Last Friday, I was at the Janesville Performing Arts Center as part of a sold-out crowd of over 600 audience members, laughing hysterically at the opening night performance of “Avenue Q.” It was a far cry from the first time I set foot in what was then the “old Marshall auditorium”or “old Janesville High School” in 1999.
At that time, JPAC was an idea, a dream, a vision. Janesville needed a true home for the arts, and anyone who stood in that auditorium could see the potential the space held to be a civic performing arts center.
Now, after witnessing dozens of performances in this building, it is hard to remember a time when JPAC wasn’t here, or how community theatre in Janesville existed without it. Yet that time was a mere eight years ago.
Prior to JPAC’s opening, local community theatre was as nomadic as a gypsy caravan, as scattered as wind-blown seed. I personally witnessed, either as a cast member or an audience member, performances at UW-Rock County, Kandu Industries, churches, high school auditoriums in Edgerton and Janesville, and even outdoors at Rotary Gardens.
Watching JPAC go from the dream stage…to the fundraising stage…to the construction stage…to an actual stage…was exciting to witness. After my good friend Laurel Canan was named executive director, we spent many hours brainstorming ideas to promote the new center, and one of the ideas that emerged was that the very first performance in the renovated space should be something completely local.
That project became “Janesville In Stages,” and before it was done, it involved literally hundreds of actors, singers and musicians, all of whom were directly or indirectly associated with the United Arts Alliance, the original group that took the lead on promoting a central home for the arts in Janesville.
The best way to describe the show is that it was a “historical musical drama.” The prologue featured two reporters, quoting from actual Janesville Gazette articles from 1919-20, setting the stage for the construction of the new Janesville High School. (The need for a “modern” high school arose from the growth spurred by the new General Motors factory.) All of the scenes in the play took place in the building itself, starting with the opening of the brand new high school in 1923; a wartime community meeting in 1943; the building’s conversion to a junior high in 1955; the retirement of a long-time teacher in 1974; and the same teacher visiting the empty, closed school in 1996.
One fictional character, a teacher named Robert Clark, is in every scene and we see him age from a student in 1923 to an elderly retiree in 1996. This character was played through the ages by three generations of the same family – father Dennis Vechinsky, son Kevin Vechinsky and grandson Logan Vechinsky.
The scenes were linked by an announcer, WCLO’s Ken Regez, who moved the chronology along with a timeline of events, including the founding of various arts groups. His narration was accompanied by video compiled by Dave Haldiman of Intentional Pictures. Musical accompaniment throughout was provided by the Beloit Janesville Symphony Orchestra and its conductor, Rob Tomaro. The entire performance was directed by Jim Tropp. And sprinkled liberally throughout the show were period-appropriate musical performances…amazing performances.
Even though the play was fiction, we worked in references to actual events and real people to give the audience a true picture of the community as well as its history with the arts. Other characters included Janesville’s first city manager, Henry Traxler; longtime Janesville high school principal Kenneth Bick; and the original J.P. Cullen. When researching the scene set in 1943, I discovered that the high school’s senior class president that year was someone I actually knew: Al Diotte, who stayed in Janesville and served for years as a Parker Pen executive. Al seemed very flattered when I asked his permission to include his younger self in the play.
When the big premiere night arrived, on Friday, September 10, 2004, we packed the house. Demand was so great to see the opening show, 100 extra chairs were set up along the sides of the auditorium. It was an incredible evening, and there are so many moments that jump into my memory…
- George Kiskunas, reprising the role he was born to play, Professor Harold Hill, singing “Ya Got Trouble” from The Music Man
- The Choral Union, an endless sea of singers, performing the “Hallelujah Chorus” with the BJSO
- The Badger Chordhawks singing “Battle Hymn of the Republic” as a tribute to the Janesville 99
- Dennis Vechinsky, reprising the role he was born to play, Tevye, singing “If I Were A Rich Man” from Fiddler on the Roof
- Bob Dailey’s surprise appearance onstage during one of the “timeline” sequences, to announce his arrival at WCLO in 1964, accompanied by a photo of him from that era
- Dozens of us on stage at the end of the show, facing the sold-out crowd, after four amazing vocalists belted out the song, “A New World” (which we re-christened “A New Stage”)
But my favorite moment of the evening occurred immediately afterward, when I introduced high school student Tom Strieker (who played Al Diotte) to the real Al Diotte. The reverence Tom showed toward Al was priceless, telling him what an honor it was to portray him on the stage.
The following night, Tony Bennett lit up the stage, the biggest star so far to appear at JPAC. That is the night most people seem to remember as JPAC’s “opening night.” But it was the night before that was JPAC’s true christening, when nearly 750 people watched as over 200 performers entertained them. It was at that point that Janesville had truly established one central civic gathering place for theatre, music, dance and art.
When I look at the final words I wrote for that play, they seem laughingly pretentious now. Nevertheless, they reflect the good feeling we all had about what we had accomplished. I wrote:
“They say a building is just a lifeless stack of bricks and mortar. But when so many lives pass through its doors, lives that leave here educated and enlightened, with a new appreciation of arts and academics…”
“When it touches so many different people over the years that they band together to preserve it for future generations to experience and appreciate…”
“Can it be said that it hasn’t taken on a life of its own? Can it be said that it doesn’t have a soul?”
“What you are seeing here tonight is the rebirth of this structure, resurrected and infused with a new life and a new sense of purpose.”
“And of course…a new stage.”
Eight years later, whether it’s as a cast member or an audience member, a packed JPAC house is still every bit as exhilarating.
I love to write, but my real job is sales manager for Lamar Outdoor Advertising, though most people know me from my past job with Forward Janesville. My other local writing projects include “Janesville In Stages,” the musical play that opened the Janesville Performing Arts Center in 2004. Since 2007, I have directed and co-produced radio plays broadcast live on WCLO in Janesville including “A Christmas Carol” (which won the station a Wisconsin Broadcasters Association award for Best Special Interest Programming), “It’s A Wonderful Life,” “Miracle on 34th Street” and “War of the Worlds.” I also wrote the script and narrated a 1940 film shot in Janesville called “Janesville In Reelife.” On stage, I have acted with Theatre Unlimited in “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast” (as Cogsworth) and “Camelot” (as Pellinore), in SpotLight on Kids’ “The Wizard of OZ” (as the Cowardly Lion), University Theatre’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (as Bottom) and JPAC’s “The Frogs” (as George Bernard Shaw). Sometimes you’ll hear me as guest host of the morning talk show on WCLO. iUniverse published my book of short stories in 2001,”Five Trips to the Edge.”