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Blog: Reflections of the world premiere of The Lion King

Production image from 2007 run of The Lion King

By Lisa Krohn, Director of Booking, Hennepin Theatre Trust

When Disney’s The Lion King made its world premiere in Minneapolis at the Orpheum Theatre in the summer of 1997 before heading to Broadway, I had been back in the Twin Cities for a little less than two years. I had chosen to end my previous career of training horses, and heeded the advice of my brother, Fred Krohn, to move back home and go to work for him. He was the President and CEO of Historic Theatre Group (HTG), the company he formed that managed the State and Orpheum theatres for the City of Minneapolis after he had led the effort to save both theatres from demolition. Hennepin Theatre Trust had not yet been formed, so I was working for HTG, helping Fred market shows he was booking for the newly restored theatres.

Ticket stub from Disney's The Lion King Aug. 2, 1997 at the historic Orpheum Theatre

Because Disney was keeping the show completely under wraps as it was coming together, we didn’t have full access to the Orpheum, but I remember feeling like something really big and important was happening, and being very excited to know it was happening in our city, in our theatre. Whenever I was lucky enough to peek into the Orpheum in the months that Disney was in the venue tweaking the show, it was buzzing with computer screens that were on tables, spread out throughout the main floor of the Orpheum, with no fewer than 30 creatives planning and pulling it all together for the opening in early July 1997. One of the biggest changes they made to the Orpheum Theatre to accommodate their vision was to cut a large hole in the stage floor to allow for the hydraulic lift to bring Pride Rock up from the lower level, at a cost (that they covered) of well over $1 million. Even though the touring production would not use this advanced technology, they wanted to make sure it would work properly in its New York home when the show opened at the New Amsterdam Theater in NYC later that fall.

A collection of signed Broadway tour posters. © 2008 Mark Vancleave

The genius of Julie Taymor, Tim Rice, Elton John, Lebo M and Garth Fagan was on display as the show came together, and when it opened at the Orpheum Theatre, word quickly spread that this was a show like no other and you’d better find a ticket if you could. During the preview performances, many parts were still getting final touches, and Thomas Schumacher and Peter Schneider from Disney had to step onto the stage a few times to explain to the audience what was happening while the issues were resolved. When the curtain went up on opening night in the Orphem, what unfolded became memories I will cherish forever. Then Disney CEO Michael Eisner was in the audience, along with Fred, me, my sister and her oldest daughter, a ten-year-old Lindsey Vonn. The future champion ski racer was confident and unafraid even back then, and she was determined to meet Mr. Eisner. When she saw him taking his seat a few rows behind us, she made a beeline for him, program and Sharpie in hand. Without hesitation, she introduced herself and politely asked him to autograph her program. He happily did, though I think he was a little surprised at her chutzpah!

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Don't let the music die #SaveOurStages image from NIVA

The history that has unfolded on the stage of the Orpheum Theatre is Minnesota’s history. Hennepin Theatre Trust stands with NIVA to request specific federal support for independent venues and promoters across the country during this shutdown. You can help #SaveOurStages with one quick letter to Minnesota lawmakers.

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When I finally could sit and watch the full production, it was even better than I could have imagined. As I’ve heard many say over the years, the first five minutes of The Lion King  is the best five minutes in live theater. If you have yet to see the show, you’re in for a treat!

Lisa Krohn and Lindsey Vonn at 1997 The Lion King premiere opening night party

Lisa Krohn and Lindsey Vonn, 1997

There was a huge opening night cast party planned at Dayton’s eighth floor auditorium, and it was decked out to feel like we were all in Africa with lush greenery and trees, copious food and drink, and music for dancing. Lindsey continued her quest to meet all cast members and secure autographs from all that she could identify. I certainly hope she still has that program since it’s a very special memento from a very special evening.

As many of you know, Disney’s The Lion King has gone on to be the third longest-running Broadway show in history, seen by over 100 million audience members worldwide, has won more than 70 major arts awards internationally and has 25 productions around the world. And to think it all started at our Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis.

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