Feb. 1 2017 01:32 PM

BoarsHead Theatre co-founder John Peakes dead at 83

City Pulse’s Nov. 19, 2003, issue, published shortly before John Peakes moved to New Jersey, featured a drawing of “Lansing’s man of many faces” by Dennis Preston.
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This article has been updated to include information about John Peakes' first son, Jonathan, who died in a motorcycle accident.

Longtime Lansing actor John Peakes died Thursday morning at 83. 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.

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 Merchantville, N.J.

“What Lansing meant to him is less important in my mind than what he meant to Lansing,” said his son, Ian Peakes, in a message to City Pulse. “He loved it there and made it an artistic home for 30 some odd years. But his impact, as I have seen after posting a few things about my dad over the last week, is astonishing. I think for me, it really pushes home the notion that even a small arts environment in a smaller city is so vital and so necessary.”

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 Boars- Head Theater and did five seasons there from 1970 to 1975,” Peakes 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 couple had two sons, Jonathan, born in 1967, and Ian, born in 1969. Jonathan Peakes died in a motorcycle accident in 1984. Ian Peakes was a regular on BoarsHead stages from an early age. He moved to Merchantville a few years after his father and 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.

Left to right: John Peakes, Buck Shirner and Carmen Decker appear in a 1990 production of “Big Sister, Little Brother and Dumbarton Oaks” at BoarsHead Theatre.
City Pulse archives
“Growing up in the theater is so advantageous for any child. It's just play all the time,” he recalled. “We were never talked down to. It was, indeed, a unique and wonderful time. Being exposed to creativity and stories just made me want to do it myself. And I have. And I feel pretty lucky each day I go to work.”

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. Boars- Head Theatre folded in 2009, citing financial hardships.

“John was grumpy and gracious, frumpy and formal, arrogant and affable — and always likeable,” said City Pulse theater critic David Winkelstern. “I found him an articulate man of contrasts.”

Peakes’ final performance at Boars- Head, 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?”

Actor Jim Wisniewski appeared in seven shows at BoarsHead, including Peakes’ farewell performance.

“It was one of the best experiences of my career,” he said in an email to City Pulse. “John could tease the heck out of you, and then he would give you the warmest smile that said, ‘Hey man, you're safe here.’ I learned so much from him.”

For Ian Peakes, his father’s enduring legacy is the love of theater he instilled in so many people.

Left to right: Director Judith Peakes gives notes to actors Ian, Karen and John Peakes in preparation for BoarsHead Theatre’s 2003 production of “Philadelphia, Here I Come,” John Peakes’ last performance in Lansing.
City Pulse archives

“Watching my dad — and really all the adults around me who chose to make the theater their life — taught me that outside the box, outside the norm, there existed a special kind if happiness and fulfillment I didn't often see in my friends’ parents,” he said. “This is not a judgment or an assumption that they were not happy and fulfilled, but being face to face with such unadulterated joy as a living made me realize that there were options, while not always financially solvent, that didn't involve a 9-to-5 job. And for that, I'm eternally grateful.”

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