Elsie Van Tassell is a retired Theater Actress/Director and a 2015 Arts Hall of Fame Award Recipient.
“Pick good plays that will bring in the audience and the performers! They’re both very important.” ~ Elsie Van Tassell
Where were you born?
A little town called Newent, Gloucestershire, about 8 miles out of the big city of Gloucester, England.
What brought you to Rock County?
I was to be sent here to America to live with my uncle during World War II, to get away from the bombings. But they sank a ship with children on it, so that never happened; I stayed home. I’d been writing to my uncle to get to know him, and then when I married an American in 1946, we went to live in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
I was so homesick and lonely in that great big city. I had come from town like Milton, you know, where you know everybody. So, I came here to meet my uncle in Janesville, and he asked my husband to leave me here for a week, so we could get acquainted. So, I stayed here for a week, and I loved Janesville. The people were so friendly, and there was already a war brides gang here that met every so often for special holidays, and that was lovely. I felt so at home.
When my husband came to pick me up, my uncle said to my husband, “Elsie loves it here. Are you happy? Do you like the job you have?” And my husband said, “Not particularly.” My uncle then asked if he wanted to work for him. He said that until he found a job and found a place, we could live with him. So that’s what we did, and it was wonderful! It must have been in 1947, because I came to the U.S. in 1946.
I remember one thing from when I first came here that broke my heart. It was my first Sunday in America. Red’s mother was going to have the entire family over to meet me, all the relatives. So, I was to meet his grandmother, and I was introduced to everybody. I thought they were very nice, and thought they liked me. Red’s grandmother was lovely, she came and hugged me and told me that it was so nice that he married such a lovely young lady. It made me feel so welcome.
I was going to show them a picture, so I went to go get it. But, when I came back in, I overheard Grandma saying, “We should all get together and give Elsie a shower,” I was horrified. I remember standing outside of the garage, sobbing. And Red came outside and asked, “What are you doing out here?” I said, “Your family doesn’t like me. They think I’m dirty.” There was a lot of that miscommunication for the first year or so.
When you came to Rock County, where did your husband end up working?
He ended up working at Douglas Hardware and then he was manager of Kresge’s and then he went to school, and after that, worked at General Motors.
What were you doing during those years?
I was raising children, and when our 2 children were in junior high, I got a job. In England, I worked during the war. Then, I had worked in a dress store. So, in America the first job I had was working in a dress shop, Elliot’s. And then I went from Elliot’s to Montgomery Ward. I was there when it opened up on the mall. I remember talking to some New York girls. And they’d say, “Elsie, is it true Montgomery Ward is in the mall between a cemetery and a corn field?” and I said, “Yes”.
In those days, we knew what our customers wanted and we bought the clothes for the store. I would go on trips and buy the dresses, coats and things for the customers. That was fun. I did that for a long time, about 13 years.
I also did demos as a part-time job. I got talked into doing that by one of the guys I worked with at Montgomery Wards. There wasn’t ground coffee in the stores, so I brought the coffee in the store, ground it, passed out samples, talked about it and sold it. I did this in Madison, Janesville, Evansville, and in Rockford. They would send me to all these places, and if I would have to stay overnight, they’d pay for it! But the children were all grown up by then, so it was all okay.
How did you get started in theater?
Oh, I’ve loved theatre all my life, but I always wanted to grow up to be a ballerina. I used to drive down to Rockford for lessons. My granddaughter asked me to take her to a school where she could learn technique. I was taking lessons right alongside her. I want you to know that I took lessons till I was 64, and then I decided maybe I’m not going to be a ballerina when I grow up!
I became involved in theater at a young age. The theatre in my hometown I was always putting on shows. In our courthouse square was a house, and they had a garage with no car in it. This woman’s children and I would put on plays in there. We had nerve enough to charge people to see us! We wrote our own plays, and, obviously, I always gave myself the lead part. Ah, it was fun! When I got older, I started going to acting lessons.
When I came to Janesville, I was at church one day and a lady said, “Elsie what do you do with yourself all day?” and I said, “I just sit home,” and she said, “Oh, we’re working on a play right now, do you know how to paint?”, and I said, “Well, I certainly think so,” and she said, “I’ll pick you up tomorrow and we’ll go down.”
So, I started painting sets here and then they talked me into being IN the play, and that was it.
Did your theater work here begin with Janesville Little Theatre?
Yes, that was when the original people were there, probably around the year I came here, 1947 or ’48. They are one of the oldest self-supporting theatres! Life magazine came and did a history of us, being the oldest, continuing theatre through the war years and everything. But, for some reason, the article never came out in the magazine.
Later on, after they started the theater, I’d be up to the theatre painting with Marge Henning, who was also an old timer there, and we’d hear the floorboards creaking and say, “There goes Doc Clark.”
I acted for years! And in those years, I could sing, too, so I was in a lot of musicals. I had roles in “Oklahoma” and “Bells are Ringing”. I was in literally hundreds of musicals, and plays!
In the summer, we all took classes. I was very fortunate, because we would go to Saint Paul, Minnesota, where my in-laws were, and we’d go to the Guthrie Theater. I took classes there, like make-up. When we did “Man of La Mancha” in Janesville, we had a director from California who said, “I don’t suppose there’s anybody in this town who knows how to do what I need,” and I said, “Well, I do!” He was very impressed, that anyone from little Janesville knew such things.
What was the first play you directed here?
It was a melodrama, “Ten Nights in a Barroom”. I did so much research for that. We went several times to St. Paul and I went to the Chanhassen Dinner Theater, where they specialized in melodramas. We didn’t know how to make a roll drop or anything, you know, we were babes in the woods. But, I wanted it to be right, and I’m very funny about things like that. It’s got to be right!
They showed my husband how to make roll drops. Well, the gentleman that I told you about coming from California, he said, “How can I help you?”, and I said, “Would you paint my drops for me?” and he said “Sure.” He was just fantastic! And they were wonderful. We had a darling little redheaded girl, that we dressed ragged as the poor little girl.
My show was a big hit, so then I branched out into other shows and did about one a year. Then we hit hard times, so then I directed about four times, and then Chuck Niles directed, as well. In those years, I also did costumes, sets and props.
We did another show, “Inherit the Wind”. I had to have a hurdy gurdy and a monkey, because I wanted it to be right. The character was supposed to make the children gather round. It made for a good scene, for the audience to have all this. So, I got a live monkey! One night was just horrible. Unfortunately, right before going on stage, I handed him the monkey out of the cage and left him. But then, he didn’t come on, and he didn’t come on.
I was thinking, “What do I do?” So, I began to improvise dialogue, “Hot out tonight ain’t it?” and the other actress said, “Yeah it is. Skeeters ain’t bad though.” It was terrible dialogue, you know, trying to think of something to fill in. And all the while I was thinking, “Where the heck is Joe? Why isn’t he on?”
All of a sudden, the monkey came on stage by himself with food in his hands! When we got off stage, Joe said to me, “Don’t you ever go on that g*#damn stage and leave me with that monkey unless he’s hooked to me! I leaned over to do something and he jumped on to the table. I tried to get the food from him and he bit me!” All these terrible things were happening in the theatre and the audience didn’t have a clue!
When we did “The Teahouse of the August Moon” I got a goat and I drove him back and forth. I would grumble, “This is all wrong, I’m stuck with all this! This isn’t a prop, it’s an actor. This damn goat is an actor!”
How many shows have you directed?
I have directed at least 50 or more!
When did you decide you needed to retire?
Three years ago, I was walking to my car and I fell down in the snow. It was so steep that I couldn’t get up. And I thought, ‘The neighbor won’t see me here, nobody on the highway will see me. I can’t do this in the winter, I just can’t. So, I stopped.
I had helped Russ Carter at Craig High school for 22 years. I costumed all his shows. I also directed a play over there at Craig and one at Parker. I had a children’s theatre and a playground theatre, too, down at Camden Playground. I wasn’t ambitious enough to do musicals, though.
Tell me about your community involvement outside of theatre.
We had a program every month out at the Rock Haven. We’d have a birthday party there for people who had a birthday that month. I used to do volunteer work at Saint Elizabeth’s for as long as I was able. But, now I can’t.
What are some of the changes you’ve witnessed in our community?
We were the only theatre at first, and now there are four. So, that makes things difficult because people can’t be in play, after play, after play, after play. Their families can’t stand that you know, being gone all the time.
Janesville looks quite a lot different than what it did when I first arrived. The population was only about 16,000 when I came here.
We used to always walk my dog to the trail and back. I did that in the morning and the evening and we’d walk to the park and play tennis. I think this this was a friendlier town when I came here.
We (the city) got big, you know. That had to happen. I’m sure sorry about all the violence in this city, especially in the Fourth Ward. When I came here the Fourth Ward was the place to live, with all the big beautiful old homes, it’s just changed so much.
With your expertise, what sort of advice would you give the theatre groups in this town?
If you do a play that is known, people will want to see themselves in parts, and they’ll come audition because they want to be in it. If you do a piece of schlock that nobody’s ever heard of, that they don’t know anything about, what is in the title of that that will make them want to be a part of it?
Then, of course, I’ll get squashed with, “Well do you just want to do the same plays over and over?” No. There are lots of wonderful plays that we have not done that we could be doing. Pick good plays! Pick good plays that will bring in the audience AND the performers! They’re both very important.
Also, don’t have two directors. Don’t make the play go in two different ways. You can have an assistant TO the director, but he’s not an assistant director. You have to know what you want, and you have to stand up against your cast as a director.
Be true to the author, too. Have a good view for the play, and it has to be true to what the author wanted.
Do you plan to stick around this community?
Yeah, I love Janesville. After being in cold St. Paul, Janesville was so friendly, and my uncle knew everybody. You know, you feel at home. It was a nice feeling, and I was made welcome. There were also a lot of English girls, so if I was feeling down, I could go and have a grumble and say, “Aren’t they funny here?”
But, it’s been wonderful. The people I made friends with years ago, are still my friends. My kids do all they can. I’m very fortunate to have two children in Janesville. My daughter-in-law is a very lovely girl. She comes and sorts my medicine, because I would never remember when to take it! She’s got a box, morning, noon, and evening. I’ve had a lot of help that way. It makes it a lot simpler. She’s lovely. When you’re 89, I’ll be 90 this year, you need that kind of help.