Dick Mueller’s Firehouse Dinner Theatre put Omaha’s Old Market on the mapMar 02, 2023 01:13PM ● By Leo Adam Biga
Photo by New Horizons
Dick Mueller, 85, is awash in memories of the Firehouse Dinner Theater, the equity house he opened in 1972 in his hometown Omaha’s then-fledgling Old Market. He repurposed a former fire station at 11th and Jackson into the theater, which proved, Mueller said, an “instant success,” hastening the district’s transition from derelict wholesale produce center to cool arts-entertainment hub.
Before the Firehouse, he followed a circuitous show business path as a nightclub performer and stage actor. His musician father played trumpet in his own Mueller Rhythm orchestra, in which Dick’s older brothers played. Dick played trombone in the Omaha Central High band, but his true talent was singing. “My first hero was probably Bing Crosby,” he said.
Mueller sang in the choir at Central, where he and fellow teenagers Rich Hansen, Bill Snyder and Bob Larsen formed The Stylemasters doo-wop quartet. Patterned after The Mills Brothers, they shined in Central’s annual Road Show and around town. They decided to try their harmonizations out west.
Singing groups were all the rage and after testing the waters at a resort in Sun Valley, Idaho, the quartet signed with the Hammond/Romeo talent agency in Omaha, touring Canada and the U.S., opening for Sophie Tucker in Winnipeg. They were a hot number at the Chi, Chi supper club in Palm Springs. They sang on the nationally televised Arthur Godfrey show in 1957. Their one chance to play Las Vegas was interrupted by a U.S, Army hitch.
Meanwhile, The Stylemasters cut singles on the Foremost label. That led to a Capitol Records deal.
The members got drafted into military service in 1959. “Our military career was kind of interesting,” Mueller said. “We had to go through basic (training), but as soon as that was over we joined the U.S. Army Field Band in Washington D.C. as the featured act.”
While in the service they signed with Epic Records, changing their name to The Bachelors and releasing “The Bachelor’s Club”/“Do The Madison.”
“We came close to having some hits, but we were late to the game,” he said. “We had a good run though.”
While in New York for a recording session, Mueller found himself in the theater district. “I bought a standing room ticket for $3 and saw the original production of My Fair Lady. Until then,” he said, “I had no idea what theater was. I thought the ultimate entertainment experience was in a nightclub. It really changed my life, those three hours..” He said he learned magical theater moments “have to do with what happens between a playwright, a good director and good actors telling a good story,” adding, “It doesn’t happen very often, but you’ve got to have some, otherwise you stop going back to the theater.”
He booked The Bachelors at a Wichita club they always sold out to test their commitment to touring clubs. They still packed the place, but the thrill was gone. “I knew it was over. We all felt the same way.”
Back home, stage fixtures Norm and Louise Filbert and Rudyard Norton took him under their wing. Mueller got cast as Tony in Westside Story at The Chanticleer Theatre, then in Bye Bye Birdie at the Omaha Community Playhouse and in The Fantastiks at the old Jewish Community Center. “That’s quite a baptism for somebody who’d really never trod the boards before,” he said. “That solidified my love for the theater.”
He made his living from an Old Market shop, Dictates, he and business partner Rusty Harmsen opened. “We were kind of pioneers down there,” Mueller said. “I really loved the Market back then. There were no franchises.”
Harmsen created Old Market staples Mr. Toad's, Billy Frogg's and the Spaghetti Works.
Already bitten by the acting bug, Mueller left Omaha again, this time to try the New York theater scene. He landed a summer stock gig in Saratoga.
“Ten big shows in ten weeks and I played the lead in almost all of them. It was a killer. If you can survive that, you can survive anything.”
He found acting work closer to home at the Chanhassen Dinner Theatres in Minnesota. There, he met an actress, MariJane Sullivan, who became his wife and the mother of their two children. Intrigued by the dinner-and-a-show model, he researched an operation in Denver to inform his “wild-haired notion to open a dinner theater in Omaha.”
Before pursuing his dream, he and MariJane played opposite each other in a Playhouse production of Man of La Mancha that earned them the prestigious Fonda/McGuire Award named after its famous alumni, Henry Fonda and Dorothy McGuire. Years later, Mueller accepted the state’s highest tourism honor, the Henry Fonda Award, for “the leadership, vision and dedication” that made the Firehouse a must-see experience. Mueller soon intersected with not only the legacy of Fonda, but the man.
Playing with Fire
Mueller raised the money to buy the former fire station, now home to Upstream Brewery, as the site of his theater. Since he couldn’t afford to build a kitchen, Hap Abraham catered the food. The opening show was Butterflies are Free.
Muller adapted as a personal philosophy something a New York acting coach taught him about the ‘now’ moment. “Try to be aware of the potential of the moment because we live our lives in moments,” Mueller said. “At the Firehouse one moment led to something else, which led to something else, which led to something else.” His association with Fonda is a perfect example. He met the iconic actor backstage after a Broadway performance of Fonda’s one-man show, Clarence Darrow. When Fonda performed it in Omaha, the Firehouse hosted a tribute night for him.
“There was a dinner and some speeches,” Mueller recalled. “The American Bar Association named him man of the year for his portrayal of Darrow. Henry came up to speak. It was a lovely night. I loved the fact it was done at the Firehouse. It was a big night for the theater. Hank wrote me a lovely thank you note.”
Dick and MariJane joined Fonda and wife Shirlee for a private dinner at the home of Harold and Emmy Gifford (Emmy founded the children’s theater that became The Rose).
Fonda even showed up for a private Firehouse tour. “I showed him around,” Mueller said. “He was quite enamored with it.”
Mueller once visited the Fondas at their Bel Air home overlooking Catalina Island.
“An incredibly beautiful view. And there was Henry Fonda out back in jeans and T-shirt working with a spade in his garden, sweating like a stuck pig. He was a farmer. He kept chickens because he thought their poop was good for the garden. He made his own honey. I spent the whole damn day with them. They were very nice. Then Hank excused himself to get cleaned up and dressed to go do The Tonight Show (with fellow Nebraskan Johnny Carson)."
But the Fonda connection didn’t end there. It extended to a close friend of the actor’s – playwright, stage and film director Josh Logan (South Pacific) – who came into Mueller’s orbit through Leland Ball, the director of dozens of Firehouse shows, including the world premiere of his own Red Dawg. It became the theater’s biggest box office success.
Years earlier, Logan directed Fonda in his greatest stage triumph, Mister Roberts. Mueller mounted a Firehouse production of it, admitting he shamefully stole from Fonda’s performance as the title character.
Mueller and Logan hit it off so well the artist came to Omaha to direct two of his earliest Broadway hits, Nothing But the Truth and Charley’s Aunt. In a revue, Logan regaled audiences about his rich life and career, from studying with Stanislavsky at the Moscow Art Theatre to directing Marilyn Monroe in Bus Stop and Marlon Brando in Sayonara to living-working with manic depression. Mueller was proud to call the stage-screen legend “my friend.”
“Josh loved working here. He wrote a beautiful open letter to Omaha about the theater. He was beautiful to work with. He was a sweetheart.”
The book for the show that netted Mueller the Playhouse’s Fonda award, Man of La Mancha, was written by Dale Wasserman, who came into Mueller’s life via Logan. The writer was another hero of Mueller’s. “I was just smitten with that show (winner of multiple Tony Awards). I was desperate to see the original Broadway production but never got around to it. Finally, MariJane and I found ourselves in New York, where it was still playing, but the original cast had long since left the show.”
At the matinee they attended, the couple and the rest of the audience were delighted when announced the original cast was back for that performance. “That was a religious experience for me,” Mueller said.
The Firehouse ended up staging the world premiere of Wasserman’s Shakespeare and the Indians starring American Old West folk balladeer Bobby Bridger. “We were very proud of that,” Mueller said. “It ran for 16 weeks.” There was talk of taking it to Broadway, but it never happened.
In the Moment
Mueller’s penchant for pivoting at a moment’s notice to tackle new opportunities fit with his spontaneous, living-on-the-edge nature.
“We were a dinner theater doing world premieres of original new work. That was very unusual. Dinner theaters didn’t have the budgets and the courage to take the risk of doing that.”
Responding as the spirit moved him, he said, “enabled us to take on some exciting shows.”
His Golden Boy instincts made the Firehouse a leading Omaha tourist stop, with theatergoers coming from all around the Heartland, many bussing in as groups. He takes pride in the fact the Firehouse became a Midwest destination.
“I think we had a lot to do with the acceptance of the Old Market as a safe, popular place to go.”
He agrees with a New York Times writer who wrote that the Firehouse and the Old Market “grew up together,” each helping legitimize the other.
At its peak, Mueller said, the theater grossed close to $2 million annually, drawing tens of thousands of patrons. The Wine Cellar was a popular bar-eatery that operated downstairs.
Many Nebraska natives who went on to acting fame got their start at the Firehouse, including Dick Christie and John Beasley. Mueller, who’s acted in movies and commercials, acted there himself.
“When we first started I thought of myself as an actor.
I acted in 20 shows those two decades, so it wasn’t really an ego trip for me. I didn’t think of myself as a director at the beginning, but I became a pretty damn good director. I loved casting, too.”
He sometimes joined the Firehouse Brigade pre-show, whose singers-dancers doubled as wait staff.
Wearing multiple hats as actor, director, producer and entrepreneur, he said, suited his personality.
“That’s why it was so perfect for me. I wanted to do it all, but I wanted to do it at my pace because it was my ball and bat.”
Thus, he could pick and choose his creative roles.
“It was a perfect theater career for me. I got to do what I wanted to do. I was spoiled.”
He was among the founders of the Omaha affinity organization that today is called the Theatre Arts Guild or TAG. It advocates for theater artists and recognizes their work with an annual awards program.
The independent-minded Mueller is not much of a joiner. “I’m a strange cat. I don’t like committees.”
End of an Era
Dinner theaters were once abundant in America. Omaha was home to several. None remain here today and scant few remain anywhere. The appeal of taking in a dinner and a show wore off as people’s lives got busier and the idea of a four or five hour experience became a hard sell.
For more than a decade, Mueller put on whatever struck his fancy and audiences filled the seats. By the end, he said, “it became more, what the hell can we do that will sell tickets?”
By the late 1980s, Mueller struggled drawing crowds and keeping the theater afloat. It got so bad, he declared bankruptcy. In a last-gasp effort to try and save it, he turned it from a for-profit to a not-for-profit with a board to answer to.
“Looking back on it. it was a folly, a fool’s game for me to go that route. It didn’t work. I don’t like the nonprofit world.”
By the time the theater closed in 1991 and its fixtures got auctioned off, he and MariJane had divorced.
He married actress Patricia Kies. “Our lives were the theater,” he said. The couple were part of Great Plains Theatre Conference new play readings. They co-starred in the 2007 Blue Barn Theatre production of Edward Albee’s Seascape.
“That piece of material really spoke to me,” Mueller said. “I loved doing it.”
At this point, he said, “I would only consider taking a part in a show I really want to do with people I really want to work with. Otherwise, I don’t need to be on stage anymore. Pat doesn’t either. We’ve done it.”
He makes nostalgic posts about the Firehouse, complete with play bills, on Facebook. “It’s fun. People seem to love it.”
He’s digitizing the theater’s extensive archive to make it searchable. “Maybe online is the last repository for all that memorabilia.”
This story was originally featured on New Horizons, an Eastern Nebraska Office of Aging publication.