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Bonstelle, Jessie (1871–1932)

Bonstelle, Jessie (1871–1932)

American actress and theater manager. Born Laura Justine Bonesteele near Greece, New York, on November 18, 1871; died in Detroit, Michigan, on October 14, 1932; married Alexander H. Stuart (an actor), in April 1893.

Dubbed "Maker of Stars" for her discovery and promotion of talented newcomers to the American theater, Jessie Bonstelle's lifetime in the theater was distinguished by her work as one of the first women theater managers in the country. She was the driving force behind one of the earliest community-based repertory theaters.

Little is known of Bonstelle's childhood. She was trained for the theater by her mother and toured California, around age 11 or 12, playing the deserted wife in the road company of Bertha, the Beautiful Sewing Machine Girl, instead of attending school. During a subsequent tour with a small Midwestern company, her name changed from Bonesteele to Bonstelle, either through a typesetting error or because the person preparing the theater marquee ran out of "e's." She continued to tour and in 1900 was asked by the Shubert brothers to organize a stock company for their newly acquired theater in Rochester. The success of that enterprise—in which Bonstelle acted, directed, and managed—led to positions managing stock companies in Buffalo and Detroit. These two companies were eventually merged into a single firm under the direction of Bonstelle, along with Edward D. Stair and Dr. Peter Cornell, the father of Katharine Cornell . One of her great successes during this period was Marian de Forest 's dramatization of Louisa M. Alcott 's Little Women (1912), featuring Alice Brady in one of her earliest roles. In 1919, Bonstelle directed Katharine Cornell in the London premiere of the play.

Bonstelle's subsequent experiences directing the Municipal Theater in Northampton, Massachusetts (1912–17) and the Opera House in Providence, Rhode Island (1922–24) laid the groundwork for the development of a community-supported professional theater. In 1925, taking over Detroit's Playhouse, she used income from Broadway touring productions to finance special programs in drama and dance for children and adults in the community. By 1928, the theater had emerged as the Detroit Civic Theater. In operation until 1933, it became a model for dozens of civic repertory theaters around the country.

In addition to giving Alice Brady and Katharine Cornell their first exposure, Bonstelle is credited with discovering Jessie Royce Landis, Melvyn Douglas, Ann Harding , William Powell, Ben Lyon, and Frank Morgan. She also employed stage designer Jo Mielziner and director Guthrie McClintic early in their careers.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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