Don Bluth’s creativity flourishes on stage and screen
December 5, 2017
By Kenneth LaFave
Imagination, innovation and storytelling are the Triple Crown of creativity for Don Bluth, a self-made artist whose resume includes wild successes in arcade video games and animated features. It was Bluth who captivated millions of early arcade video game fans with Dragon’s Lair, and it was Bluth who delighted legions of youngsters in the ‘80s and ‘90s with The Secret of NIMH, An American Tail, The Land Before Time, All Dogs Go to Heaven and Anastasia.
To view Bluth’s current creative work, you need to brave the phalanx of retail that is Pima Crossing. Nestled in the northeast corner of the complex near Sherwin Williams Paint is the tiny Don Bluth Front Row Theatre. There, 12 months a year, Bluth exercises his passion for seeing stories unfold, not in frames of animation, but in the actions and dialogue of actors. He started producing plays and musicals in his home more than a decade ago, but moved into the snug confines of a public space in 2012.
“I have great interest in the theater for the way it tells stories to an audience. A well-told story can get rid of your prejudices and sweep the cobwebs from your brain,” said Bluth, now 80 but acting and sounding decades younger.
“We do six shows a year and one that’s a youth show,” he said. “We pick them by calculating what our audiences want to see and what we think they should see.”
Musicals are rare: “They cost up to $6,000 in royalties,” Bluth explained. The theater’s repertoire these days consists mostly of classic films retold onstage. This month’s offering is the theater’s annual holiday production of It’s a Wonderful Life. On the postage stamp of a stage, situated three-quarters in the round and seating an audience of 75 maximum, more than 30 actors play out the famous story of George Bailey, portrayed in the movie by Jimmy Stewart, who is shown what the world would have been like without him in it. January will bring another Jimmy Stewart movie adaptation: Harvey. (For a list of all upcoming shows and for ticket information, go to donbluthfrontrowtheatre.com.)
The man whose company created movies ranked among the top box-office grossing animated features (the Land Before Time franchise alone grossed more than $81 million) doesn’t really need to produce plays for small audiences. Why does he do it? Bluth answered in the negative:
“I was never very good at hobbies. I wouldn’t be caught dead on a golf course, and I’m good for about 20 minutes on the beach.” He simply has nothing else to do that might interest him.
But Cheryl Schaar, who directed It’s A Wonderful Life, believes the real reason has more to do with an urge to give. “I would say what drives Don is the need to uplift people,” Schaar said. “He is always talking about how theater can inspire, motivate and uplift the human spirit. In an often weary world, he just wants his audiences to leave the theater feeling uplifted and hopeful.”
His gifts keep on giving. Dragon’s Lair, which hit arcades with a wallop in 1983, still has its fans – so many of them that Bluth said he now has a movie version in the works. “For some reason, Dragon’s Lair is still being played. It’s just a linear game, not like the sophisticated video games today. But it has a following. Based on a lot of fan mail, I thought I’d run the idea up a flagpole and see how many people saluted.”
Bluth went on the fundraising site Indiegogo and asked for $500,000 to underwrite a Dragon’s Lair trailer, in anticipation of a complete movie. He raised $700,000. “We thought, ‘Wow, there is some interest here!’” Bluth said.
The project is underway. Bluth would prefer not to say much about the movie version, except that it will be a prequel, in which Dirk, the dopey knight in shining armor, is shown as a young squire, readying himself for a world of adventure… and misadventure. The princess he saved countless times in the original video game also will return.
“But she won’t be an airhead this time,” Bluth said. “You can’t do that anymore.”