When Tony LaRussa retired as manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, days after winning the World Series in fall 2011, James Larson noticed.
"It's good to bow out at the top of your game," said Larson, artistic director at the Rose Theater. "I'd been thinking about this for a long time."
Friday, Larson announced to the Rose's staff that he is retiring after 28 years as its artistic director. In that timespan, the Rose has grown to become one of the nation's top-tier theaters for children and families.
"I feel like I've accomplished way beyond what I ever imagined," said Larson, who turns 60 in September. "My kids are getting out of college, and I've got a couple young-adult novels I'm trying to finish up. It's a good time."
Larson was hired as artistic director of the Emmy Gifford Children's Theater in 1984, when it was housed in a former movie theater at 35th and Center Streets. It moved to the former Astro Theater at 20th and Farnam Streets in 1995, greatly increasing its seating capacity and classroom space. It was renamed the Omaha Theater Company at the Rose.
The theater now adds performances to most shows to meet a mushrooming ticket demand. It has sold out season memberships the past three years.
The company's $3 million budget is 10 times what it was when Larson signed on.
Larson established a national touring program 20 years ago, taking shows to millions of patrons in large performing arts centers throughout the country — and raising up to $590,000 in gross annual touring revenue. Larson has directed about 75 shows for the Rose.
He brought top playwrights and artists to Omaha, including Tony winner Mark Medoff, National Book Award winner Robert Bly, Pulitzer nominee Joe Sutton, and best-seller Stan Berenstain, creator of "The Berenstain Bears."
Himself a playwright, Larson adapted several books for the stage and toured them nationally, including "The Little Engine That Could," Mercer Mayer's "There's an Alligator Under My Bed," Beverly Cleary's "The Mouse and the Motorcycle" and many more.
He started the youth theater program, now called Teens'n'Theater, in which teens do all the acting. Teens'n'Theater includes annual programs that reach out to Latinos, African-Americans, gay teens and teen girls.
He built the theater's extensive educational programs from nothing. The Every Single Child program targets low-income students among the 66 elementary schools it visits each year with drama and dance activities. The theater also added after-school and summer classes on Larson's watch, plus the recent musical-theater Rose Brigade.
Susie Buffett, chairwoman of the Rose Blumkin Performing Arts Center Foundation, which owns the Rose, said Larson used the theater's move to larger quarters as an opportunity "to grow it into something really spectacular, and nationally known."
A businessman as well as artist, he found ways to fund it all, she said.
"One thing I like best about him is how much he cares about access for every person in the community," Buffett said. "It's a lot about inclusiveness, which is part of why I've gotten involved and stayed. It's a theater but also a social-service organization. That's due in large part to James."
Larson grew up in tiny Kiron, Iowa, and graduated from nearby Denison High School.
"I was an only child, so I always organized rounding up friends to play. I'd re-enact TV shows and movies," he remembered. "I've always kind of been doing this."
He got a degree in creative writing at the University of Iowa, then moved to Omaha to work on a master's degree in theater. He later earned a doctorate at the University of Kansas and, for a year, taught children's theater at New York University while simultaneously juggling his artistic-director duties.
"I didn't even really like children's theater in college," he said. "But I became a real convert about having an important, positive impact on young lives that have not yet set their course."
Amy Ryan, board president of the Omaha Theater Company and an audit partner at Deloitte & Touche, said Larson announced his decision only a few weeks ago.
"I think the world of James, and he'll be missed," she said. "I think our accessibility to all families and our education programs distinguish us, and James did so much to grow both those areas for us."
Ryan said the board will meet April 27 to begin the search for a successor. Larson's resignation is effective May 31, but he will continue with the theater as a consultant. Several guest directors have been signed up for the 2012-13 season.
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