Friday, September 15, 2006

How A Stupid Joke Made One Man A Millionaire

Dan Goggin Story

Where do million-dollar ideas come from? Dan Goggin's began with a nun's habit -- a rather bizarre gift from a friend who thought Mr. Goggin, then a little-known composer and actor, might use it theatrically someday. Then, coincidentally, another pal offered up a Saks Fifth Avenue mannequin, which Mr. Goggin dressed in the habit and posed around his New York apartment (washing dishes was a favorite). Visitors laughed, and inspiration struck.

What follows is a true tale of how dead nuns, deadpan actors and an investor's $25,000 gamble turned into a small fortune. Twenty years after receiving his habit, the cherubic 60-year-old Mr. Goggin now heads an empire of musicals based on the premise that anything amusing is more amusing when a nun does it. His original 1980s off-Broadway production, "Nunsense," follows five sisters as they raise funds to bury convent members poisoned by bad vichyssoise -- cooked by none other than Sister Julia, Child of God. The production unfolds like a Carol Burnett variety show, with the sisters crooning through various skits, jousting with audiences and unleashing an unapologetic liturgy of tame ecumenical one-liners: "How do you make holy water? ... You boil the hell out of it!"

"Nunsense" ran for a decade. It became off-Broadway's second-longest-running musical, behind "The Fantasticks," before closing in 1995 and now is licensed to theaters world-wide. Real nuns and priests are among its most devoted fans. In fact, they often compete to land bit parts in performances where a portion of ticket proceeds go to charity. (One gutsy Baltimore sister recently sang "My God" to the tune of "My Guy," netting $1,200 for a nursing home.) Mr. Goggin has parlayed his idea into five equally irreverent spinoffs, including the all-male "A-Men"; the Christmas-themed "Nuncrackers" and most recently "Meshuggah-Nuns," which sticks the cast on a cruise ship.

To date, "Nunsense" and its sequels have grossed $300 million in ticket sales world-wide and earned Mr. Goggin some $7 million. The shows count Phyllis Diller, television's Georgia Engel and the late John Ritter among cast alumni. "I took a pay cut to play Mother Superior," says the 86-year-old Ms. Diller. "It's a funny show. A funny person can make it funnier. And I'm a funny person."

To put Mr. Goggin's success into some quick perspective: There were 1,192,967 would-be visionaries seeking a copyright, patent or trademark last year alone. While luck and timing certainly have a lot to do with creating hits, money-making visionaries share certain traits that distinguish them from the rest of us -- such as just how far they are willing to go to pursue a brainstorm.

Indeed, Mr. Goggin held on to his nun fixation through several incarnations before arriving at his theatrical cash cow. First, there was a line of greeting cards that featured a friend dressed in the habit. (One pictured her on a motorcycle with the message: "Hell, You're No Angel.") The friend made promotional appearances at stationery stores, doing some gags about raising funds for her poisoned convent sisters. "I remembered some people in New Jersey dying of botulism from canned vichyssoise soup in the '70s," Mr. Goggin says. By the end of 1981, he and three collaborators had sold 200,000 cards, each pocketing $5,000 after costs.

Not bad for a few laughs, but Mr. Goggin still didn't hang up the habit. Instead, he penned a tongue-in-cheek cabaret act, featuring three nuns, a priest and a brother. In 1983, the show landed a booking at a small Manhattan club called the Duplex, where it was scheduled to run four weekends; it ran for 38 weeks. Costs were covered but nobody was getting rich. Yet to his agent's dismay, Mr. Goggin wouldn't quit.

Intrigued that the nuns got all the laughs, he axed the priest and brother for the script that became "Nunsense." It featured five sisters, including Sister Mary Amnesia, a toothy country singer with a memory problem, and Sister Robert Anne, a reformed gang member who angles to get a bigger chunk of the spotlight. As Mr. Goggin conceived it, the sisters would do everything from singing (one standard: "Nunsense Is Habit Forming") to whipping up dishes from the "Baking with the BVM" cookbook -- BVM being the Blessed Virgin Mary, of course. That script got him space at a 99-seat theater -- at which point, Mr. Goggin recalls, "my agent made me promise that I'd give it one more shot and then move on to something else."

Eight weeks later, Mr. Goggin broke his promise. In the 1980s, when conspicuous consumption dominated the zeitgeist, theater-goers seemed taken with the nuns' simple humor, and the show played to nearly sold-out crowds. Believing his nuns had momentum, Mr. Goggin wanted to move "Nunsense" to off-Broadway. One problem: He needed $150,000. He didn't have any money, and he didn't know anyone who had money. So he gave away his entire producer's stake as a finder's fee to friends who turned up investors. One night someone brought a well-known financial writer, Andrew Tobias, to a performance. After sitting through an evening of wisecracks, the author cut a check for $25,000. "It was so much fun, and I thought, 'What is it doing at this silly little theater for five dollars?'" Mr. Tobias says.

With Mr. Tobias's blessing, Mr. Goggin made it to off-Broadway, only to have his faith tested once more. Audiences were enthusiastic, but they weren't big enough at first, and the theater moved to kick the production out. Still believing "Nunsense" had life in it, Mr. Goggin scrambled to raise $36,000 for a move to a more-trafficked location. Having already sold 100% of the production, he took the bold step of overselling the show by an additional 12% -- meaning if the show ever made real money, he'd have to make up the 12% to investors from his own pocket.

His bet paid off. In a bigger theater in Manhattan's bustling Sheridan Square, walk-in crowds kept audiences packed. A favorable New York Times nod, coupled with four Outer Critic's Circle Awards in 1986 -- including best off-Broadway musical -- pushed "Nunsense" to the tipping point. Mr. Goggin began licensing the show to amateur and stock theaters, including high schools and churches, and soon the royalties were coming in. "It's a cheap show to do," Mr. Goggin says. "At the end of the day, all you really need is five black sheets."

To date, the original $150,000 investment by early believers has brought them a $3 million return -- half a million dollars alone for Mr. Tobias, who now quips the best investment he ever made "was a comedy about dead nuns." Meantime, Mr. Goggin's sacrifices have cost him $1.5 million from his lost producer's stake; there are also continuing payouts for the extra 12% he sold. "My business manager cringes every time there's a royalty distribution, and I have to write a check back to those investors," he says. "But the whole thing wouldn't have happened otherwise." And it doesn't hurt, of course, that he's $7 million richer.

Reviews are occasionally less than divine. "What's missing is wit ... " sniped the Washington Post in January; "well-worn lines and wide-spaced gags," zinged the Louisville Courier-Journal. Mr. Goggin smiles patiently. "The critics have no say about 'Nunsense.' "

He also shrugs off suggestions that he's sold out creatively by milking one concept for so long. He estimates that about half of the audience members for the spinoff shows are repeat customers who've come to follow the sisters' next act. The brand awareness cuts back on the marketing costs most new shows face.

"Look, it wasn't broken," Mr. Goggin says of his original idea. "So I didn't fix it." What's more, he'll edit a work should anything offend his mainstay Bible Belt and Midwestern fan base. In previews of "Meshuggah-Nuns" in 2002, a nun asks a Jewish character: "If you're the chosen people, why did God make us?" The response: "Somebody has to pay retail." Says Mr. Goggin: "Minneapolis was horrified. So we took it out." He swears "Meshuggah-Nuns" will be his last nun-themed work -- then adds, "That's what I always say."

Overhead for his enterprise is virtually nil. There is no "headquarters," other than wherever Mr. Goggin happens to be -- which is usually either at his rent-stabilized Manhattan apartment or at a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., condo he bought for $140,000 in 1997 and now shares with his partner, Scott Robbins. Mr. Goggin runs a small merchandise business, Nunstuff, which operates from a dilapidated rental house in tiny Garrison, N.Y., where he once had a home. The sole employee is Walter Johnson, a 64-year-old retiree and Mr. Goggin's former neighbor, who is on-call 24 hours a day, seven days a week and does everything from rent habits and sell glow-in-the-dark rosaries to mow the lawn.

Nunsense still rules Mr. Goggin's life. Currently, he's financing a 20th-anniversary reunion tour of the original production out of his own pocket, with Mr. Robbins producing. They are in early talks with new investors about taking the show to Broadway. "To be that successful is not an accident," says Jed Bernstein, president of the League of American Theatres and Producers. "It's a rare and significant achievement in the business of theater."

Still, even Mr. Goggin doesn't expect his nuns' good fortune to last an eternity: The name of his company is TTM&R Inc. It stands for Take the Money and Run.

Watch Nunsense