Where Past Meets Present

Laurel Canan

Focus In: Laurel Canan


Laurel Canan, formerly of Janesville, was the first director of the Janesville Performing Arts Center and is President at Center Productions.

When did you first come to Rock County?

We came to Janesville in 1995. I had worked in Indiana at the Jay County Arts Council; I ran the exhibits program and did my internship there. My husband took a job as a Facilities Engineer at General Motors. We thought, “We don’t know anyone in Wisconsin!” But we moved to Janesville and became involved in the community and at Faith Lutheran Church, and started to meet people.

How did you become the first director of the Janesville Performing Arts Center (JPAC)?

One of the couples we befriended at church, Barb and Lanny Knickerbocker, knew that I had an Arts Administration background. Lanny was on the board of the Janesville Concert Association. That organization was first formed in 1937 as the Janesville Civic Music Association. In 1961, the organization renamed itself the Janesville Community Concert Association. In order to contract with artists independently, the association incorporated as a not-for-profit organization in 1982 and changed its name to the Janesville Concert Association (JCA).

Today it is called Janesville Presents. They brought in so many wonderful acts over the years, like the Vienna Boys Choir, and Marian Anderson, world famous contralto, performed on that Old Marshall auditorium stage. Later they ended up selling so many season tickets that they had to move it to the Craig High School auditorium, and even all of THOSE seats sold out!

So, Lanny had asked me if I might like to work in marketing for the JCA. So, I took that position and worked on arts programs and marketing for the organization. After about six months, the director stepped down, so I replaced her as Executive Director. In 2003 I was asked to take the position as Campaign Director for the new Janesville Performing Arts Center. For the next 18 months it was non-stop fundraising. One day, Jane Gilbertson came up to me and said, “The Super Freight has landed!” I said, “What?” And she said, “I wanted to be the one to tell you that we have an anonymous $1 million donor!” And I started crying.

The strings attached to this gift were that the City of Janesville had to give a $1 million match. We were able to get that through the City Council in June of 2003. However, we had big push back on that. There were people in the community who thought we didn’t need a dedicated arts center. Some were upset by the dollar amount and that it was going toward the arts.

I had done some prior homework, an Economic Impact Study through the Americans for the Arts, Arts Wisconsin and the Arts Board, about how the arts impact the local economy. We were able to show the economic impact of the arts, without an arts center at the time, and $300,000 a year was coming into the community! We had a lot of numbers behind us.

One of the great pieces of JPAC fundraising that happened was the alumni campaign. Al and Lois Hough, of Hough Industries as well as the owner of Wisconsin Wagon Co., coordinated the campaign. Al and his brother John, Dorothy Gilbertson and Lois Buell were all involved. Al contacted the Class of ’42, Class of ’38 … he went through the class reunion lists and sent out letters. He organized the fundraising to “Bring Back the Glory Days” and they raised $250,000! They were even competing by class to see which one would raise the most money. It was incredible!

The most gratifying moment for me was on JPAC’s opening night was when one of our biggest opponents, one who stood up at City Council meetings and who said it would be a big waste, was at opening night to see “Janesville in Stages.” He came up to me and apologized. He said, “Now I get it.” I said, “Get what?” and he replied, “I get why you pushed so hard. Now I see it. And I’m feeling it.” I started to cry. It was the most intense 18 months of my life! But, we did it!

Tell me about the grand opening of the Janesville Performing Arts Center:

That was an insane week! We were a month late getting into the building. Originally, we were aiming for the middle of August 2004, so we would have a few weeks to work the lights. We had contracted with Mr. Tony Bennett back in April, planning to be in the building in August. We had also arranged, before school got, out to have all of the 3rd graders come through the auditorium on the 9th of September, because they had studied local history in 3rd grade.

However, there were some setbacks with construction, as it was an 80 + year old building. We actually had to re-tier the balcony. Labor Day weekend, 5 days before we officially opened, we were still working! The seats had just been installed. The lighting and sound equipment was still being installed Labor Day weekend. So we ran lights and sound for the very first time for “Janesville in Stages!”

Peggy Vechinsky, our most dedicated volunteer, and I were running the ticket office on an old laptop and the printer was set on a garbage can with a piece of plywood on top! We would cross off the spots on the seating chart. Then, once we got the seating on the computer that made things much easier! The building was still being painted when those children were coming in and we had to tell them “Don’t touch the walls!”

When “Janesville in Stages” was over, Mike Stalsberg, our tech director, spent the whole night, Friday into Saturday, hanging the lighting equipment for Tony Bennett. We didn’t know if we were going to blow the system because we had never run that much power through it. So, the secret of the story is that I had both of the electricians, who had installed that equipment, sitting in front of house in their jeans with their tools ready to roll in case there was a problem during the concert! We also had an emergency generator in the back parking lot…just in case.

You know how you sometimes get the whole family involved? So, my husband spent all of Labor Day weekend putting together 100 music stands!

Beloit Janesville Symphony was one of our user groups. We had 13 user groups when we opened. And there was that golden moment during Tony Bennett’s concert when he asked to shut off the sound because he wanted to try the acoustics. And we were all looking at each other hoping that it would come back on! We hadn’t really run it, so we had no idea!

What were some of your favorite moments or highlights as JPAC Director?

I think my favorite time and favorite programming was when we worked with the kids. The Janesville Concert Association always brought in a professional theater group. We wanted to give the children a really cool opportunity. We worked with 3 children’s theater companies and brought students to the theater for a $3 ticket.

There was one occasion when the coordinator for one of the school field trips told me that they couldn’t make it. I asked her why and she said, “A $3 ticket might as well be $30 in this economy.” I asked her how many kids there were. She said there were 150. I told her to plan on being there and asked her to trust me.

So, you know how people will tell you “Call me if you ever need anything?” I picked up the phone and called three of my friends and said, “Get your checkbook ready.” And they covered it! I really wanted those school children to experience the arts.

One little boy came up to me after the show “Lyle the Crocodile” and gave me a Dum-Dum sucker asking me to give it to Lyle the Crocodile. He then said “This is the best day of my life!”

I loved when Spotlight on Kids did school shows in March, having all the kids there. I loved giving the community exposure to some of the artists we brought in. We had a group from England, and I knew their agent, so I booked them. We had performers from South America, dance companies … it was so special.

When did you leave your JPAC position?

I left in December 2008, because my husband was relocated to Ohio. We’d had a commuter marriage for 7 months. We had the gala coming up and Arts Angels program coming up, so I couldn’t leave. Things were getting really loopy with the economy, but we prolonged the move as long as we could.

When Emily Gruenewald took over, I mentored her and worked with her for about a month before I officially left. I was a resource and always available. But, it was so hard to step back. I wanted her to be able to put her own stamp on things and not have people compare and say, “Well, Laurel did it this way.” Through the years I have still had an interest in seeing “The Baby” continue to grow. There is a part of me still there.

I miss a lot of the people. It’s been hard to see obituaries of folks who had given to the community arts for such a long time. Like Harvey and Virginia Turner, they were co-chairs and supporters of the symphony and silent donors to so many organizations in town. Whenever I needed anything, Harvey would show up. He would come in and ask me, “You need a printer? I’ll buy it.”

Tell me about the work you do now:

In 2006, we had a booked an artist for our JPAC Gala named Franc D’Ambrosio. He was the longest-running actor to play Phantom in Phantom of the Opera. Over the years, Franc and I became good friends. And Franc asked me, “What are you going to do?” With the auto industry the way it was and the economy, I really didn’t know. He said, “Well, you’d be a lot of fun to work with.” And I said, “Well, it goes without saying, you’re one of the most talented people I’ve had the pleasure to work with.”

So, at the time, I worked with a booking agency for about 18 months. My brain just kept going back to Franc and my friendship with him. I had recommended him to so many of my colleagues. In about 2010 we were having a conversation and Franc said, “How are you doing?” I said, “I’m good … but, I think I’m at a crossroads.” He said, “Well, why don’t you come and work for me? I own my agency.”

So I started working for Franc, and in 2013 I bought the agency, so I own Center Productions. We’re based in Cleveland, Ohio and we have a mailing address in New York City, NY. I represent artists who have been on Broadway. Rodney Marsalis of the Marsalis family is on my roster. I have 12 acts and represent them pretty much worldwide. Who would have thought?

I said to Franc, right before JPAC’s 10th Anniversary, “You know, when I had to leave, I thought it was the end of the world for me. We were empty nesters, didn’t know what I was going to do. I had given so much, every living breath to the JPAC project. But you just never know where the path will take you if you’re open to the journey.”

I had one person in particular, someone who’s done a lot of work nationally, who I looked up to while building a community arts awareness. He got in my face and told me I was a sellout, and couldn’t understand why I didn’t go into another arts organization. And I said, economically it would not have been fair of me to go into another arts organization only to have to leave 6 months later because of General Motors and relocation.

He said, “But, you did so much for the community.” That upset me. And I told him that I do that now, too. These artists love to do master classes at schools and colleges in the communities where they perform. It took a while, but he saw the light and I’m relieved by that.

I’m excited about my new project. I’m one of the founders of a group called The Four Phantoms. It’s four gentlemen; one of them is Franc D’Ambrosio, and all have performed the role of Phantom worldwide. Together they have about 7,000 performances under their belts! Our music supervisor actually put worked for Andrew Lloyd Webber and put Phantom on Broadway and stages around the world!

Could you share some words of wisdom on the value of the arts?

I think the arts are the soul of a community. They are a way for the community to collectively come together and to experience something in the moment. It doesn’t matter who is in the audience, where they live or what school they go to…everyone is there to share in the moment.

Our tagline at JPAC was “Bringing the Arts to Main Street.” There are so many ways where you can disengage from the community through on-line streaming, cell phones and YouTube. But the arts help you to be in that collective moment.

The arts gives children an opportunity to shine, to be on stage or to experience the feeling of being in the audience, to be a part of something greater than themselves. My very first performance I saw was when I was 5 years old, here in Cleveland with my grandparents. I’ll never forget sitting in the audience of the symphony and feeling like magic pixie dust had just been sprinkled over the audience.

You can also volunteer in the arts. They were always my die hard go-to people. I really miss my volunteers. It’s a great way to participate!

So, I would advise the community to continue supporting the Janesville Performing Arts Center. It doesn’t matter how much you give monetarily. Come to events, buy tickets, and come to experience this incredible facility with the most beautiful acoustics, right there in the middle of downtown Janesville! There is a multitude of ways to experience the arts right here in your backyard!

“You just never know where the path will take you if you’re open to the journey.” ~ Laurel Canan