In a shelf in the dining room of Wendy Lehr’s south Minneapolis home stands a small collection of ceramics. “Everything here is a gift,” says Lehr. The red clay jars are from Arizona, where she went to prove herself as a serious actress in the 1980s. The Chinese vase was a present from Twin Cities director John Clark Donahue. “Here they all are,” Lehr coos, surveying the empty vessels like a mother hen counting her chicks. “All my little mouths….” ¶ Lehr’s maternal instincts are well-honed. Although she and her husband, actor/director Gary Briggle, have never had children of their own, Lehr has spent a considerable chunk of her 45 years on the stage entertaining kids. She got her start in the 1960s in the Moppet Players, acting alongside Donahue and Bain Boehlke, the future founder of the Jungle Theater. The troupe quickly morphed into the Children’s Theatre Company, and several generations remember Lehr as the goofy stepsister Pearl in the CTC’s annual holiday show, Cinderella.
This month, Lehr is reprising another memorable role as “Mrs. Peterson,” the star of a Saturday-morning series for kids at the Jungle. Armed with a stack of books and donning a grandmotherly mein, Lehr will read a bit, sing a song or two, and crack some wise.
Lehr’s abilities exceed child’s play, of course. She’s at least as well known for serious fare at the Jungle, the Guthrie, the Park Square—so many stages, for so many years, that the Lowry Theater in St. Paul was recently renamed in her honor. This past fall, she was awarded a lifetime achievement award at the Iveys, an annual gala celebrating Twin Cities theater.
But Lehr admits to an ongoing fondness for kids’ shows—especially during the holidays. “I love doing a Christmas show, because it extends your family,” she says. “And I like being Mrs. Peterson. She’s the perfect stand-in for a grandmother if you don’t have one.”
5 THINGS YOU DIDN’T KNOW ABOUT WENDY
1. She’s appeared in ads, and even sang and danced in a bus company commercial.
2. She left Drake University in Des Moines for her first paid acting gig, in Minnesota.
3. The Wendy Lehr Theater is run by the Saint Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists.
4. Several of her 1980s CTC shows, directed by Donahue, were broadcast on television.
5. She adores The Full Monty, which she acted in (as the accompanist) last winter.