Wayzata Beach is not a place one usually associates with princess parties. But it has become a site for frilly dresses, tiaras and magic. That's because every Thursday in July, Nicole Fenstad kept scores of tykes and their chaperones riveted against the picturesque backdrop of Lake Minnetonka.
Dressed in an Elsa-esque light blue gown and joined by fellow actor Annie Tillotson, Fenstad transported her weekly audiences into the fairy tale worlds of princesses. The two performers shared stories and musical numbers as the Frozen Sisters for the giddy youngsters, many in princess outfits lining up to touch the stars.
"I like to bring a little magic" to the audience, Fenstad said.
The Wayzata Beach engagement was one of many in an overstuffed dance card for Fenstad, a singer, dancer, actor and successful entrepreneur who is perhaps the hardest working entertainer in Minnesota. A veteran performer with youthful energy and a star aura, Fenstad headlined over 700 gigs last year. She slipped into dozens of characters to entertain everyone from preschoolers to a 90-year-old who wanted to have a Marilyn Monroe look-alike purr happy birthday to him.
Fenstad has carved out a unique niche in the Twin Cities theater world. Having performed on stages such as Chanhassen Dinner Theatres and the Ordway Center, she takes her professional skills to intimate settings such as living rooms and classrooms as well as the great outdoors such as parks and beaches, and also to the Golden Valley Country Club.
Hers is an up-close-and-personal type of theater that plays to fantasies of the audience as she transforms into over 70 characters, including Wonder Woman, Peter Pan, princesses and superheroes not to mention scientists and astronauts. She also does theme parties for grown-ups.
"From the first time I met Nicole, even without kids, I knew she would be great for kids," said Matthew Eickman, a father of three who also is president of a pest control company that sponsored the Wayzata Beach performances. "She is completely engaging and captivating. When she's performing, it's the most still you will see a child — at least my children."
Over the past 15 years, Fenstad has built a thriving business, Princess Party Pals, that now employs about a dozen actors.
"It's not what I planned to do, but I would not want to be doing anything else," Fenstad said. "I get to use all my skills for something I love, which is helping people tap into their imaginations and dreams. How many people get to say that?"
The Big Apple calling
The oldest and only girl of Roger and Janice Fenstad's four children, she was born in Kansas City, Mo., and reared in Fargo. Her mom taught piano; her dad was a civil engineer. The family supported her many extracurricular interests, especially gymnastics and dance. From an early age, she dreamed of performing under the lights on Broadway.
After graduating with a theater degree from Minnesota State University, Moorhead, Fenstad moved to the Big Apple in the mid-1990s to give it a go. But she found theater in the city a tough nut to crack.
Fenstad recalled being turned away from auditions because she was not a member of the professional Actors' Equity union and then landing jobs on cruise ships and in nonunion national tours.
But she's dogged, and kept returning to New York, where her odd jobs included shoe modeling, transcribing scripts and working in restaurants. Finally, the fates seemed to intervene with an exclamation point.
On Jan. 5, 2005, a fire gutted her fourth-floor walkup New York apartment. Shell-shocked and distraught, Fenstad landed a job on a cruise ship that she thought would help her clear her head. But the time away from the Big Apple loosened her ties to Manhattan and eventually took her away from the city for good.
She eventually returned to the Twin Cities, where she had built strong connections. After all, she had performed numerous times at Chanhassen, including playing Frenchy in "Grease" while understudying Laura Osnes as Sandy.
Renewed and resilient
The fire was an opportunity for rebirth and new dreams.
"My Broadway is here and so much better than I ever dreamed it could be," Fenstad said.
That personal Broadway is a business where she gets to be a superstar to awe-truck kids. At the Wayzata gig, parents and kids alike treated her like an approachable Beyoncé or Taylor Swift. And the connection to the audience gives her a sense of fulfillment.
"It hasn't been all rainbows and butterflies — no one succeeds without falling flat on their faces a couple of times," said Zoe Courneya, an actor, longtime friend and parent of two youngsters for whom Fenstad has given parties. "This is all word of mouth and there's princess party competition out there. But no one works harder than Nicole."
While building a business from scratch is all-consuming, Fenstad, who is single and has a pooch named Gigi, finds time to give back to community, volunteering at Children's Minnesota to cheer up kids at the hospital.
Fenstad did not originate the idea of Princess Party Pals. The light bulb first went off in 1998 in Washington, D.C., when one of her fellow cast members from a tour of "Grease" that they had done in Brazil hired Fenstad to fill in for her at a children's party. She got a glimpse of the joy that she could bring to kids with her costumes and words.
"Any parent knows that they can repeat the same thing to their kids a hundred times, and they don't hear it," Fenstad said. "But if a princess is telling you to be nice or teaching you about bullying, it's almost gospel."
She lives her calling 24/7. There are theater and princess references everywhere at her home, from books to tchotchkes. Her desk in her home office sits under a chandelier that resembles Cinderella's carriage. It is there that Fenstad fields calls and answers bookings in a manner that would make Mary Poppins, one of the characters she plays, proud.
Her passion also fills up other spaces in her house. There's a whole room dedicated just to her wigs. And another one for her nearly 100 costumes. Props, face paint, red carpets and bins of arts and crafts supplies are stored in her garage. She also has built a studio downstairs that she used for online shows during the pandemic to keep her business alive.
Her success has thrilled Chanhassen co-owner and artistic director Michael Brindisi, one of her former directors.
"I call her a quadruple threat — she sings, she dances, she acts and is very funny," Brindisi said.
As Fenstad sang to the children on the beach, it was clear that she's living her best life.
"At one point, I wanted to be a kindergarten teacher, because I love children and want to help them grow into good people," she said.
The actor pointed to Cinderella, a character she frequently plays, and said she talks to children about the negatives of bullying and how not to be like the stepsisters. She asks of the children what she would of adults. "Can we choose kindness?"
She added: "I have an incredible opportunity to help mold kids to be the best that they can be."