Hundreds of people have contributed to the growth and success of Northern Sky Theater – formerly known as American Folklore Theatre (AFT) – over nearly three decades. Now, as the theater company begins its most exciting season – it will open its new campus this fall – the Northern Sky staff, cast members, crew, volunteers and friends are mourning the loss of John Hansen and Kaye Christman, who were both so important to AFT’s early years.
Hansen, a professional potter and drum maker, joined Heritage Ensemble, AFT’s predecessor, in 1987 as its publicity manager. In 1991, a year after Heritage Ensemble became AFT, he added box-office manager to his duties. By the beginning of the 1993 season, he was also the house manager. Fred “Doc” Heide had been Hansen’s close friend since their freshman year at Green Bay’s East High School, where they bonded over dissecting a fetal pig in biology lab.
“John’s titles sound more formal than the operation was in those days,” Heide recalls. “Publicity manager indicated that he offered to go around the county tacking up flyers on telephone poles, and box-office manager meant that he was in charge of our big roll of tickets and gave them out as people paid their $2. It was a time when we could all define our own roles, and it was perfect for John. He had a wonderful quality of connecting with people who came to AFT, making them feel they were ‘invited in’ and that if there was anything they needed, he would personally take care of it.”
Heide remembers Hansen as the ultimate raconteur, a teller of great stories. One of his best from those days dealt with a call he may (or may not) have received from the White House saying that Bill Clinton was looking for a new communications director who would uphold the high standard set by Marlin Fitzwater. “It was a tough decision,” Hansen said. “Did I want exciting work? Stimulating colleagues? A chance to affect future generations? Or did I want to go to Washington?”
Another of the great – and absolutely true – tales to emerge from AFT history was Hansen’s desperate search for red long johns for Heide’s character in Belgians in Heaven. Upon learning that a store in Sturgeon Bay had sold its last pair to a woman who was just driving away, Hansen pursued her car and flagged her down. “Are you with the police?” she asked. “No,” Hansen said. “I’m with a theater company, and I need your underwear!”
For more than 50 years, Hansen and Heide shared adventures, including a hitchhiking trip after their freshman year of college that took them 7,000 to 8,000 miles from Wisconsin, through Canada and California, and back.
“To escape the rain,” Heide said, “we slept under a fallen tree on the sand by the Pacific Ocean in Canada and in a park outhouse. We rode in the back of a pickup with the body of an Olympic skier who had drowned. We once ate food others had left on their plates in a Chinese restaurant. On the entire six-week trip, I spent $35, and John spent $62.”
In 1995, AFT co-founder Fred Alley had encouraged the founding of Door Shakespeare. When Hansen left AFT after the 1997 season, he spent many years helping to get that young company established, as he had done with AFT.
Hansen died Feb. 8 in Colorado – his winter home since graduating from UW-Green Bay 45 years ago and founding his Mudslingers Pottery Studio. He was 66.
“It’s hard for me to believe that he’s gone,” Heide said. “He was such a vital, sharing person. A botched surgery after a terrible skiing accident years ago resulted in a settlement that paid for a ramshackle house in Baileys Harbor. It was so typical of John’s generosity that many of us stayed in that house in the early years. We rehearsed there when we had no other space. Fred Alley even recorded Woody’s Fire there.”
Hansen was delightfully funny and spontaneous, and he played a unique role in AFT’s first eight seasons. Mary Seeberg, president of the company’s board of directors since 1997, said, “John was out there, greeting people almost every night and assuring them what a good time they were going to have. He did his part to make sure that was true and helped set us on the right path. We tell volunteers that we always want to say yes to patrons’ requests and to ensure that they not only enjoy the show, but also have a good experience. John showed us all how to do that.”
When Kaye Christman was hired as AFT’s first full-time business manager in 1998, Fred Alley said, “The other finalist could only name three Packer starters from the Ice Bowl game!”
In a letter he wrote that spring to his niece, he said, “I’ve been interviewing for a new business manager. People flew in from all over the country. I ended up hiring a woman from Green Bay who has been coming to shows in the park for 20 years. She starts today. I feel like the cavalry has arrived. Our previous business manager left in January, and we’ve had to push forward with all the season planning with no one at the wheel. I’m not sure how we avoided crashing, but here we are in April with someone new training in the position. Kaye, our new business manager, is quite a few steps up from what we’ve been able to afford in the past. In fact, she is way overqualified. The only way we could get someone like her is that we happen to perform in this little piece of paradise.”
The following year, Christman’s title became general manager, and in 2002, she was named managing director. Seven years later, she announced that the 2009 season would be her last with the theater company.
Before arriving at AFT, Christman had spent more than 40 years as an RN at Bellin Home Health Care, eventually becoming its director and developing the hospice-care program. She died at her home in Green Bay on Feb. 14. She was 75.
In reminiscing about Christman, Northern Sky’s artistic director, Jeff Herbst, said, “Kaye had her hands full when she came on board with the three of us – Fred Alley, Doc Heide and me, who had our collective history and ways of doing things. But she got to work and really helped us figure out how to be a better business while still maintaining our mission of doing all new works. It was always so gratifying that she loved what we were creating, and that carried over into how she managed our affairs.
“I had a terrific working relationship with Kaye and felt extremely lucky to have been side by side with her in making sure that our theater company continued to flourish after Fred’s death in 2001. Kaye’s contribution at that time cannot be overstated. She was as committed as ever, and we forged ahead. Together, we saw the group that would become Northern Sky Theater through its toughest period.
“Of course, we all wish that Kaye were here to see Northern Sky move into our new campus. Her years of dedication as managing director are a huge part of this next step for Northern Sky, a huge part of how this has even become possible. She will always have a special place in my heart. Our Northern Sky shines brighter because of her.”
Seeberg said, “With Kaye, it was never just a job. She established office procedures, kept excellent track of the money, instilled in the organization the need for good personnel policies, including health insurance and vacation time – everything that made us a good, solid organization that we have been able to build on. Kaye’s door was always open, and she set the standard for following professional office procedures while still having a warm, welcoming environment. We stand today on the shoulders of Kaye and John.”