The show goes on at Teatro ZinZanni
By Tim Talevich
“WHAT WE’VE FOUND is that people love to celebrate special occasions here—their birthdays, their
anniversaries, where they bring long-lost relatives
when they want to show them a special thing to do
in San Francisco or Seattle,” says Norm Langill.
“We’ve become a destination.”
We’re in Seattle, sitting at a table in an ornately
decorated spiegeltent, a century-old “mirror-tent”
meant for traveling shows, imported from Belgium.
The subject is Teatro ZinZanni, a bold dinner-caba-ret show that Langill’s nonprofit arts organization,
One Reel, created a decade ago. It’s an hour before
the extravaganza begins, and I’m wondering how
this offbeat, spendy show not only survived 2009,
but actually has plans to expand. Langill suggests
that even in a recession people are willing to pay for
something very special for very special occasions.
The company, a Costco member, found a niche
and is making it work, in good times and bad. “It’s
become a place where people celebrate or have a
special moment in their lives,” says Langill, the
show’s artistic director. Case in point: About 60 percent of Teatro’s customers are repeat visitors.
Surprises come in droves when the topic is
Teatro ZinZanni. The show, currently offered in
Seattle and San Francisco, defies definition. It’s a
blend of vaudeville, modern dance, comedy, improv,
gymnastics, opera, live music and more, all loosely
linked through a plot that plays out on the spiegeltent
floor over three peripatetic hours and a five-course
The setting is a big part of the draw. Nearly three
stories high and 72 feet across, the spiegeltent’s interior
is adorned with rich velvet drapery and gold brocade.
Its walls are covered with mirrors and stained glass
that complement hand-carved interior columns.
Langill created Teatro ZinZanni (the name is
nonsensical, but the Italian zanni is the origin of
“zany”) as an event for One Reel to produce during
the winter, when they weren’t busy with summer
shows. In the early 1990s, he stumbled across a
spiegeltent in Barcelona and immediately began
dreaming of the possibilities of a dinner theater in it.
He was able to persuade the tent’s owners—
descendants of renowned craftsman Willem Klessens, the
tent’s builder—to allow the tent to come to America,
and the show debuted in Seattle in 1998.
The best-laid plans
The original plan, Langill relates, was for Teatro
ZinZanni to run for six weeks. But it opened to rave
reviews and ran for 14 sold-out months. “It was a
huge hit from about the first week onward,” he says.
“And in show business, when you get a hit, it’s a rare
occurrence, so we thought, ‘Well, we’d better learn
how to do this long term.’ ”
That meant finding a second spiegeltent and
adding a show in San Francisco; building a solid
company of 150 employees; and, most important,
maintaining the show’s trademark spontaneity and
appeal. For the last point, completely new shows are
introduced about three times a year.
The version playing on a Thursday night in
September in the spiegeltent in Seattle was “Bottega
ZinZanni.” Its hero is Caesar, a once famous figure
in the European fashion world whose purple hair
36 The Costco Connection NOVEMBER 2009