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History

 
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Second oldest Children's Theatre in America

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Founded in 1951, Davenport Junior Theatre is the second oldest children's theatre in America maintaining the mission of "Theatre for Kids, by Kids." Co-founders Leone Bredbeck and Mary Fluhrer Nighswander developed the idea of theatre instruction and performance for Quad-City Area youth. From these ideas, Davenport Junior Theatre was born. Because of the work of its founders, Junior Theatre has been able to spend the past six decades giving area youth the opportunity to learn to speak clearly, confidently and creatively in any social setting.

Originally known as the "Gypsy camp," Junior Theatre rehearsed and performed in various parks, theatres, and churches. The dream of a permanent home came true in 1976 when the City of Davenport bought the Annie Wittenmyer Complex and designated three cottages and the chapel for the program. Over the next four years, Junior Theatre, Inc. invested approximately $750,000 and countless volunteer hours toward its renovation.

The cottages have become offices, technical and rehearsal spaces, while the chapel has become Junior Theatre's very own Nighswander Theatre, named for our founder (Mary Fluhrer Nighswander). In this space, Junior Theatre is flourishing, and now includes many acting, musical theatre and technical theatre classes, as well as Junior Theatre's Mainstage Acting Company. In the summer, we offer Performing Arts Camps at the complex.

Junior Theatre also recently began offering dance classes. This new branch of programming will allow students the opportunity to immerse themselves futher in the performing arts.

Despite all of its recent changes, Junior Theatre is proud to recognize its strong historical roots. Its mascot, Showtime Pal, which was developed in 1955 with the help of Leone Bredbeck, continues to teach children about theatre, as well as entertain. Junior Theatre also has an active and ongoing commitment to engage our alumni, who are always more than willing to return and contribute their skills or swing by and say hello.

In the last few years, our facility has seen many new changes. Our most recent addition is our new 40 car parking lot right in front of the theatre! We have also recently remodeled our lobby, received a new roof, additional lighting and sound equipment, a new dance floor, started our online newsletter, and continue to strive towards excellence in all we do.

These improvements would not be possible if it were not for the healthy collaboration between Davenport Parks and Recreation and Junior Theatre, Inc. All involved at Junior Theatre are grateful for the hard work of both organizations.

With a powerful history and strong community-wide support, Davenport Junior Theatre is looking ahead to its bright future of successful theatre and arts programming for all youth in the greater Quad Cities area.

Our Founder - Mary Fluhrer Nighswander

Davenport Junior Theatre was first the dream of Mary Fluhrer Nighswander. She held on to that dream through many years, fighting for it, living it, and always working to make it better.

When we think of Mary today, we tend to remember her August years. We see the determined woman with a spark in her eyes and high expectations for everyone around her, but do we know much about her life before Junior Theatre?

Mary's parents were missionaries in Korea when she was born in 1907, and she lived there through much of her childhood. She evaded cholera and survived diptheria and the influenza pandemic. Later, her family fled Korea in the wake of the Japanese occupation, arriving in the United States just after Mary's twelfth birthday.

She had a love of acting from early childhood, leading her to Maryville College in Tennessee. After graduation, she went to New York to pursue a career on stage, and studied for another year at the prestigious American Academy. Mary didn't tell anyone about her degree because "college kids always thought they knew more than experienced actors."

At the age of twenty-two, she was hired to work on a repertory circuit in upstate New York. That's where she met George Fluhrer, a veteran of World War I and an actor on the circuit. He proposed on stage, under his breath, in front of a live audience that had no idea what was happening.

They were married and continued on the circuit. After the birth of their three children, George landed a more permanent job in Davenport. Tragically, however, George died of a ruptured appendix shortly after they arrived in Iowa. Suddenly, Mary was a single mother: "I had exactly 25 cents to my name and three kids to spend it on."

Her dreams were shattered, but Mary picked up the pieces and built something new. Working with Leone Bredbeck of Daveport Parks and Recreation, she created Junior Theatre. For thirty years, they rehearsed and performed in donated space, moving from unheated offices to pool locker rooms before finally finding a home at the Annie Wittenmyer complex, where Junior Theatre resides today. “People ask me why I don’t retire or stop or slow down or something. They can’t seem to understand it. It’s just the strangest thing. Why would I want to? This is what I do. It’s what I do, it keeps me going. Why would I want to stop doing it? It’s not some dreary exercise routine, honey. It’s life. I wouldn’t trade mine for anyone else’s in the world. Why should I? God will let me know when it’s time for me to quit. I’m perfectly content to let Him decide that.” — Mary Fluhrer Nighswander MARY : A Biography written by Michael Ashcraft, Junior Theatre alumnus Mary was also one of the founding members of the Broadway Theatre League in 1962, bringing touring Broadway productions to the Adler Theatre in downtown Davenport. In 1989, Mary received her Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts from St. Ambrose University for her lifetime of work. The theatre at Junior Theatre today is dedicated in her memory. Additional honors and awards were Region IV governor for the American Children's Theatre Association, Marijane Morgan medallion winner for service to the region, first recipient of the Isabel Bloom Award for Fine Arts in the Quad-Cities and listing in "Who's Who of American Women."

Her biography, Mary: A Biography, written by Kansas City journalist and former Junior Theatre student Michael Ashcraft, was published in 1990. Former students and other friends honored her at a reception in 1990, and she was presented with a proclamation and key to the city by Davenport Mayor Thom Hart.

Mary passed away in July, 1991.

Thanks to Mary, tens-of-thousands of students have participated in the program, having valuable experiences that have forever changed their lives. As we move into the future, we always keep our founder in our hearts and minds.

Showtime Pal

Showtime Pal was developed from a need to communicate and have fun with the audience between shows. Davenport Junior Theatre started as a repertory company in the parks, and this often left dead space. To entertain during these transitions, Showtime Pal was born.

“We sat around and decided the kind of person we wanted to have do that, and that’s how we came up with Showtime Pal,” said Junior Theatre founder Mary Fluhrer Nighswander. “We needed somebody to welcome kids, tell them a little bit about the show they were going to see, and teach them the etiquette of the theatre.”

The original Showtime Pal was Ms. Leone Bredbeck. As Showtime Pal, Leone spent the next fifty years delighting audiences with her games, songs and tidbits about the theatre.

"Omaha had its Storybook Lady, Cedar Rapids had its Playtime Poppy dressed as an ear of corn," said Ms. Bredback. "It was decided a red and white polka-dotted clown was best for Junior Theatre."

And why is the Showtime Pal costume so large? The first time Leone performed as Showtime Pal she was quite far along in her pregnancy. To this day, the larger than life costume and energy of Showtime Pal live on with each new generation.

Hundreds have had the joy of playing Showtime Pal and becoming a part of this tradition, which is unique to Davenport Junior Theatre, the second-oldest children’s theatre in the country.

 

About the Annie Wittenmeyer Campus

 
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History of the Annie Wittenmeyer Campus

We consider it a great privilege to make our home on the Annie Wittenmyer Campus, which has a long and varied history.

The campus began life as a Civil War training camp. It was used to prepare Iowa soldiers for training and departure down the river to southern battlefields.

During the war, Annie Wittenmyer was one of the leading voices for better health care and nutrition for soldiers, and likely saved many thousands of soldiers from needless death by preventable illness or improper supplies. After the war ended, eastern Iowa (like much of the country) was left with many orphaned children. The Annie Wittenmyer orphanage was created, and served as a home for these children for many decades.

After the orphanage closed, the campus found new life by housing various activities, eventually becoming home to Family Resources and Davenport Junior Theatre. We continue to update and improve this great historical location as we move into the future.

About Annie Wittenmeyer

Iowa's Civil War Heroine Reprinted from an original article used during "Annie Wittenmeyer Days" - May 24-25, 1986

On August 26, 1827 Annie Turner was born in Ohio of a proud southern family. We have come to know her as Annie Wittenmyer, perhaps the most famous woman in Iowa history. At the age of twenty she married William Wittenmyer a prosperous merchant. In 1850 the Wittenmyers moved to Keokuk and Annie began a day school and a Sunday school for the poor.

When the Civil War came many of the men went off to war which meant that women were often needed for relief work. Annie became the secretary of the Soldiers' Aid Society of Keokuk. There was no Red Cross in those days. She visited hospitals and battlefields to learn the needs of the soldiers. She wrote back that soldiers in hospitals needed cool garments and bedding to take the place of the heavy army clothing. Fruit and better food were also needed. Many of these supplies were raised in Iowa and sent down the Mississippi, some raised directly by Mrs. Annie Wittenmyer.

An Iowa law was passed in September of 1862 requiring the governor to appoint two sanitary agents to buy supplies for sick and wounded Iowa soldiers. One of these agents was Annie Wittenmyer. Now with the authority of the Iowa government, Annie began to improve the soldiers' diet.

Army rations consisted of pork, beans, coffee, and bread. This was served in army camps and in army hospitals. Annie knew that such a ration was not for sick men, so she developed the idea of a kitchen for each of the hospitals. Each hospital would have its own special kitchen with two experienced women in charge.

Doctors would prescribe special diets and these women would prepare them. They served such food as toast, chicken, gruel, tomatoes and jelly. Much of the food was donated through aid societies.

The government soon adopted Annie Wittenmyer's idea and placed her in charge of this service. The good these diet kitchens did can scarcely be measured. They continued on after the war.

Dying soldiers asked Annie Wittenmyer to care for their children. She always promised to do so. Largely through her efforts the Iowa Soldiers' Orphans Home Association was formed. The first home opened in July, 1864 in Farmington another at Cedar Falls and a third at Camp Kinsman in Davenport.

A few years after the war Annie Wittenmyer moved to Sanatoga, Pennsylvania. Congress gave her a pension in 1898 and she died at her Pennsylvania home on February 2, 1900.

About the Campus

The Iowa Soldiers' Orphans Home Reprinted from an original article used during "Annie Wittenmeyer Days" - May 24-25, 1986

The Iowa Soldiers' Orphans Home came about as a promise to wounded Iowa soldiers by Annie Wittenmyer. Mrs. Wittenmyer was a commissioner of the Iowa Soldiers' Aid Society and at the time of the Vicksburg surrender in July, 1863 she realized that many dying soldiers were comforted by her assurances to take care of their children.

At a meeting of the Soldiers' Aid Society in Iowa City on September 23, 1863 the care of orphaned children was discussed and a meeting at Muscatine on October 5, 1863 lead to a resolution to care for the orphans. Annie Wittenmyer was in the forefront to see that an orphanage was started. She lead a campaign to raise funds throughout Iowa on Thanksgiving Day. The citizens of Davenport raised $600. The Iowa soldiers contributed $45,000 from their pay.

The first orphanage was opened at Farminton and another in Cedar Falls. It came to the attention of the society that at Davenport there were a number of abandoned but new buildings at Camp Kinsman. Annie Wittenmyer headed the delegation to acquire Camp Kinsman. She not only secured temporary use of the barracks but also secured as a gift all camp supplies, bed linen, pillows, mattresses, blankets, etc. The orphans' home at Lawrence, Iowa was transferred there in October, 1865. On January 22, 1866 Congress formally approved transfer of the camp and all of its equipment to a private organization, the Iowa Soldiers' Orphans Assn. Later that year the State of Iowa took over the association and set up a board of trustees. The Soldiers' Orphanage was not tax supported.

The Davenport home became the main branch of the orphanage and in 1875 the Glenwood and Cedar Falls orphanages were closed and consolidated in Davenport. The Davenport home was based on the cottage plan because of the scattered buildings of Camp Kinsman. The cottage plan permitted the formation of small groups with children of various ages brough together. An almost formal family life was thus achieved. This plan was widely copied by institutions in other states.

The condition of the buildings at the home was deteriorating by the 1880's. In 1881 the buildings were remodeled by the addition of brick facing and the construction of a schoolhouse, coal house and other outbuildings. New cottages were built as was a brick hospital and a dining hall. A disastrous fire burned the main building on November 10, 1887 with the loss of the books and other papers. A new administration building was built to replace it. In 1895 there were 458 orphans and the cottages were overcrowded. A second floor was therefore added to the cottages. Other buildings were added over the years. A new school was built in 1940 and the last building constructed was the Mental Health Unit which opened in 1966.

Since World War II the Iowa Soldiers' Orphans Home began to change. The farm land owned by the home north of Duck Creek was sold. In 1949 the Iowa legislature changed the name to the Iowa Annie Wittenmyer Home in honor of its founder. However the type of children at the home began to change. More younger children were being placed in foster homes and delinquent children under 12 were placed here instead of the children's reformatories at Mitchellville and Eldora. In 1963 Iowa counties were allowed to use institutional funds to pay for foster home care instead of using the Iowa Annie Wittenmyer Home. In 1967 the Iowa legislature changed the Iowa Code to no longer pay the cost of veteran's children at the Home. This was a reversal of benefits. The end came in 1975 when the Iowa Annie Wittenmyer Home was closed.

During the 107 years the Davenport home was in existence over 12,000 children called it home. The state of Iowa had a capital investment of nearly $1.1 million. The city of Davenport has since acquired the property which is now used to house various civic and community agencies.