Obituary: John B. Davidson, theater co-founder and playwright

  • Article by: ROHAN PRESTON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 13, 2013 - 8:09 PM

John Burton Davidson, a co-founder of Children’s Theatre Company who later became known as a playwright, died Nov. 5, in Minneapolis. He suffered congestive heart failure, according to his daughter, Betsy Spitzer, of Minneapolis.

“His heart just gave out,” she said.

His death, at 81, came 10 days before his adaptation of “Cinderella” opens at Children’s Theatre in Minneapolis. The musical, Davidson’s best known stage work, has been part of the company’s repertory since the 1970s, and has long been a reliable source of robust ticket sales.

“The Children’s Theatre has really lost a great friend,” said Peter Brosius, artistic director of CTC. “He respected young people and their imaginations. It’s deeply tragic and moving that we’re in rehearsal with his piece. It’s very sad, but we carry his spirit with us.”

Davidson also wrote “The Last Minstrel Show,” about the 1920 lynchings of three black circus workers falsely accused of rape in Duluth. That play was staged at History Theatre in St. Paul, and elsewhere.

A musical hobbyist, he liked to play guitar and piano and to compose.

Born and raised in Minneapolis, Davidson graduated from now-closed Minneapolis Central High School. He served in the U.S. Navy in Hawaii during the 1950s, according to his family, and later studied theater at the University of Minnesota.

That is where he met some of the co-founders of the Moppet Players, which would become Children’s Theatre. Davidson served as managing director in the early company, said actor and singer Barbara Davidson, whom he married and divorced but with whom he remained cordial.

“John had a very strong personality,” she said. “He was acerbic and exacting. He had very high standards for work, even if he didn’t always live up to them.”

In the early years of the Children’s Theatre, all the players multi-tasked. Wendy Lehr, for example, worked the box office. Davidson worked on the stage crew as well.

“John was a remarkable talent, so gifted,” said actor and Jungle Theater founder Bain Boehlke, who remembered seeing the older man on campus at the University of Minnesota and being in awe. Boehlke also acted for many years in “Cinderella.”

“He had a great sense of sarcasm. There was a story that he once had thrown a shoe at a TV in the ’70s because he was disgusted with what he was watching. Even if that story wasn’t true, it sounded like something John would do.”

In addition to Barbara Davidson and Spitzer, he is survived by a son, Kai Ariel, and a granddaughter, Vivian Spitzer. Services are pending.

Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390

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