The Perfect Journey

Boehlke in the lobby of his Jungle Theater.  Photo by Jerry Holt, Star Tribune.

Boehlke in the lobby of his Jungle Theater. Photo by Jerry Holt, Star Tribune.

“I like to do things in a beautiful way,” Bain Boehlke says. Looking around the lobby of his Jungle Theater, it’s hard to disagree. Green and gold floral carpet creates beautiful dissonance with walls the color of late autumn. Lamps and lanterns illuminate tasseled everything: tablecloths, light fixtures, window seats. Heavily curtained windows look out on Uptown’s late afternoon traffic. Mismatched furniture is elegantly arranged, every piece having had its fifteen minutes of fame on stage in one—or many—of the Jungle’s twenty five years of productions.

Boehlke points to the couch where I sit huddled over my notebook. “This is a gorgeous sofa,” he exclaims—an unexpected comment considering that seconds ago he had been discussing life lessons. “This fabric cost $300 a yard. It’s from France,” he continues. “This is a Sheraton sofa I’ve had at the theater for years. I got this really good fabric and recovered it.”

I look down at the couch I have been sitting on for the last hour; I had not noticed its dusty blue fabric. What makes Boehlke unique is that he does notice. His life’s work has been seeing potential in something others might overlook and transforming it into something truly special: his childhood basement, the red barn on the hill, the storefront in the seedy side of town. Boehlke is an artist. He finds his own canvas. 

Boehlke is months away from retirement. He has clocked in hundreds of thousands of hours as an actor, director, and entrepreneur. His life has revolved around the stage. Now the 75-year-old is about to make his next move, and-- for the first time-- considering the possibility that it might not be towards the theater. I ask if he is fatigued, tired of the many years he’s spent working in the arts. He takes a long pause before admitting he doesn’t know how to respond. I wait while he gathers his thoughts; a characteristic of his I’d never seen before and find surprising considering the talkative, longwinded man who’d been a guest speaker in my arts reporting class. Finally, he continues. “I know that its time for me to move on. The Jungle has been my home for 25 years,” he says. “It’s time to leave home again.”

Boehlke’s first home was in Warrod, Minnesota, a town of just over a thousand and so far north it might as well be Canada. His basement and garage became theaters in a town without an arts scene; home to productions and magic tricks that included sawing his sister in half. His breakout role; however, didn’t come until sixth grade when he directed a rendition of Bing Cosby’s Swinging on a Star in his Sixth Grade Jamboree. “Would you like to swing on a star/ Carry moon beans home in a jar/ Or would you rather be a mule?” Boehlke sings, his cheerful baritone sampling the song for me. “I had all the girls in the class in white robes. [The song] got sort of jivey. I had them whip their robes off and they were in bikinis,” he recalls.

It wasn’t until tenth grade that Boehlke saw his first professional play, Othello. “It was fully mounted, and there were arches, and big stone blocks and costumes. I was just swept away,” Boehlke says, still audibly excited some sixty years later. He was invited backstage where he saw that the grand arches he had so admired were nothing more than fabric and wood, further captivating him. “I could make all this,” he remembers thinking. “I could make in a box the whole world.”

Boehlke was on his way to piano lessons in St. Paul when he saw the barn overlooking the horseshoe-shaped lake. It was for sale. He called the owner and said he wanted to start a summer theater in the barn. Boehlke was 15 and his family had recently moved to Farmington, Minnesota. Thrilled to be closer to the arts scene, Boehlke desired to create a theater of his own, so he did. For the next two summers, young Boehlke directed shows like Dial M for Murder and The Diary of Ann Frank in the 10 by 30 foot barn with its burlap bag curtains and six rows of chairs borrowed from a local church. 

Years passed. Boehlke played many roles, both onstage and off. He was a worn-out student turned college dropout; an army spy in Berlin who enjoyed performing in extracurricular theater more than military life; an entrepreneur who began a traveling theater troupe. He was an actor who performed the classics in school gyms and churches for $5 a day; a co-founder and leading actor at the Minneapolis Children’s Theatre; Mr. Mora in Fargo; the Children’s Theatre’s long-term Ugly Step Mother. The list goes on.

“I was just a gypsie when I was your age,” Boehlke says looking at twenty-year-old me and speaking so passionately that—for a second—I contemplate quitting school to join a traveling theater troupe. “I never had a home. I was just a theater gypsie: going wherever, having fun, living communally and doing theater.”Boehlke got the idea for the Jungle at 50. The idea came to him on a beach south of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. He tucked the idea away. It didn’t reemerge until four years later when he moved back to the very Minneapolis neighborhood we now sit in and walked past two empty storefronts. Boehlke walked into the neighboring jewelry store and said he wanted to start a theater there. The jewelry storeowner granted him access to both storefronts, as well as his own, because the neighborhood was in decline. Years passed and the theater moved around the corner to its current location. It brought restaurants and publicity to a once drug-filled neighborhood. It gained funding and received glowing reviews. It survived a recession. It held both classic and contemporary productions.

I find myself wondering, “How did he know?” How did he see a barn and think to do a theater camp? How did he see a worn-down storefront and see a theater? How did he see an empty stage and envision the set not once, but for one hundred different plays? These ideas, he says, simply come to him, as if “delivered by the great postman in the sky."

“I followed my opportunity. If you don’t recognize opportunity then you won’t get what the universe has to deliver,” Boehlke says.

Now in his last season at the Jungle, I ask Boehlke about letting go. The posting for Boehlke’s successor has already yielded 45 applications, leaving me to wonder how he could possibly narrow it down and if any of the applicants—or even all 45 combined-- could ever fill his shoes. “It’s all a gamble,” Boehlke tells me. “I’m hoping that I will be able to turn [The Jungle] over and allow it its new life.”

Although Boehlke has no set plans for his retirement, that in no ways symbolizes stagnancy. “My life has always been about being productive. It might be fun being non-productive. I can do a play on the street, in the park, in the church, at a college!” he says, brainstorming as he speaks.

“I’ve never been settled,” he says contently. His retirement, it seems, will be no different. He entertains the possibility of living in different places for short amounts of time: Paris, Seattle, Hawaii. Boehlke will continue his “vital, groovy existence.”

“I’m changing,” he says. “I have other ideas, other thoughts, other plans, other possibilities, other realms.” 

With a full notebook and a head full of questions I wish I had more time to discuss, I ask Boehlke if he has any regrets. He looks at me and, in a voice that has played so many roles, says, “It’s all been the perfect journey.”

Gina Van ThommeComment