Janet Kelsey, beloved mom and “Mother of Hedgerow Theatre,” acclaimed actor, teacher, and director, passed away March, 26, 2018. She was 94. Wise, creative, and practical, Janet blessed thousands of lives, and she did it her way.
Born July 4, 1923 in East Lansdowne, Pa., Janet’s theatre business owner grandparents and parents had moved from Northwest Pennsylvania to the Philadelphia area so that her mother, Marie Cade, could attend Penn, where she graduated with a degree in biology. After Janet was born, the family moved to Claymont, Del. There they maintained several businesses, and her mother earned a Master’s from the University of Delaware. Marie Cade taught elementary schoolchildren until she retired.
Although Janet wanted to study acting after graduating Claymont High School in 1940, she took her mother’s advice, sought a business major, and graduated from Beacom College of Business. Janet married Broadway actor Jared Reed and moved in with her in-laws, who were prominent Manhattan theatre professionals. Their daughter, Penelope Reed, was born in 1945. The couple enjoyed a few blissful years together, but the marriage did not last and Janet returned to Claymont.
By then, theatre was in her heart, and though working with the family business, she began to develop a successful acting career in theater and TV in Wilmington, Del., eventually joining Actors Equity and performing at the Strand Theatre. There she met and married Denham Kelsey. By 1957 she had discovered Hedgerow, which would become a haven for her many extraordinary talents.
As a seasoned Equity actress, Janet was drawn to study with visionary Jasper Deeter at Hedgerow. In 1962, she moved to idyllic Rose Valley with her family, Penelope, Grey, Nancy, Denham and Sage. For the next five decades, Janet took part in phenomenal training at the Hedgerow Theatre School as both a student and teacher. Her business degree, too, proved invaluable, as she became the indispensable architectural secretary to John Dickey, John Bowie and Rick Ortega. This allowed her to work part-time, as well as focus on her Hedgerow family. She discovered a home theatre that celebrated the depth and wide range of her gifts as actress, teacher, director, and adored leader.
Actress Janet created scores of memorable characters, and she acted with generations of actors, who went on to perform in regional theatres, schools, and film. Her favorite productions included Touch of the Poet (1973), The Seahorse (1976), and Ghosts (1976). Janet soared as the Scottish Queen with Richard Basehart, reached heights as Amanda Wingfield, and joined family members modeling the Barrymores in the Royal Family as matriarch, Fanny Cavendish, along with daughters Penelope Reed, (Hedgerow ’62) as Julie and Grey Kelsey (H’64) as Ella, and grandson Jared Reed (H’89) as Tony.
As Hedgerow’s creative, administrative and fiscal guiding light, Janet also served in a wide range of supporting roles from costuming to office work. Wherever needed, Janet was seen keeping the theatre alive and thriving. Janet aided in the transitions of artistic leaders from Jasper Deeter to Dolores Tanner, to David Ralphe, to June Prager, to David Zurn Brunnen, to Penelope Reed, and to Jared Reed.
When schism nearly tore apart the Theatre, Janet sewed it back together. When arson destroyed the Theatre, Janet mobilized the physical, financial and spiritual repairs with many others, especially Moira Rankin, Ralph Roseman and Rose Schulman. During flood, fire, highs and lows, changing boards and companies, Janet was the backbone of the tenacity and kindness that helped Hedgerow persevere for over nine decades.
She was inspiring and treasured by all who knew her. In 2016, Rose Valley declared July 4 “Janet Kelsey Day,” and that fall, she was hailed as the “Mother of Hedgerow” for her five decades of guidance of America’s first residential repertory theater. Esteemed by audiences and theatre artists alike, Janet has kept Hedgerow growing to this day. As actor, managing director, or scribe, Janet has been Hedgerow’s greatest example of living its principles: humility, industry and aptitude for learning.
Janet is survived by five children: Grey, Nancy, Sage, Penelope, and Denham; 12 grandchildren; and 10 great-grandchildren.
An open house celebration of her life of laughter, grace, and grit will be held at Hedgerow Theatre, 64 Rose Valley Road, Rose Valley, PA 19063 on her 95th birthday, July 4, 2018.
Gifts may be sent in her memory to the Hedgerow Theatre’s Janet Kelsey Memorial Fund, 146 West Rose Valley Road, Rose Valley, PA 19086.