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Mary John at her desk in the 1940s. (Photo courtesy of Milwaukee Repertory Theater)

Milwaukee Rep Founder Mary John Dies at 96

A producer on and Off-Broadway, she founded Drama Inc., now Milwaukee Rep, in 1954.

MILWAUKEE: Milwaukee Repertory Theater is saddened to announce the passing of its founder, Dr. Mary John. Born in Green Bay, Wisc. in 1925, John forged a plan to create a professional theatre for the city of Milwaukee and founded Drama Inc., now Milwaukee Rep, in 1954. John was 96 years old.

“We send our deepest condolences to Mary’s family and hope her meaningful legacy gives them solace,” artistic director Mark Clements said in a statement. “It’s hard to put into words the impact she has left us. Her vision and fortitude to create a professional theatre in Milwaukee has changed the scope of the city and given so many an artistic home.”

Mary John.

John wrote in the program for the Rep’s inaugural production in January 1955, “Drama Inc. was established by three thousand Milwaukeeans joined together, not for the glory of any individual or for the exploitation of the public, but for the purpose of bringing a permanent professional theatre to Milwaukee. We hope that each performance will provide enjoyable participation for you, make lasting impressions, and give your life a little more pleasure and meaning. If that happens, then the effort will have been amply rewarded.”

John obtained her bachelor’s degree from Northwestern University and her master’s degree from the University of Madison-Wisconsin. She served as managing director and also founded the School of Professional Arts, which operated in conjunction with the theatre and provided the accredited speech and theatre program for the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. In 1959, John moved to New York and received her Ph.D. in theatre and speech from New York University, and went on to produce several musicals on and Off-Broadway.

John served as the president and chairman of the board of the Theatre Corporation and helped bring talent like Betty White, Geraldine Page, and Ethel Waters to Milwaukee audiences. She also served as the managing director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Theatre Arts and was the vice president for Texas and national director for arts programs at Northwood University. In 2001, Northwood presented John with a lifetime achievement in the arts award.

John passed in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. last month and is survived by her husband, son, stepchildren, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

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