Jan. 26 2017 02:05 PM

BoarsHead Theatre co-founder John Peakes dead at 83

THURSDAY, Jan. 26 — Longtime Lansing actor John Peakes died this morning at 83, City Pulse has learned. Peakes had been suffering from chronic heart problems and other medical conditions.

“He’s gone. It was very peaceful. He just stopped breathing,” his wife, Judith Peakes, texted to Lansing-area friends this morning.

Peakes was co-founder of BoarsHead Theatre, which was founded in 1966, and served as the troupe’s artistic director until 2003. After leaving BoarsHead Theatre, John and Judith Peakes moved to Merchantsville, NJ. BoarsHead Theatre folded in 2009, citing financial hardships.

Peakes, in a 2003 City Pulse interview, said he was in graduate school at Iowa State University when he learned of an opportunity in Greater Lansing.

“One of my professors ran a summer theater in Michigan, but he’d been offered a job at Brigham Young University,” said Peakes, “so of course he’d have to give up the commute to Michigan. He asked if I knew anyone who wanted to buy and run a theater.”

Peakes took on a partner, Richard Thomsen, and purchased the Ledges Playhouse in Grand Ledge. Peakes and Thomsen had paying teaching jobs in the off-season for the next several years, which enabled them to indulge their summer passion.
But the duo wanted to do theater year round, so they moved into a former church in downtown Grand Ledge.

“We changed our name to the BoarsHead Theater and did five seasons there from 1970 to 1975,” Peake recalled. “We chose BoarsHead because it was the tavern in Shakespeare’s ‘Henry IV,’ and we had the grand idea we could do at least one Shakespeare show a season. We quickly found out that wasn’t financially feasible.” 

Peakes’ first wife, Connie Villiers, was instrumental in the early years of BoarsHead Theatre. The two had a son, Ian Peakes, who was a regular on BoarsHead stages from an early age. Ian Peakes, who moved to Merchantsville a few years after his father, has become an accomplished actor on the East Coast. Last year, he won the prestigious Helen Hayes award for his supporting role in “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” at Folger Theatre in Washington.

In 1975, BoarsHead Theatre purchased a space in downtown Lansing at the corner of Grand Avenue and Lenawee Street. Thomsen left the troupe in 1984, after what Peakes described as “creative differences.” Judith Peakes, then Judith Gentry, joined BoarsHead Theatre in 1986 as managing director. The theater, at the time, was facing dire financial troubles.

“I thought it would be a nice challenge to help him straighten it out,” she said.

She married John Peakes in 1994 and continued to serve as managing director of BoarsHead Theatre until 2003.

Peakes’ final performance at BoarsHead, a December 2003 production of “Philadelphia, Here I Come,” was directed by his wife and featured both his son and daughter-in-law.

“I have nearly 40 years’ worth of friends in Lansing,” he said before the performance. “But that’s why ‘Philadelphia, Here I Come’ is such a great play for all of us to be doing right now — it’s all about leaving and how hard it is to leave. What could be better than to be doing it with your family?”

T.E. Klunzinger. Ute Von Der Heyden and Meegan Holland contributed to this remembrance.