Ruth Schudson, Milwaukee’s actress
Today, Milwaukee’s reigning grande dame of the theater says she doesn’t remember deciding to become an actor.
“It was just kind of there,” she said, in an interview last week.
Just now, Schudson is playing the title role in Driving Miss Daisy with the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre, the company she co-founded. Daisy is her 65th role at MCT. That company will honor her with a gala tonight (Monday, Oct. 24) at the Broadway Theatre Center.
Though small in stature, Schudson has a regal bearing and a kindly manner. Her distinctively melodious speaking voice befits an actor with her experience. Schudson said she acquired that voice from her mother, who had a beautiful voice into her 90s, and from diction training as a young actress.
Her father had been an actor and director in his native Russia.
“Actually, he was Romanian,” Schudson said. “In Milwaukee, he worked at a factory that made parts for Cadillacs, I think.”
Heart problems forced him to give up that job. The family started a small neighborhood grocery business at 15th and Highland and lived behind the store. They moved several times.
“It was the Depression and people had trouble paying their grocery bills, especially at the neighborhood store,” Schudson recalled. “I went to five different grade schools.”
While a student at West Division High School (now the Milwaukee School of the Arts), Schudson appeared in community theater, including with the Milwaukee Players, a well-respected group that performed at West Division.
She promised her parents that she would earn a college degree. She obtained a fellowship at Chicago’s renowned Goodman School of Drama. There, her classmates included Geraldine Page (“a dear friend”) and comedian Shelley Berman. After graduation, she performed with Goodman alumni in the Woodstock Players in Woodstock, Ill. There she met Paul Newman and Tom Bosley, among others. She was lured to Oregon, where some of her friends were starting a new company in Oregon. But she preferred the Midwest and came home to Milwaukee.
She married Armand Schudson and bore two children. Schudson continued her career, first in Milwaukee community theater groups and at Alverno College, where she also taught. She remembers an Alverno production of Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth. Wilder sent a telegram to wish the cast well.
She has performed with the Milwaukee Repertory Theater “with every regime” going back to the company’s founding. In the Rep’s production of Our Town in the early 1970s, she met actor and director Montgomery Davis. He asked her to appear in a production of Shaw’s Don Juan in Hell, given at Marcus Center Vogel Hall in 1975.
After the success of that production prompted the two of them to perform Dear Liar, based on letters between George Bernard Shaw and actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell. She and Davis founded the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre. Its mission was and is to present professional theater of literary merit in intimate settings.
Another production based on correspondence, a play after Helene Hanff’s 84 Charing Cross Road, solidified the new company’s reputation in 1981. It was very popular with audiences and the two revived it twice for the MCT.
Just now, though, her main interest is Daisy: “She and I are friends – she is so beautifully written, warts and prejudice and all.”
Schudson is delighted with the growth of theater in Milwaukee in the last 20 to 25 years: “It’s fabulous, especially the cooperation among the various groups. That’s unique to Milwaukee and the theater community is richer for it.”
What role did she always want to play?
“Well, I would have liked to do more Chekhov,” she said, wistfully. She went on, without missing a beat, to deadpan: “And I suppose Peter Pan is out of the question.”
The Milwaukee Chamber Theatre‘s A Tribute to Ruth Schudson” will begin at 7:30 p.m. Monday in the Broadway Theatre Center’s Cabot Theatre. The event is a fundraiser for Ruth Schudson Leading Lady Fund, which will support the work of one MCT actress each season.
Admission to the gala is $250. To contribute to the fund or for reservations to the gala, call 414 276-8842.
The evening’s activities:
Tribute performances by:
Gladys Chmiel – Flora Coker – Laura Gordon
Carrie Hitchcock – Marti Gobel – Laura Gray
Mary MacDonald Kerr – Michelle Lopez-Rios
Raeleen McMillion – Dan Mooney – Norman Moses
Sheri Williams Pannell – April Paul
Molly Rhode – Betsy Skowbo – Chase Stoeger
Susan Sweeney – James Tasse – Jacque Troy
Jenny Wanasek – Sara Zientek
9 p.m. at Skylight Bar, Champagne Reception