Remembering a Galena theater legend: Friends and family remember Ronn Toebaas after he passed away on Saturday, Feb. 25.


GALENA–A Galenian known by many in the community for his involvement in theater and as a friend, has died.

Ronn Toebaas, who died on Saturday, Feb. 25, is remembered by those he crossed paths with as an actor, teacher, writer, director, entertainer and friend.

“He was a gentleman, a caring person, kind. So I was just really fortunate to have him in my life,” Jane McKnight, Toebaas’s niece, said.

Toebaas came to Galena in the 1980s and is well known for his involvement in theater.

In 1986, he co-founded the Main Street Players Theatre Co. with his wife Alice, Carole Sullivan and Jan Lavacek. Sullivan said there wasn’t a theater back then so they performed at different places around town, including the Galena Middle School and the courthouse.

“He also wanted to do really quality work. He didn’t want any kind of schlock. He didn’t want people to slop through things. He wanted things to be done right, which I always appreciated,” she said.

Sullivan played his wife in the show “I Do! I Do!” She remembers how, in the first act, he would have temporary hair dye in and wash it out for the second act to make it seem as though he aged.

“And I remember one lady walking out at the end of the show saying, ‘You are such a good actor. I could even believe that you aged. Your hair even looked different in the second act,’ And he said, ‘Thank you,’” Sullivan said.

She said “he didn’t want to break the magic” of theater.

In 2006, he took over writing and directing the cemetery walk, a production where actors perform monologues and scenes near the gravesites of the people they are portraying. Toebaas worked with local historians on finding information about the people before writing about them.

Jay Dickerson acted in five cemetery walks and in 2022 worked with Toebaas as a writer and director. Dickerson was preparing to take over for Toebaas, who felt it was time to pass on the responsibility.

Dickerson said that for the first character he portrayed in a cemetery walk, an undertaker, Toebaas wrote the part with Dickerson in mind. Toebaas had a habit of adding characteristics of the actor to a character, while still maintaining historical accuracy.

Dickerson said Toebaas had the ability to get actors to do their best.

“I liked how he knew exactly what to say to a performer to get the best possible performance out of them,” Dickerson said.

Toebaas wrote over 80 scenes for the cemetery walk, which were complied into three volumes of “Voices from the Grave.” The last volume was released in fall 2022. The books are still available for purchase at the Galena - U.S. Grant History Museum gift shop.

Another notable production Toebaas wrote and directed was “Peace in Union.”

Nancy Breed, executive director of the historical society at the time, asked Toebaas to create the play for the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War. The play was about the end of the war and Galena’s efforts to obtain Thomas Nast’s painting “Peace in Union.” Breed said Toebaas worked with around 40 actors on this production.

“It was just an amazing presentation that we presented at Turner Hall. There was over 2,000 people that came to see it over probably a three-week span of time,” Breed said.

Toebaas’s most recent project was an independent film called “Carbon Man.” Susan Barg, who also appears in the movie, said it is about climate change “and the problems that we face as a world right now.” Much of the filming was done in Galena and it premiers in April.

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“I think he found it sort of the culmination of a career in theater. He had never done a movie before and it has been such an excitement for him to work on this movie,” Jenni Ackerman said.

Ackerman described Toebaas as “a devoted husband to his wife.”

McKnight said he and Alice were a “perfect match for a couple” because they both liked theater and Alice was a seamstress, who made costumes for Toebaas’s productions.

He and Alice were also both proud Norwegians. Toebaas and Alice took trips to Norway and Alice made them traditional Norwegian costumes.

Toebaas and Alice married in 1964. Alice died in 2011 and Toebaas created Alice’s Garden in her memory.

After Alice’s death, Toebaas spent more time with Ackerman and her husband Bryan. They would spend time watching movies and critiquing them together.

Ackerman said Toebaas also loved antique shopping. He worked at Peace of the Past as well as the antique stores in Mount Horeb, Wis. and Elizabeth.

Some of his friends like Barg remember having friendsgivings with Toebaas and going over to his house after the John Erickson Trio performed.

“I just felt really honored to be a part of that and it was a really special time of year,” she said.

Barg said he put together “really wonderful gatherings.” Ackerman recalls his annual Syttende Mai, Norway’s constitution day, celebration, where he made traditional Norwegian foods.

Barg and McKnight had both been invited on Toebaas’s yearly trip to Door County in Wisconsin.

“Those are really special times, sitting out on the deck watching the sunset and talking and doing meals together,” McKnight said.

Though Toebaas was born in Chicago, he grew up in Iola, Wis. He had a half-sister, Jackie. He returned to Chicago in his adult life and taught English, speech and drama at a Catholic all girls school.

Dickerson said that Toebaas was still in touch with several of his former students.

During his life, Toebaas was also an acting coach, community theater director and consultant for the United States government, who hosted seminars on topics such as conflict management.

Besides the scripts he had written, Toebaas also wrote two memoirs, “Theatre in My Life” and “A Memoir: Coming of Age in Rural Wisconsin in the 1940’s and 1950’s.”

“I just think that he really left a legacy here and he was an amazing human being and I just think that it’s a huge void in our community. That’s a huge loss and he will be missed,” Barg said.

Toebaas’s memorial services will be held later this spring. His obituary will be published later, too.

Toebaas wanted all memorial contributions to go toward the Alice Toebaas Curatorial Endowment Fund at the museum.