Backstage at the Reif Center
November 2017

By my estimation, this woman really needs no introduction. I’ve known her for as long as I can remember, and in my eyes she’s Grand Rapids royalty. We’ve seen her on stage at the Reif Center countless times, and she’s been behind the scenes on as many occasions, if not more. Even more notably in the Reif Center’s narrative, she was one of the leading catalysts and activists (I literally couldn’t decide which word to use) behind our recent transformation. What a woman! Here’s our “Backstage” interview with the affable, Mary Jo Jess.


Katie: What was your very first performance?

Mary Jo: Well, Katie, it really goes back to my early childhood. I had such a fantastic growing up because I came from a musical family. I remember many times with relatives, going into the living room after dinner – maybe fourteen of us – to sing and dance. We sang the good old songs like, “You Are My Sunshine,” “When You Wore A Tulip,” and “The Tennessee Waltz.” Also, my sister and I (I have a brother too, but he came along later) would perform for all of our relatives. My mother played the piano, I had my triangle, and my sister had the tambourine and we’d sing our nursery rhymes for the family. My dad could sing. My grandfather could sing. My grandma, Louise Sartell, could sit down at the piano and play anything. She played for dances at that time and for church. She had a gifted ear, and my mother was the same. She graduated from the Lawrence Conservatory of Music in Appleton, WI.

But then I was in a church choir growing up and college choir. When I came to Grand Rapids, Showboat took over. My first performances in Grand Rapids were at Showboat for many years.

Katie: Where did you grow up?

Mary Jo: I grew up in a little town called Tomahawk, WI. Actually, I was born in Green Bay (and I’m still a great Packers fan), but then my grandfather and dad were in the lumber and building industry so we moved to Tomahawk. I went to a one-room country school in my elementary years, maybe there were 30 kids all-together, grades 1-8. I so remember our teacher, Mrs. White, who could sit down and play the piano – we were always singing in that one-room school house. And then we would listen to Professor Gordon from the University of Wisconsin on loud speaker once a week, you know, “Here’s Professor Gordon teaching us new songs!” That one-room school house experience was fabulous because the 8th graders would help the 3rd graders, the 5th graders would help the 4th graders. There was just a lot of teaching going on.

Katie: And what brought you to Grand Rapids?

Mary Jo: Well, that was after college, after Lee and I were married. My college experience is in theater and music. I went to Ripon College for my Bachelor’s Degree, which is where I met Lee. He was one year ahead of me. And while he was in dental school, I taught general music and theater in Downers Grove, IL, for several years. Then we decided to head north, either to Wisconsin or Minnesota.

We ended up in Aitkin for a few years and then Dr. Hub Tofte invited us to come to Grand Rapids. It was Showboat that really caught the interest of both of us because, gosh, the

venue, the environment where Showboat was, and the performance was all so fun!

I spent about 30 years with Showboat, in and out depending on what our kids were doing, but those were my first experiences performing in Grand Rapids and I loved every moment of it.

Katie: So, you were here when the Reif Center was built? Do you remember what that process was like and what the thoughts were about it in the community?

Mary Jo: The short story is, and I know there were a lot of people behind it, but Lois Gildemeister was the leader. She had the initiative. She had a passion for music, theater, and the arts. And she wanted a performing arts center, so she went in to Myles Reif’s office at Blandin Paper Company and told him she needed money to do it. Lois was always convincing. You never said no to Lois.

At that time, Jim Sauter was the Superintendent of Schools here. Between the School Board and the

[arts planning] committee there was a lot of discussion about, “If we had this performing arts center, where would it be? Was it going to be on-campus or off-campus?” That was a big point because some people thought it should be on its own somewhere. But, fortunately, they made the good decision of attaching it to the high school. Myles Reif contributed big funds, as did Blandin Foundation, and boy, it’s served its purpose on this site for over 30 years.

Katie: Do you remember walking in to the Reif for the first time?

Mary Jo: Well, yeah! To have a theater in this community was just fantastic! It was wonderful! The first play that was given here was in 1981, Cactus Flower, directed by Merlyn Bauder, was just a great experience. It was a great stage! Even the theater itself, its design, was good. It had a good rake, the visual lines were excellent.

Katie: What was your role?

Mary Jo: I was a dental patient; I can’t remember my name. That was in 1981!

The Grand Rapids Players started in 1966 and I can remember some performances presented in the middle school gymnasium. All the chairs were set up on the floor for the audience, just regular folding chairs on a flat surface, and then the stage was elevated. In comparison, the experience in the new Reif Center was fantastic!

Mary Jo Jess at the Renaissance Fair. Pictured with Dick and Nancy Massaro.

Katie: What other memories do you have of the Reif Center’s early days? For example, I found some great pictures of you in a madrigal festival in our history files.

Mary Jo: That was a fundraising event. We were trying to come up with ways to pay for some of the performances we wanted to bring here, so we created a Renaissance Fair. It might have gone for two years. We had a madrigal group, which I was in, with 8 or 10 other people. We all dressed in Renaissance costumes. In fact, to promote it one time, I brought my horse, Glimmering Jewel, to town and trotted, in costume, to Central School. I would say, it was something new, and it always takes some time to get those things to catch on.

Yeah, a lot of good things, but when we first realized the bathroom lines were too long we thought, “Alright it’s time to do something!” And when you start addressing one issue, more come up. So, our Core Group decided, along with others, that we weren’t going to Band-aid this project. We’re going to look at the whole thing, and do what we have to do to make it the best fine arts center in Minnesota.

Katie: Now it was you and Mary Ives that really took initial charge on our capital project?

Mary Jo: Well, Mary and I were at a board meeting – we were both on the board at the time – and she had stepped out of the room for some reason. The board asked who was going to champion this project and I raised my hand and said Mary Ives and I would. And that’s where it started.

Katie: What was that experience of “championing” the Reif’s capital project like?

Mary Jo: We started by asking a lot of questions and trying to answer them: What are we here for? Who is our audience? What could we do better? etc. We gathered a lot of insight from the board and others. Any idea was okay. But eventually, you have to start prioritizing and coming to a focus. It would have been 6 years this August 2017 that we started the project. Mary Ives was absolutely tremendous! She knows building, structure, and blue prints so well. We had a good group of people working on this project, including Dr. Dan Margo, and David Marty, with great assistance from Loren Solberg, George Sutton, and Rod Leistikow. We met almost every Monday morning at 7:00am until 8:30 or 9:00, for nearly 6 years. We visited other theaters to see what they were like and what amenities they had that we couldn’t say no to. We had ups and downs and lots of discussion. It was a great learning experience. And you come out of it saying, ‘If I had this to do over,” but really it all turned out great.

Katie: How do you feel about the finished product? What is the thing you look at and feel most proud of?

Mary Jo: Well, a lot of things! I think the backstage area is tremendous. The audience hasn’t seen what’s happening backstage, but what’s happening backstage supports what’s on the front side of the house. And the fact that we have raised the fly loft is fabulous. Now we can bring in Broadway productions that normally wouldn’t show here due to a lack of needed fly space.

The lobby is also most-remarkable. It’s just building a lot of social capital. People are sticking around after performances to visit, and coming early, because it’s a great social atmosphere.

But, really the most wonderful outcome of the renovation has been the unique collaboration of entities sharing this transformed facility, including School District 318, Reif Arts Council, Reif Dance, Itasca Orchestra and Strings, Grand Rapids Players, and the community at large.

Thank you to all who generously believed in and contributed to this renovation!

Katie: Let’s talk more about your performance career, Mary Jo! So, we know now that Cactus Flower was your first production at the Reif, but what has been your most memorable?

Mary Jo: I knew you were going to ask me that, and you know, it depends! I’ve done musicals, small plays, classic plays, and there’s a couple that stand out in each category. My all-time favorite musical is Music Man because it’s so Americana and the tunes are so familiar. People can sing along. Its’ just a fantastic show to direct and be a part of. Chicago was also great fun!

Of the smaller productions, I loved working with the four men in Plaid Tidings and Forever Plaid. That quartet was absolutely fabulous! As was having Jim Mason at the piano. I loved Nunsense – I was Mother Superior in both Nunsense I and II. And my other small musical was Always Patsy Cline. I played the part of Louise and Kathy Goodwin played Patsy. She has a voice! She can just mimic Patsy Cline.

You know, it’s just been a great experience to expand the opportunities I had in college. I’m happy to have had the background in directing both music and theater.

And as far as the shows that I’ve seen performed at the Reif Center, I am really fond of the Henrik Ibsen classics performed by the Commonweal Theater. They always put on such a tight show. You’re engaged from the moment the play starts. It’s just absolutely professional theater! And of course, the Reif Dance shows are exceptional. I also love anything that Peter Rothstein does.

Katie: Did you ever expect you’d have opportunities like this beyond college?

Mary Jo: I wanted it, but I didn’t know it was going to happen until this Reif Center came along (and Showboat). It has fulfilled every hope I’ve had.

Though I love to perform, I really love to direct! I’ll study for 3-6 months ahead of time in preparation. I can’t just do it off the top of my head. I have to look at the script and decide a lot of things – the color, the clarity, the stage picture, the plot, the theme, the character, and I have to write it all down. I like details. They’re so important, but yet to not have so much detail you don’t leave anything to the imagination.

Yeah, this Reif Center has really given me the opportunity to expand the theater and music direction which I really love to do.

Katie: If you had a goal for the Reif Center over the next 40 years, what would it be?

Mary Jo: If I did have a dream – well, I do have a dream: I think Grand Rapids, and this venue, is a perfect place for summer theater, summer music, and for something like Interlochen (a summer music camp). Of course, we’d have to think of residence facilities, but my gosh, this theater is just as good as any Ordway or Orpheum.

Katie: Anything else you want to add?

Mary Jo: I have to compliment the leadership here at the Reif Center, David Marty and staff, because without that leadership I don’t think we’d be in the place we are today. It takes good leadership, it takes networking – you’ve got to have a presence in the community and be on top of everything. The community likes that, wants that, and more so they expect it.

I also want to say how much I appreciate the support of my husband Lee. He has always been there to participate, help, and encourage every project. I couldn’t have done it without him.


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