Ken Beachler, who helped birth the Wharton Center, dies

Local theatrical career followed longtime MSU association


WEDNESDAY, June 7 — Ken Beachler, the founding executive director of the Wharton Center for the Performing Arts and a leading member of the Lansing theatrical community, died yesterday. He was 87.

Beachler, who had been dealing with declining health, died at home listening to classical music, a friend said.

Michigan State University named Beachler as Wharton’s first leader in 1981, while it was still under construction. Opening night on Sept. 25, 1982, was stellar, with performances by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and soprano Birgit Nilsson. Other highlights of Beachler’s 11 years as Wharton’s director included the Broadway touring productions of “Barnum,” “Dreamgirls,” “Cats” and “Les Miserables” and in 1987 a New Year’s Eve gala starring the singer and actress Pearl Bailey.

"We are saddened to learn about Ken's passing," Eric Olmscheid, Wharton's executive director, said today.  "Ken's life was dedicated to the performing arts and his commitment was unwavering.
He provided essential leadership in the planning and development of Wharton Center as well as
the first decade of operations. We would not be where we are today without his vision,
commitment, and passion. The staff of Wharton Center extends our heartfelt condolences to Ken's
family and the many, many friends he leaves behind.

"Ken's distinctive baritone voice will be missed throughout mid-Michigan," Olmscheid added.

Kenneth Clarke Beachler was born on Oct. 11, 1935, in Battle Creek, Michigan. He earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the Honors College at Michigan State University in 1963. A veteran, Beachler served in the Army and later was a captain in the U.S. Naval Reserve and a lifelong member of the Naval Reserve Association.

After high school, Beachler moved to Chicago, where he was an actor and singer in the 1950s. He told the Wharton Center in a 2016 interview for its publication Beyond the Stage that he turned 20 on the road in a nine-month tour of a program performed at school assemblies called “Four Centuries of American Popular Song.”

At 21, in 1956 he joined the Army and was sent to Germany. He recalled that after six months the special services office called on him for temporary duty as the director of a show, which he turned into a 16-month stint, during which he directed seven or eight more productions.

Later as a student at MSU and a member of the MSU Players, he toured in Asia. “This was important in the big picture because ultimately I was booking people for the tours,” Beachler said.

 In 1959, WKAR general manager Dick Estell hired him to be an announcer at WKAR AM/FM at MSU. Beachler said a factor was that he could speak German and hence pronounce the names of classical music composers. In 1962, he joined WSWM-FM in East Lansing, where he was an announcer for two years before returning to MSU in 1964 to be WKAR-FM’s music program director until 1970. In 1971, he became the director of MSU’s lecture-concert series until he joined the Wharton Center in 1981. In the 1970s, he also served as a TV host for WKAR.

The Kenneth C. Beachler Arts Management Internship Fund was established by MSU in 1992 to
honor Beachler's dedicated work at Wharton Center to give MSU students opportunities to gain real-life experience working in arts management.

After leaving the Wharton Center, Beachler was seen frequently in local theatrical productions and directed many more, including over two dozen shows at Riverwalk Theatre. One highlight of his acting career was appearing in the old Boarshead Theatre production of George Bernard Shaw’s comedy “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” with movie actress Paula Prentiss and her daughter, Prentiss Benjamin, in 2007.

In the 2000s, the Lansing Symphony Orchestra called on Beachler to serve as executive director to help see it through a rocky financial period.

Beachler was a longtime member of the Rotary Club of Lansing, serving as its president in 1988. For many years, he arranged for live performances by vocalists and musicians of all stripes, from classical to jazz, to open the club’s weekly meetings.

In his LinkedIn profile, Beachler defined himself as an “independent entertainment professional.” A 2010 article in City Pulse about his narration skills when paired with classical music in local shows described him as “velvet-voiced” and sophisticated.

Information on a memorial service and funeral were not yet available. A member of a large family, he is survived by siblings and nieces and nephews.


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