaster that befell
the trio 20 years earlier when they blew their big chance on "The
Mike Douglas Show." Stromberg is an artist whose career is
steeped in doubt and good intention. He reached his zenith in the
'70s leading hootenannies on college campuses.
Hiding behind these meek,
self-deprecatory exteriors, the men revisit their failures, bringing
gales of laughter for their ineptness and inexperience. Arnold's
initial magic show, in which he inadvertently eliminates much of
the mystery from his art, is wonderful stuff, as is Stromberg's
emergence from obscurity as a mime.
But behind Arnold's fluffs,
Donley's flat notes and pathetic cabaret singing, and Stromberg's
feeble acoustic guitar-playing is plenty of talent to make the ineptness
It takes skill to be a
convincing failure, and these three have it in spades. When he isn't
fooling around, Arnold performs a few familiar tricks with a newspaper,
cups and bits of rope that will leave you scratching your head.Donley
is a breezy piano player with a winning comic touch and the ability
to move effectively into a number of pop singing styles. Stromberg's
physical gifts are impressive -- particularly as a man whose body
seems to move independently from his head.
When it's time to leave
the individual bits and join in song or dance, the three do it very
well. Their recreation of a Donley dream in which he seeks to outdo
his partners is a delightfully funny slow-motion battle set to the
theme from "Chariots of Fire."
Donley, Arnold and Stromberg
have been performing "Triple Espresso" to great
acclaim at conventions and business meetings for a couple of years.
This is their first gig in a theatre equipped with sophisticated
lighting and a full set. They look very comfortable, and could be
serving up "Triple Espresso" in similar theatres for some
time to come.
What's also nice to note
is that the trio gets its laughs without resorting to wounding personal
barbs, scatology or off-color jokes. There are no expletives to
be deleted in this show.
Espresso' turns seven"
May 1, 2003
The "highly caffeinated
comedy" show Triple Espresso celebrated its seventh
birthday during the month of April. Minnesota's own Michael Pearce
Donley, Bob Stromberg and Bill Arnold wrote the show in Donley's
basement and are the original performers.
All three original cast
members are back on stage at the Music Box Theatre performing the
show through the end of May. "We love to perform here in town.
It's our home and the Music Box, well, that's our theatre,"
is the story of three characters - a musician, magician and comic
- who are celebrating the 25-year anniversary of their "big
break." The original cast first performed the show at the Cricket
Theatre in April 1996, and it quickly became the highest grossing
show in the theater's history.
The comedy was moved to
the Music Box Theatre in the spring of 1997, where it has been performed
ever since. Soon after the move, the creators of the show developed
a dream of having the show play simultaneously across the country
and began training other actors to perform the three lead roles.
"The show has improved
over the last seven years," said Stromberg. "We have added
or even replaced parts of the show that work much better. We can
accomplish in 40 seconds what we used to do in three minutes."
"It's just gotten
tighter. We've tried to take away the holes in the show," said
Donley. "We are constantly working on ways to keep the laughs
moving and the dead spaces out."
Over the past seven years,
Triple Espresso has entertained
over 900,000 people in 16 cities and on two continents. Productions
of the show are running simultaneously in Minneapolis, San Diego
and Des Moines. The show has also played in Chicago, Seattle, Milwaukee,
Sarasota, Portland, and other regional theaters. The cast of the
show performed to continually sold-out audiences in Dublin, Ireland,
and just returned home from a nine-week run in London's exclusive
West End theater district. Triple
Espresso has grossed over $8 million locally and $22 million
"To think that when
we wrote this show in Mike Donley's basement, that it would open
in the West End of London is an unbelievable thing," said Stromberg.
The show's appeal and
success hinge on presenting a clean and funny show, according to
Stromberg. "I've often been disappointed with American comedy
because I'll laugh five or six times during a movie and think, 'I
really had a good laugh there.' When you come to Triple Espresso,
you actually see people wiping the tears off their faces from laughter,"
he said. "Providing people with an experience they can't get
elsewhere, that's quite a gratifying experience."
"In this day and
age people need a reason to laugh, and it really does the heart
good to laugh like that," said Donley. "It's always great
to be home, and the audiences here are so lively and ready to go
with it from moment one."
The Triple Espresso Company
is hoping to open shows full-time in Dublin, Toronto, Sweden, Denmark
"We pray that the
show would be a blessing every single night," said Stromberg.
"We really feel that God has answered those prayers and allowed
that to happen almost every night."
Seven years, sixteen cities,
and up to a million theatergoers later, Triple Espresso's
caffeine high refuses to wear off. This three-man vaudevillian cabaret
act, in fact, is among the most successful shows our town's ever
produced, still getting sellout crowds night after night for the
laugh-a-minute antics of the has-been trio Maxwell, Butternut, and
Bean. What's the big deal? Simply put, it really is that funny.
Oh, sure, it's theatrical comfort food, occasionally naughty but
never crossing the line into grandma-shocking. But if it doesn't
ask you to think, it does ask you to laugh—and you will laugh.
The plot is a piffle, really, a mere skeleton for the complementing
talents of Espresso's three originators—the wry, Newhartesque
Bill Arnold and his mock-incompetent magician's tricks, Michael
Pearce Donley's smarmy lounge-lizard, and the goofy dumb-guy antics
of Bob Stromberg, whose inspired gorilla imitation is one of the
show's highlights. Next on the Espresso agenda is a full-scale European
invasion, starting with Hamlet's turf—three Danish actors
just finished rehearsing here in Minneapolis and are set to open
the first-ever foreign-language version of the show later this summer
in Copenhagen. Music Box, 1407 Nicollet Ave., 612-874-1100, tripleespresso.com
Joins the Party - Six Years Later - Despite Itself!"
January 23, 2002
by Max Sparber
I should begin by pointing
out that the closing date listed above is merely a fiction of convenience:
June 30 is the date when the Music Box claims the show closes, and
we are repeating the claim here, despite our full knowledge that,
should some apocalyptic disaster befall the earth, all that would
remain would be cockroaches, gulls, and Triple Espresso.
Bill Arnold, Michael Pearce Donley and Bob Stromberg's comedy about
three failed entertainers has been going strong, in one incarnation
or another, since 1995, and it shows no sign of letting up.
Indeed, there is something
peculiar and fascinating about the economics of its enduring popularity.
After all, the luxurious Music Box Theatre is one of the priciest
rentals in town, costing just over three large bills per weekend
at last report. Even if we assume that Triple Espresso
has lowered its rental price by leasing the venue until the bitter
end of time itself, there is still the question of how they manage
to nearly sell out seven shows a weekwith a seven-year-old
The answer, of course,
lies in the creators' oft-repeated claim that they set out to write
"the funniest show in America." While Triple Espresso
is not that, precisely, it is the sort of rambunctious, knockabout
comedy that seems designed to separate the cognoscenti, who sneer
at this sort of thing, from the booboisiewho are then further
separated from their money, again and again, it seems.
And chic though it may
be to sneer, I will throw my hat in with the booboisie this time,
as Triple Espresso is about as much fun as can be had in
a theatre in the Twin Cities.
There is no plot to speak
of; the show consists instead of howlingly bad musical numbers,
magic tricks, and hand-shadow puppetry. But if you don't laugh,
loudly, about four times every minute while watching this show,
it's time to schedule that CAT scan. If this is where Twin Citians
want to spent their theatrical dollar, well, who can blame them?