Elsie Van Tassell
Story by Teresa Nguyen
Janesville’s Lady of Theatre, Elsie May Van Tassell, passed away at age 95 on Friday, March 24th, 2023. She was a beloved community figure and a leader in the Janesville theater world. We are glad to share Elsie’s story today, such a worldly woman of the arts.
Considering March is Women’s History Month, let us add her to the list of local female legends, whose story will inspire us all!
The Early Years
Elsie was born in 1927 in a little town in England called Newent, Gloucestershire. As a child, Elsie had joined a small group that put on shows in her hometown square and charged people to see their original productions. Elsie laughed that she often wrote herself a good role in the shows.
In 1945, Elsie married an American, Oliver R. Van Tassell, and they settled for a short time in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Coming to Janesville
Elsie came here to stay with her uncle for a week and loved Janesville. She said she felt ‘right at home’. Her husband, Oliver, took a job here at Douglas Hardware, then managed Kresge’s. Later, he attended school and ended up working for General Motors. Janesville’s population was only about 23,000 then!
Meanwhile, Elsie raised her two children, then took a job working at Elliot’s dress shop, when they were in middle school. After that, she began working at Montgomery Ward, when it was newly opened at the mall, working her way up to retail management.
The Arts and Theater Involvement
Eventually, she took acting lessons. Elsie had also dreamed of becoming a ballerina and took dance lessons in Rockford for a number of years, even into her 60s. But her strongest passion was theater.
When Elsie came to Janesville, she was invited by a church friend to help paint sets for a production. Then, she was talked into being in the play, and that was it! Established in 1929, Janesville Little Theatre was still relatively new. Elsie joined with some of the original members of the Janesville Little Theatre group and acted in many local shows.
The first show that Elsie directed was a melodrama, “Ten Nights in a Barroom”. It was a big hit! Over the years, Elsie directed at least 50 productions!
Elsie had also been involved with theater at Craig High school for 22 years, costuming their shows. She also directed one play at Craig and one at Parker and even started a children’s theater and a playground theater at Camden Playground.
A Community Woman
Besides her years in theater, Elsie was involved as a community volunteer for both Rock Haven and Saint Elizabeth Home. She loved Janesville, spending time with family and her pets, and made many friends in this area over the years.
In 2015, Elsie received the local Arts Hall of Fame award.
When Janesville Area Stories owner, Teresa Nguyen, visited Elsie in her home, she gave her these wise words of theater advice,
“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. 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. As a director, don’t be afraid to stand up to the actors and be true to the author.”
Our world of local drama won't quite be the same without Elsie. Rest in Peace, our Lady of Theatre!