Janesville Little Theatre was first conceived in the Summer of 1929 at the home of Mrs. H.S. Lovejoy. Malcolm Mouat and Hiram Nowlan, two Yale educated lawyers, along with their wives and several friends met to discuss forming a local "Little Theatre" similar to those that were popping up in the East. Among the founding members were Mr. and Mrs. Malcolm Mouat, Mrs. H.S. Lovejoy, Mr. and Mrs. Hiram Nowlan, Mr. and Mrs. Ernie Rost, Mr. and Mrs. John Gross, Miss Josephine Connors, Mrs. M.H. Fitzgerald, Miss Emily Moeser, and Mr. Leslie Minter. Mrs. Daisy Belle Munn, who was to become the "Grand Dame" of the theatre, had been invited, but was away at the time. The first officers chosen to lead Janesville Little Theatre included Malcolm Mouat as president, Jessica Gross as vice-president, and Emily Moeser as secretary.
At that first meeting, the group decided that it should be open to all and consequently called a public meeting in an attempt to interest as wide a segment of people as possible. They also appointed Nowlan and Mouat to draw up a meeting agenda and to invite Professor William C. Troutman, an expert on theatre organization at U.W. Madison to speak. The first public meeting was held in the Women’s Building around August 1, 1929.
A Strong Foundation
An Early JLT Logo
From the desire for a workable democratic organization, those at the August meeting decided the key was an elected Board of Directors. They determined that each individual who purchased a season ticket would become a voting member of the theatre. This membership would elect sixteen people, with equal numbers of men and women, to create a Board of Directors. Those sixteen elected members would choose sixteen additional members for the Board. Our longevity attests to the success of this basic plan, although the number of Board Members has been reduced as a thirty-two member board was somewhat impractical.
The care with which Janesville Little Theatre was organized probably contributed most to its initial success, but there were other factors. The stock market crash of 1929, which led to the Great Depression, was both a curse and a blessing to Janesville Little Theatre; it left people short on money, but long on time. Casts and crews had ample time to devote to theatre work and the public was looking for inexpensive entertainment. Season memberships at the time were $1.00 and remained at that price until World War II when the government's “entertainment tax” caused an increase to $1.20. To get the theatre started on a sound financial basis, Nowlan and Mouat were appointed by the Board to solicit loans of $50.00 each from ten local businessmen. They were so successful that they overshot their mark and collected $560.00 by the fall of 1929. While most of the businessmen who made the loans considered them more of a donation, they were all quite surprised when on June 4, 1934 the theatre had paid the debts in full. Financial independence has been a core value of Janesville Little Theatre ever since.
A Strong Beginning
Production Photo from The New Lady Bantock.
The first full length play selected for performance by Janesville Little Theatre was The New Lady Bantock, which was staged in the spring of 1930 in the auditorium of Marshall High School in what is now the Janesville Performing Arts Center. Unfortunately, not much is known about the production. The second production, Sir James Barrie’s The Admirable Crichton, on the other hand, was recalled vividly by many people at the time. Jim Gage led the large cast in the role of Crichton. It was an ambitious undertaking for the fledgling theatre: large cast, elaborate costumes, and multiple sets. They did have several advantages: time, enthusiasm, and a director, Leslie Minter, who was an Englishman. The play was successful and left the group unafraid to tackle difficult and challenging material provided it had popular appeal which remains one of the criteria for play selection to this day.
A Strong Growth
In 1932, the City of Janesville offered to create an auditorium on the second floor of the Janesville Public Library. This Library Auditorium would become the group's home for the next 50 years. It provided exactly the sort of setting the group needed to flourish. The intimate size was well suited for amateur productions, plus the group had unlimited use of the space. This meant they rather than play in front of 1000 people for one night only, the group could perform to smaller audiences over multiple nights. The extra performances meant more people were able to fit JLT into their schedules.
The space could serve as a meeting hall, performance space, and workshop. Their unlimited use of the facility also meant they could schedule performances on short notice. In the days before television the group produced several one-act plays each year, both as a way to train inexperienced actors and directors, but also fulfill the group's mission of experimental theater. JLT could have several one-act plays and projects in the works simultaenously. Once enough of them were ready, the group could announce a performance in the newspaper and people would come on short notice for an evening's entertainment.
With a permanent home and a properly sized venue, the quality of Janesville Little Theatre productions improved dramatically. Sets were elaborate and detailed and the plays were well rehearsed. Over the next several years Janesville Little Theatre scored some of it's largest critical successes. Janesville Little Theatre participated in the Wisconsin Dramatic Guild's annual Little Theatre festive five times winning three First Places and two Second Places.
At nearly 1800 members at a time when Janesville's population was less than 22,000 Janesville Little Theatre was, for a while, the largest community theater in the country relative to the size of the community. Janesville Little Theatre tried to spread it successes to other communities by hosting several seminars on community theater organizations for groups throughout the region.
A Strong Community
Production photo from The Barker (1937).
Another goal the founding group established was Janesville Little Theatre’s sense of service to the community. From 1931 to 1945 the theatre presented many free performances of children’s theatre such as When Toys Talk and Over the Hilltop and performed many children’s plays each season. World War II ended the practice and the advent of television precluded its resumption. Free performances for the elderly and infirmed have remained part of this tradition which began Feb. 4th, 1931 at Pinehurst Sanitarium with the final dress rehearsal performance of one of the season’s productions.
Curtain Call from Ramshackle Inn in the Library Auditorium.
For fifty years the Library Auditorium was Janesville Little Theatre's home. It was workshop, rehearsal space, meeting place, and above all performance hall. The auditorium was on the 2nd floor of the former Janesville Public Library building, which is now the Janesville Senior Center. The building was erected in 1902 through the generosity of philanthroper Andrew Carneige and is one of several "Carnegie Libraries" throughout in the country.
In 1932, City Manager Henry Traxler, who would go on to direct several plays for Little Theatre, approached the group and asked if they would be interested in using the 2nd floor of the Library building if the city finished it into an auditorium. The enthusiastic group jumped at the opportunity. To celebrate the opening of the Library Auditorium the group put on a very well received performance of William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night.
Janesville Little Theatre was founded by a group of people with no particular dramatic skills, merely an intrest in bringing the ideals of the Little Theatre Movement to Janesville. They represented the elite of Janesville Society at a time when the City was quite prosperous. They had a choice to either create an elite social group, which would have been much easier to organize and fund, or a civic group open to all. Wisely, they chose the later. The longevity of this group is a testament to the care and forward thinking with which they originally organized Janesville Little Theatre.
Josephine Connors We know that Miss Connors was a 1915 graduate of Janesville High School and a 1921 graduate of Notre Dame. She was well known in Janesville for her signing voice. She served on Janesville Little Theatre's first Board of Directors and may have led some of the first membership drives,
Chloris "Ty" Fitzgerald was the husband of Michael Fitzgerald, a wealthy oilman in Janesville. She was a prominent figure in the early years of Janesville Little Theatre. She was seen on stage numerous times and served several terms on our Board of Directors. She was also a frequent member of Janesville Public Library's Board of Directors. She passed away in 1967.
Daisy Belle Munn
Daisy was the wife of Dr. Wayne Munn, a prominent local physician and horse breeder. She was the life blood of Janesville Little Theatre for 37 years. She directed and starred in countless plays, gave dramatic readings, mentored new actors and directors and served dozens of terms of our Board of Directors. She became known as the Grand Dame of Janesville Little Theatre and when she retired from active participation in 1966, Janesville Little Theatre held a lavish gala in her honor.
We know that she moved to Milwaukee after retiring, but little else about what happened to her after that.
Jessica George Gross was the wife of Attorney John Gross. She starred in and directed a number of plays for Janesville Little Theatre. She had the rare distinction of directing future stage and screen star Kerwin Matthews in The Hasty Heart. She was an advocate for High School drama programs and served several terms on our Board of Directors. She was the first vice-president of Janesville Little Theatre.
Not much is known about Dolly Nowlan.
John Gross was an attorney who frequently acted in Janesville Little Theatre plays. He served several terms on our Board of Directors.
Julia Stow Lovejoy was the widow of wealthy lumber barron Allen P. Lovejoy. In addition to hosting the meeting at which Janesville Little Theatre was conceived, she was the first president of the Rock County Women’s Suffrage League. She was involved in the establishment of the first kindergarten in Janesville, the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, and Janesville’s first hospital. She also served for several years on the Janesville Public Library's Board of Directors. She lived well in to her 100s and was often referred to as “Janesville’s First Lady.” She passed away in 1953.
Emily Moeser Minter was a librarian at Janesville Public Library. She was Janesville Little Theatre's first secretary.
Malcolm Mouat was the grandson of Janesville founding father Henry Palmer. He studied law at Yale and was Janesville Little Theatre's first president. He was also president of Beloit College's Board of Trustees and later a trustee of Ripon College. He also served on the Higher Educational Aids Board for Governor Lucey.
Hiram "Hi" Nowlan was a Yale educated lawyer. He was Janesville Little Theatre's second president.
Nothing else but these names are known for the remaining founders: Leslie Minter Mrs. Malcolm Mouat Bess Rost Ernie Rost
Janesville Little Theatre has staged more than 300 major productions in its history in addition to scores of one-act plays, dramatic readings and musical programs. We have assembled what we believe is a complete list of all major productions since our first, The New Lady Bantock. After several decades, several moves, and several changes in leadership, a number of our records have been lost. If you have information about any of the productions you see here that you'd like to share with us, please contact us, we'd be glad to have help completing our records. Past Seasons