Theater leader Bill Conner was instrumental in expanding Broadway tours in the Twin Cities and steadying the Children’s Theatre after its 1980s sex-abuse scandal.
“Bill really understood how art is made, and what you need to invest in it to get it made, both in terms of resources and spirit,” said former CTC artistic director Jon Cranney.
Conner, 64, died Friday in Ohio, where he headed the Columbus Association for the Performing Arts. His cancer was diagnosed two years ago.
He arrived at CTC in 1986 from Chicago, where he was managing director at the Court Theatre and representative for the Actors’ Equity union. At a time when Children’s Theatre’s future was at risk, Conner helped professionalize the way the company was run, said Cranney, and reinvigorated it in numerous ways. For one, he raised its subscription base past 20,000 — surpassing even the Guthrie, Cranney said.
He also initiated cultural exchanges with the Soviet Union and China as the Cold War was coming to a close. The CTC staged “Tom Sawyer” in Moscow in 1989 and brought “The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins” to Shanghai.
“He was one of those rare guys who helped facilitate the vision of the theater and took it onto the world stage,” said Cranney.
Conner took on a new challenge in 1990, becoming president and CEO of St. Paul’s Ordway Center. He walked into a tense and difficult situation as the Ordway’s four resident arts organizations competed for limited time on the calendar and as structural shortfalls meant that the Ordway itself was short of money.
He worked to soothe the arts groups even as he expanded the touring Broadway program. It brought shows like “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” for long runs and later resulted in the world premiere of “The Lion King” at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis.
“He was a passionate, really strong leader who knew how to get everyone on board with his vision,” said Jim Sheeley, president of Broadway Across America, which now works with the Hennepin Theatre Trust to present shows in Minneapolis.
Conner left the Twin Cities for Toronto-based Broadway producer Livent in 1995, a stint that ended when the co-founders of Livent, which had produced such shows as “Joseph,” “Show Boat,” “Ragtime” and “Fosse,” were arrested on charges of forgery and fraud. Conner became president of Clear Channel Entertainment in Boston before heading to Columbus 14 years ago.
Conner had a peripatetic life touched by ministry. Born in West Palm Beach, Fla., he was raised in California and educated at Whitworth University in Spokane, Wash. He earned a graduate degree at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago. He is survived by his wife, Karen, and adult children Emily and Ben.
In the Twin Cities, he had many admirers.
“Nothing was impossible with him,” said public relations expert Laurie Brickley, who knew him at CTC. “He wanted to lift the spirits of the theater, to do something bold, so — boom! We’re having a cultural exchange with Moscow. Then he had Raisa and Mikhail Gorbachev [the Soviet president and his wife] come see us.”
Public relations consultant Peg Roessler worked with Conner at the Ordway. “He was a mentor to many of us, and he really inspired us,” Roessler said. “Things might be tense, but he was calm and determined. I used to dread doing budgets and he said to me something that I still hear to this day: ‘Numbers are your friend.’ ”
Cranney recalled that he and his wife, Katherine, were married not long before CTC went to Moscow. “My wife will never let me forget that we had this third guy on our honeymoon,” he said. “Bill was always working to make deals, and so, we all set off to Moscow by way of Shanghai.”