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Davenport Junior Theatre was first the dream of Mary Fluhrer Nighswander. She held on to that dream through many years, fighting for it, living it, and always working to make it better.


When we think of Mary today, we tend to remember her August years. We see the determined woman with a spark in her eyes and high expectations for everyone around her, but do we know much about her life before Junior Theatre?

Mary's parents were missionaries in Korea when she was born in 1907, and she lived there through much of her childhood. She evaded cholera and survived diptheria and the influenza pandemic. Later, her family fled Korea in the wake of the Japanese occupation, arriving in the United States just after Mary's twelfth birthday.

She had a love of acting from early childhood, leading her to Maryville College in Tennessee. After graduation, she went to New York to pursue a career on stage, and studied for another year at the prestigious American Academy. Mary didn't tell anyone about her degree because "college kids always thought they knew more than experienced actors."

At the age of twenty-two, she was hired to work on a repertory circuit in upstate New York. That's where she met George Fluhrer, a veteran of World War I and an actor on the circuit. He proposed on stage, under his breath, in front of a live audience that had no idea what was happening.

They were married and continued on the circuit. After the birth of their three children, George landed a more permanent job in Davenport. Tragically, however, George died of a ruptured appendix shortly after they arrived in Iowa. Suddenly, Mary was a single mother: "I had exactly 25 cents to my name and three kids to spend it on."

Her dreams were shattered, but Mary picked up the pieces and built something new. Working with Leone Bredbeck of Daveport Parks and Recreation, she created Junior Theatre. For thirty years, they rehearsed and performed in donated space, moving from unheated offices to pool locker rooms before finally finding a home at the Annie Wittenmyer complex, where Junior Theatre resides today.

Mary was also one of the founding members of the Broadway Theatre League in 1962, bringing touring Broadway productions to the Adler Theatre in downtown Davenport. In 1989, Mary received her Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts from St. Ambrose University for her lifetime of work. The theatre at Junior Theatre today is dedicated in her memory. Additional honors and awards were Region IV governor for the American Children's Theatre Association, Marijane Morgan medallion winner for service to the region, first recipient of the Isabel Bloom Award for Fine Arts in the Quad-Cities and listing in "Who's Who of American Women."

Her biography, Mary: A Biography, written by Kansas City journalist and former Junior Theatre student Michael Ashcraft, was published in 1990. Former students and other friends honored her at a reception in 1990, and she was presented with a proclamation and key to the city by Davenport Mayor Thom Hart.

Mary passed away in July, 1991.

Thanks to Mary, tens-of-thousands of students have participated in the program, having valuable experiences that have forever changed their lives. As we move into the future, we always keep our founder in our hearts and minds.

"People ask me why I don't retire or stop or slow down or something. They can’t seem to understand it.  It’s just the strangest thing.  Why would I want to?  This is what I do.  It’s what I do, it keeps me going.  Why would I want to stop doing it?  It’s not some dreary exercise routine, honey.  It’s life.  I wouldn’t trade mine for anyone else's in the world.  Why should I?  God will let me know when it’s time for me to quit.  I’m perfectly content to let Him decide that.”

-Mary Fluhrer Nighswander
MARY : A Biography
written by Michael Ashcraft, Junior Theatre alumnus

Davenport Junior Theatre | Annie Wittenmyer Complex, 2822 Eastern Avenue, Davenport, Iowa 52803
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