History of NMU's Main Stage

The Little Theatre was built on Northern's campus in 1963. It was part of a three-unit complex, which also included Thomas Fine Arts and the McClintock Building. The complex was and still is used for a variety of purposes, including classes, set building, and performances.

Throughout the years, renovations and improvements have been made to the theater on a regular basis, including two major projects. During the summer of 1969, the counterweight units, drapes, and shop equipment were installed, making the facility a complete and extremely flexible staging area. In 1995, a renovation updated the lobby and addressed several accessibility concerns.

On May 31, 1969, the name of the Little Theatre was changed to Forest Roberts Theatre in honor of Roberts' service to the university and the community. The dedication was made on May 31, 1969. During a memorial service for Professor Roberts in the summer of 1997, a bronze plaque and portrait made in his honor were placed in the lobby of the theatre.

Historical Photos of Theatre and Dance at NMU

Enjoy a visual history of theatre and dance at Northern Michigan University:

Forest Roberts Theatre Namesake

The building's namesake, Forest A. Roberts, was born in Tabor, Iowa on October 15, 1901. He received his education at Graceland Junior College (1919-21) and State University of Iowa (1921-23) where he received his bachelor of arts and master's degrees. He also took graduate courses at the University of Wisconsin (1930) and the University of Southern California (1940-41). He married Esther Ruth Salter of DePere, WI in June 1925.

Prior to coming to Northern, he taught at Graceland Junior College (1923-27) and J. Sterling Morton High School in Cicero-Berwyn, IL (1928). In the summer of 1928, he and his wife moved to Marquette, MI where Roberts began his tenure in the English Department at Northern Michigan University. Through his efforts, the university established the Speech Department, now known as Communication and Media Studies, in 1955. Roberts was selected as department head. Affectionately known throughout the Upper Peninsula as "Mr. Speech," Roberts was Northern's director of forensics (1933-38) and served as an official certification officer for the Michigan State Department of Speech Pathology (1943-64). He also established NMU's first courses in drama, directed many productions, which toured the Upper Peninsula (1928-43), and acted in several roles. His last Marquette performance was in The Snow Goose in 1988.

While at NMU, Roberts was the faculty chair of the Alumni Relations Committee and a lifelong member of the Michigan Education Association, which culminated in a term on the MEA Board of Directors (1962-65). He was active in community affairs as a co-founder and president of the Marquette Community Concert Association (1936-39) and accepted many other community responsibilities.

In his retirement, the Roberts family maintained a home on Middle Island Point, where he and his wife spent their summers. She died in 1993.

NMU honored Roberts on several occasions. On May 31, 1969, the Little Theatre was renamed in his honor. In 1987, he was awarded an honorary doctorate of Humane Letters. Later, the Forest A. Roberts Scholarship was established in his honor.

Roberts passed away March 28, 1997. During a memorial service for Roberts in the summer of 1997, a bronze plaque and portrait made in his honor were placed in the lobby of the theatre.

Panowski Black Box Theatre Namesake

Dr. James A. Panowski was the Director of the Forest Roberts Theatre from 1977 to 2009. 

Born and raised in Jack Benny’s hometown of Waukegan, Illinois, Panowski received his B.A. from Illinois Wesleyan University and his graduate degrees in Ohio. A twenty-year veteran of summer stock, he acted in and directed over 100 productions. He had especially fond acting memories from his portrayal of Dr. Watson in Sherlock Holmes for the Millbrook (Pennsylvania) Playhouse and his Black Box Theatre performance as Henry (the Old Actor) in The Fantasticks during the summer of 2005. He was resident director and associate producer for the Carousel Playhouse (Wadsworth, IL) for five years and served as Artistic Director for the Timber Lake Playhouse (Mt. Carroll, IL). He also orchestrated and served as Managing Director for the Island Playhouse at the Inns of Mackinac on Mackinac Island the summer of 1978. 

His teaching specialties included directing theory, musical theatre, and theatre management. He was a musical theatre fanatic and had a warm spot in his heart for musical failures… especially after investing in Dear World! Panowski endowed the annual playwriting award in honor of his parents, and received a Distinguished Faculty Award in 1994. In his tenure at NMU, Dr. P also established the First Nighter's Club, a booster club for theatre and dance students, and was the voice of the Wildcats for over 10 years, announcing at basketball and football games.

Dr. Panowski passed away May 22, 2018. The James A. Panowski Black Box Theatre and the Panowski Dance Studio ("Studio P") are named in his honor.

Production Photos

* Indicates Mildred and Albert Panowksi Playwriting Award winners
** Indicates a production of Alpha Psi Omega
*** Indicates a student-produced show
† Indicates a North Coast Theatre Festival production


More production photos can be found on our Facebook.