Before Missoula Children’s Theatre was a sprawling fleet of little red trucks crisscrossing the globe, it was a dream and a gambit by two young actors.
One of those, Jim Caron, retired in 2010.
Last week, the quieter partner in the theater’s genesis bade his farewell.
Co-founder Don Collins retires from MCT Inc. as its senior development officer, a behind-the-scenes position he’s held since 2004.
The Missoula native was majoring in applied voice and music education in 1972 when he auditioned for a play and met Caron, an English teacher who was passing through town when his vehicle broke down.
“I auditioned at the same time as he did for ‘Man of La Mancha,’ and the local kid gets cast as Quixote and the city boy (who) comes through in a Volkswagen van gets cast as Sancho,” Collins said.
They both had education backgrounds and saw the need for a local theater that catered to children.
“These couple of bonehead kids, as I put it in one of the other articles, decided to try and create a job for themselves,” Collins said.
In the beginning, it was a lot of work that didn’t pay well.
“We got educated real quickly and discovered that this has to be a nonprofit if it’s going to succeed,” Collins said. “It’s going to be a lot more work than we thought it’d be.”
Their first show, “Androcles and the Lion,” was a success, but the two realized they couldn’t afford to use others’ material.
“We payed royalties after our first show, and we had $37 left in the bank,” Collins said, despite having lots of help from the University of Montana.
Caron suggested they write their own material – he was an English major, and Collins was a music graduate. They began penning their own shows, which at this stage in the theater’s development were still casting adults performing for children, not the current format of the traveling tours.
“We discovered in the second year when we were doing ‘Hansel & Gretel,’ and we had the auditions, about 30 kids showed up for the Hansel and Gretel roles,’ ” Collins said.
Not only were the children compelling performers, but they helped fill the seats.
“Our houses got bigger. ’Cause kids were in the shows and families were coming,” Collins said.
After three years, they had nine shows written themselves, but the money still wasn’t there.
“We were paying each other $75 a week, and sometimes we had money to make that payment,” Collins said.
“They were tough,” Caron said. “We were working full time without any salaries and trying to maintain some kind of life.”
Caron added that despite the difficulties – such as Wonder Bread sandwiches for the cast and side jobs – it was still “great, great fun.”
“Those early days are nothing but good memories for me,” he said.
After several years, though, Collins decided he would pursue other work since he had a wife and children to support.
He visited his brother in Seattle and was goaded into auditioning for the Seattle Opera.
With the help of good timing, he was hired to do some supporting roles for the company: De Corporal in “La Fille du Régiment (A Daughter of the Regiment),” and Marullo in “Rigoletto.”
His first breakout feature role was Silvio in “Pagliacci,” after which he was offered an annual contract at the Seattle Opera, and within two years he was the resident baritone at the company and performing all of the English leading roles.
While he pursued his career in Seattle, Caron kept the Missoula Children’s Theatre growing.
“Jim, to his credit, really lived hand-to-mouth and decided, ‘I have to succeed in doing this. I must do this,’ ” Collins said.
The two remained friends, and Caron would visit Seattle and tell Collins about its growth – 100 residencies, 200, then 500 a year.
“The connection was never severed at all,” Caron said.
The real shift in the theater’s direction was also an innovation of Caron’s, inspired by a booking across the state in Miles City during February in 1972 or 1973.
While seven children from Missoula had been cast for “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves,” Caron realized he couldn’t drive across the state with seven children in “fairly scary weather.”
He asked the principal if any children at the school would be interested in participating if he came a week early for auditions.
“So Jim arrives, and the principal says, ‘I put a little note in the paper, and come on down to the gymnasium, I think we got a pretty good turnout,’ ” Collins said.
Three hundred and fifty kids showed up.
The tight turnaround also spurred great performances from the children, who weren’t living in the heart of the American theater.
“With a few days’ rehearsal, we began to realize what the pressure of being that close to the performance, what a great tool that was,” Caron said.
Caron then rewrote all of the shows into the current format, in which children play important roles that stretch them beyond their grade level.
Collins, meanwhile, sang opera for about 10 years, performed in theater and had a varied career that included owning his own business.
Caron began pressuring him to return in about 2000.
“In 2004, I came back to work with the company to help build our corporate program and to build a major gift program,” Collins said.
Caron said Collins became a very valuable spokesman for the company as well.
“He had the sales background, the arts background and the credential as a co-founder of the company,” Caron said, which opened a lot of doors.
“It’s been a really wonderful gift,” Collins said. Not only to come back to his hometown, but to “come back to work with this company I had a hand in getting started that Jim and how many hundreds, thousands, of people that put their blood, sweat and tears into this over the years over that 30-year period to make it what it is today.”
Collins is leaving a vastly larger enterprise than the one he helped found. There are 50 people on staff, with 47 teams set to go out this summer and work with about 65,000 children.
“There were a lot of sacrifices from a lot of people to make this happen,” Collins said. “I have been a really fortunate bystander in the process of that.”
Those tours have a mission beyond theater, Collins said, including music education in areas with little funding or access to the arts; and a social justice mission, including children from social and economic backgrounds who might never get to participate in the arts.
Success playing Rumpelstiltskin can translate into success in other school areas, Collins gave as an example.
Brian D’Ambrosio, media relations coordinator at MCT, said in an email, Collins, “has catalyzed tremendous success and growth in children worldwide and he leaves behind an enormous cultural footprint and legacy in Missoula and beyond. In all my many years in media and theater, I’ve never met someone as dedicated, passionate and determined as Don Collins.”
Collins and his wife, Priscilla Lauris, will return to Seattle. Priscilla is a professional actress who already has a show lined up in Seattle. (Fans of “Animal House” may remember her as Dean Wormer’s secretary).
His son Jason Collins is a professional actor in New York, and his daughter Rochelle Collins is a lead performer in Cirque Due Soleil’s “KA,” in Las Vegas.
Like their father, they got their start with Missoula Children’s Theatre, at the summer arts camps on Flathead Lake.
Entertainer editor Cory Walsh can be reached at 523-5261 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.