He golfed with Mikhail Baryshnikov, witnessed David Copperfield's magic secrets backstage and persuaded Bob Dylan to buy the Orpheum Theatre.
During five decades as a Minneapolis entertainment promoter, Fred Krohn presented everything from "The Lion King" and "Riverdance" to Liza Minnelli and Kathy Griffin.
Krohn helped save and renovate the State, Orpheum and Pantages theaters on Hennepin Avenue. He co-produced one feature film (Dylan's "Renaldo & Clara") and one Broadway show (Jackie Mason's "Much Ado About Everything"). He promoted more than 7,400 live events in the Upper Midwest, chiefly the Twin Cities.
Krohn has stories to tell — and some he can't out of politeness or for legal reasons — and he does so in "Standing in the Wings," a self-published memoir (available at fredkrohn.com) with a foreword by Gordon Lightfoot, whom he presented in concert nearly 100 times.
On Krohn's watch, a young David Letterman bombed while opening for jazz singer Nancy Wilson. Prince jumped onstage during a Patti LaBelle concert. Krohn was kicked out of a Beatles press conference as a teen but later elbow-bumped with Ringo Starr before a 2015 concert ("a germophobe, even before COVID").
Krohn, who grew up in Hinsdale, Ill., writes of being a starstruck teen sitting in Judy Garland's Chicago dressing room, having used a fake press pass to interview her for a nonexistent publication while his mom waited in the car.
After being "big-name events chairman" as a student at Carleton College in Northfield, he used that faux press pass to hang out with Aretha Franklin in 1968 at the Minneapolis Auditorium, talking to her for an hour because her backup singers asked him to keep her awake.
Krohn, who has a law degree from the University of Minnesota, also detoured into politics briefly, working in the administrations of Minnesota governors Harold LeVander and Arne Carlson.
And he gives readers an up-close-and-personal taste of the Vancouver Olympics, where his niece, skier Lindsey Vonn, grabbed the gold.
It's not all sunshine and lollipops. The soft-spoken, introverted promoter chides Michael Bublé and Carol Burnett for their lack of loyalty after he promoted them first in the Twin Cities. And he shares his falling out with champion figure skater Dorothy Hamill when her costly show at the Orpheum flopped. (Ice in a theater?)
Krohn offers nearly 100 pages of appendices chronicling every event he promoted with the gross from ticket sales — a whopping $394,331,896 (more than $600 million in 2021 dollars). His return on investment was very respectable, showing a profit on 80% of his promotions.
Hands-on with everything, Krohn used to pick up his performers at the airport and drive them to their hotels. He'd often have drinks or dinner with them.
In 1974, Ella Fitzgerald left her $60,000 Russian sable coat at the Haberdashery, a downtown Minneapolis bar where patrons would toss empty peanut shells on the floor. Krohn went back to fetch it.
"It was ankle-length. It was the most beautiful fur coat I'd ever seen. Then to find it under the table covered in peanut shells? When I returned it to her the next day, it didn't bother her a bit."
Krohn, 75, retired in 2018, fed up with how corporate entities like Live Nation and AEG had squeezed out small promoters and the business had become less personal. "It just wasn't fun anymore," he said matter-of-factly.
In an interview this month in his Minneapolis condo, decorated with show posters, Krohn shared more than a few stories.
Negotiating with Dylan
In 1977, Dylan's brother, David Zimmerman, then working at a Minneapolis ad agency, turned to Krohn to help produce Dylan's self-made movie "Renaldo & Clara."
Krohn recalled: "Bob would always say: 'Do you understand what I'm trying to do with this movie?' I'd always say: 'Frankly, Bob, I don't. It's four hours long, the music seems to be on the cutting room floor, and I don't get your story line.' "
Undaunted, Krohn took the movie to the Cannes Film Festival but wasn't able to sell it to more than a half-dozen countries because Dylan didn't show up in Cannes. The film was eventually trimmed to two hours but tanked at the box office.
Another challenge was persuading Dylan to buy the Orpheum Theatre at about the same time. Krohn wasn't sure that Dylan "thinks in logical ways." But he was surprised when they huddled at the bard's farm in western Hennepin County with a multipage proposal that Krohn had prepared.
"He had an amazing understanding of real estate, and he knew just the questions to ask that were my Achilles heel," Krohn said.
Mostly, though, Dylan was "pretty secretive," Krohn said. He remembered the icon playing five shows at the Orpheum in 1992.
"You'd wait at the stage door at 10 of 8 for an 8 o'clock show. Bob wasn't there. The band was ready to go. He'd pull up, driving himself in a car, and he'd park in the Orpheum lot and hand out a setlist for that night."
Driving the Dietrich
After he booked actress/cabaret performer Marlene Dietrich in 1974, she personally mailed "Fred Krohn, impresario" (her words) detailed notes on how to produce her concert. The rehearsal schedule, the specific microphone, a special lighting gel from Europe (she wrote a reimbursement check), etc.
When he picked her up at the airport, she looked dumbfounded. "Why do you want to work with the Dietrich? You are too young to know of me."
There were a few hiccups. She rejected the Champagne at the hotel as "mouthwash" and he had trouble releasing her seatbelt in a borrowed Lincoln Town Car (she ended up crawling out).
But he got to see how the 73-year-old would de-age herself with a wig, makeup and gown that she was sewn into.
Over the years, he booked many old-school stars including Mickey Rooney, Carol Channing, Johnny Mathis, Tony Bennett, Cab Calloway, Nina Simone, Peggy Lee and Gregory Peck, who he said was "as friendly and personable as anybody could be."
"I probably should have been a promoter in the '40s," said Krohn, who grew up on vintage movies and TV variety shows. "The Charlton Hestons, the Gregory Pecks — those were my heroes."
Being an underdog
Back in the day, concert promoters operated regional fiefdoms where they controlled the action and the artists. So, to break in back in the 1970s, Krohn aimed for less mainstream artists like Kris Kristofferson, Dolly Parton and Manhattan Transfer.
Often, though, the newcomer couldn't get agents to return his phone calls.
"I flew to Los Angeles, went to Sunset Boulevard, knocked on the [agent's] door and said, 'Give me 10 minutes and I'll pitch why Manhattan Transfer should play in Minneapolis.' " He got the booking.
Krohn even cold-called famed New York producer Joe Papp in person, which eventually led to "A Chorus Line," the Orpheum's first Broadway show, in 1979.
In 1997, the Orpheum presented the world premiere of "The Lion King," which went on to become a Broadway smash.
At the after-party, Krohn's teenage niece, Lindsey, had the chutzpah to approach Disney poobah Michael Eisner at his private table.
"She was always a brave little girl. I babysat for her many times. She always had a crazy idea. Like driving a car at 14. Or go-karting. Or riding bareback on a horse. Or putting one of her triplet younger siblings on the horse, and having the horse buck her off and break her arm.
"Speed. You never wanted to follow Lindsey if she was driving somewhere because she took the curves a little faster than I might."
Art vs. commerce
"I booked everything I wanted to see. If you looked at [ticket sales] themselves, you'd be horrified. But if you looked at the bar tabs, the ticketing fees and other revenue streams, it made perfect sense."
One crucial factor: Krohn was able to hold onto the money from advance ticket sales, through the deal he cut with Ticketmaster.
With Broadway shows typically going on sale a year early, Krohn might be sitting on $10 million to $15 million in ticket revenue to invest. "It was almost guaranteed 2½ percent" in annual interest, he recalled. "Back in the day, it was very rewarding. Those days are gone."
Krohn was open to out-of-the-ordinary presentations like "Nutcracker on Ice" starring Olympic figure skating champion Dorothy Hamill in 1989.
"The first year we couldn't sell tickets fast enough," he said. "The second year, we brought the same exact show and people didn't want to see it again. We had hundreds of thousands of dollars invested because Dorothy had to hire her great skaters, there were sets, and we had to bring ice into the floor of the Orpheum."
Krohn declined to pay Hamill her full fee, a message he delivered before the final performance.
"That was painful," he said. "And I don't think Dorothy Hamill will ever talk to me again. Worse things have happened."
Krohn's career highlights
First show: Gordon Lightfoot, Jan. 23, 1972, O'Shaughnessy Auditorium.
Last show: Max Raabe, April 21, 2018, Pantages Theatre.
Most profitable: "Riverdance," presented for 10 runs between 1997 and 2016.
Biggest loss: $150,000 for Dorothy Hamill's 1990 "Nutcracker on Ice."
Best concert performer he presented: Tom Waits.
Biggest thrill: World premiere of "The Lion King."
Most unforgettable character: Broadway press agent Horace Greeley McNab. "He was short, mustachioed and dapper, and came to town for 'A Chorus Line' in 1979 with more wardrobe changes than any of the show's cast."