Lewis Whitlock III, Twin Cities theater pioneer and co-founder of Chanhassen Dinner Theaters, dies


A Twin Cities theater pioneer who helped shape the arts ecology of Minnesota, appeared on Broadway, participated in the first nationwide tour of “The Wiz” and was the State Department’s cultural envoy to Central Asia and in the Baltic States, died.

Lewis Whitlock III, who was also part of the founding company of Chanhassen Dinner Theaters and brought “Black Nativity” to the Penumbra Theater in St. Paul, died on September 11 at the age of 72.

The lyric dancer, actor, choreographer and director died of cardiopulmonary arrest, said his brother, Kevin Whitlock. He said his brother also suffered from urothelial cancer.

A child prodigy, Whitlock began taking dance lessons at the age of 4 in his native Minneapolis. He impressed his teachers so much with his passion and sophistication that when he was a teenager he performed professionally.

The millions of patrons who have attended performances in Chanhassen, the country’s largest theater of its kind, owe him a debt, said director Gary Gisselman, who played Whitlock in Chanhassen’s very first show, “How to be successful in business without really trying “in 1968.

“I had worked with Lewis at Bloomington Civic in about five or six shows when I was 15, and he was one of the best dancers in the Twin Cities,” Gisselman said. “He worked really hard and expected people to work just as hard to get it right. He made a lot of progress for black artists because he was always working and had that personal discipline.”

In Chanhassen, Whitlock starred in productions such as “West Side Story” and “Guys and Dolls” and, later in the 1980s, directed “Tintypes” and “The Fantasticks”.

Theater goers who saw “Black Nativity” at Penumbra also owe the experience to Whitlock.

“The idea of ​​making ‘Black Nativity’ was his idea,” said Penumbra founder Lou Bellamy. “I wouldn’t have done it without him.”

While companies across the country stuck to Langston Hughes’ rudimentary script – an oratorio with two dancers, a chorus and a narrator – “Lewis came up with the idea of ​​putting it in Joplin, Missouri, [Hughes’ birthplace] with the idea of ​​showing people leaving slavery and celebrating their first Christmas after emancipation, “Bellamy said.” We’ve been doing this for years, and it’s only grown. “

Whitlock has also produced musicals for Penumbra, including “Lost in the Stars”.

“Lewis was pretty tight and didn’t suffer from the fools at all,” Bellamy said. “But what made him special was what he put on stage. He mixed classical and popular dance with African American culture.”

Born March 7, 1949, in Minneapolis, Whitlock grew up in a neighborhood (E. 38e Street and Clinton Avenue) eight blocks from the intersection that would become a place of pilgrimage for George Floyd decades later. When he was a child, his father, Lewis Whitlock Jr., operated a dry cleaning business.

“But then [highway] 35W went by and paved right over it, ”said Kevin Whitlock.

Whitlock’s parents were very involved in the community, imparting a sense of civic responsibility and service to their six children, of whom Lewis III was the oldest. Lewis Whitlock Jr. would later go to work at the Spicer Heavy Axle factory. The family matriarch, Beverley Whitlock, worked as a photo librarian at the Star Tribune.

The Whitlock children had music in their blood. Kevin Whitlock, a retired police sergeant, has spent more than a decade playing percussion with Grammy-winning Sounds of Blackness, where his wife, Jennifer Whitlock, sang. His sister, Dara Whitlock Ceaser, also sang with the group.

“Lewis saw his job as a service,” said Kevin Whitlock. “We’ve all been taught that.”

Dance teacher Barbara Lotsberg, who ran a dance studio for over 50 years, taught Whitlock from age 4 through high school.

“He knew his trade and he had this beautiful style of his own – really fluid,” Lotsburg said. “His dance was ballet but it was also jazzy. He could do tap dancing, ballet, modern – he combined everything.”

It was Lotsburg who brought him to the Bloomington Civic, which in turn drove him to Chanhassen, where he was playing while he was also a student at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. He would go to shows in Chanhassen and then return to classes in River Falls.

“He was so disciplined, so careful and planned, that once we got caught in a snowstorm on the way back to River Falls. It was whiteout conditions and he ran this little Volkswagen Beetle all the way. Throughout the storm. It was so Butchie, “Kevin Whitlock recalls, calling on the family nickname for him.

Other nicknames included Bo Peep, partly for his calming stability, and almighty brother-in-law.

After college, Whitlock moved to New York City to study dance with renowned Tony Award-winning choreographer George Faison. Like Alvin Ailey, Faison combined jazz, modern, ballet and African styles, and he called on Whitlock for the first national tour of “The Wiz” in 1976.

“At that time, coming out of the civil rights movement, we had to teach people about us, our humanity, our strength and our beauty,” Faison said. “You tell stories with ballet – that’s what he was so good at, speaking without words. Lewis was very pulled up. He was sweet and expressive and knew the magic we wanted to create, how with one. piece of tissue [in ‘The Wiz’], we could make a tornado. It’s a huge loss. “

Whitlock’s Broadway credits include the short-lived musicals “Reggae” and “Zoot Suit”.

In 2009, Whitlock conducted master classes in Kazakhstan under the auspices of the United States Embassy there, and also choreographed and conducted acts of “Damn Yankees”, “Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat” and ” How to Succeed in Business ”at the Aktobe Oblast Philharmonic. .

He also did similar work in Riga, Latvia.

Whitlock, who received a Masters of Fine Arts in Theater from Minnesota State University, Mankato, has taught at McNeese State University, Louisiana State University, St. Cloud State University, Mankato State University, University of Wisconsin-River Falls and Carleton College. He also taught in public schools whenever he could, including St. Paul Central and North High Schools.

“It started out for a lot of us at a professional level of work that got us a step ahead of a lot of the youngsters,” said Thomasina Petrus, who took classes with Whitlock at North High and participated in the production of “The Wiz” by the school. “We were crazy to make him happy. And many of us here now – T. Mychael Rambo, Peter Macon, Austene Van – we owe him a lot.”

Whitlock’s last big show in the Twin Cities was “The Color Purple,” which he directed and choreographed for St. Paul’s Park Square Theater in 2015.

“Dance, like any other art form, is a form of expression… a very basic expression,” Whitlock said in 1973 in a recording archived at the Givens Collection at the University of Minnesota. “There is a rhythm to everything, if you listen. There is a rhythm to the cars driving down the street, to a water tap… if you think about walking the right way, it can be dancing. “

Whitlock never married. Along with Kevin Whitlock of Brooklyn Park and Dara Whitlock Ceaser of Coon Rapids, survivors include siblings Paul Whitlock of Minneapolis and Saundra Hayes of South Sioux City, Nev., And several nieces and nephews.

A public memorial will be held from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. on October 9 at the Sabathani Community Center, 310 E. 38e St., Minneapolis. Participants are requested to be vaccinated and wear masks.

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