Vera Cunningham, 84, the grande dame of the Community Theatre of Howell — beloved as a director, actor, teacher, cheerleader, matchmaker, traveler, adventurer, and friend — died Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2019, in Florida after a short illness, surrounded by her family.
Her talent and passion for the theater was innate.
“When I was very small, I was the person in the neighborhood who gathered all the kids together and put on shows in the basement, charging parents a nickel,” she said in a story about her in the Aug. 19, 1994, edition of the Livingston County Press. “It’s fun to put on different hats and be someone else for a while, walk in someone else’s shoes. It’s enlightening. It’s creative. And it’s very satisfying.”
At her core, Vera was a theater evangelist.
That she is likely the only person in the world to have directed plays in neighborhood basements, in high schools, in community theater groups, and in a maximum-security men’s prison attests to her immense talent and sincere drive to spread the love of theater wherever she was.
Vera also loved adventure, and was able to travel most of the world.
Her passion for and dedication to the Community Theatre of Howell extended far beyond creative endeavor; for her, CTH was a family affair: Her son Buddy Moorehouse met his wife, Kathy, in the CTH production of “Kiss Me, Kate” in 1994.
“(Vera) recruited me for ‘Kiss Me Kate,’” Moorehouse said. “I didn’t want to (be in it), but she said, ‘Well, Kathy Rohrscheib is in it…’”
So, Moorehouse dove in. The next year, he and Rohrscheib tied the knot, and a year after that they appeared in another show together, as the lovebirds Nathan Detroit and Adelaide in CTH’s “Guys and Dolls.”
Vera’s granddaughter Leslie Huntley got married at the theater in the only real-life wedding that’s taken place there.
And in what could be seen as a passing of the baton, the last CTH show Vera helped direct was the 2015 production of “Mary Poppins,” which was her granddaughter Lottie’s first.
In addition to directing two of her children and three of her grandchildren in shows, Vera also created a larger, dedicated family of die-hard fans and loving friends, all of whom were inspired by her passion for theater and her zest for life.
“When she directed a show, she put her whole heart and soul into it,” said Maria Usher of Maria’s School of Dance in Fowlerville. “She knew every detail about every show and every character. She made you feel like you were living in that time. She was amazing.”
Vera also took tap lessons from Usher until she could no longer dance.
Usher also credited Vera as the reason for her having children.
“She introduced me to their father when she directed ‘Cinderella,’” Usher said. “We had a theater wedding, and then we had our babies. Vera’s touched so many lives; she’s influenced generations.”
Amy Lauter got engaged to her husband, John Lauter, 21 years ago; the two met “all because of Vera.”
“She changed the course of our lives,” Lauter said on Facebook, “and consequently our children’s lives.”
“She touched so many people,” said Linda Peasley, who produced most of the shows Vera did with CTH. “We worked very closely together and she was a dear, dear friend.”
Peasley then said she was remembering Vera’s favorite quote from “White Christmas”: “If you are worried and cannot sleep, count your blessings instead of sheep.”
Many are counting Vera among their blessings today.
“We were all so lucky to have her touch our lives,” said Lindsay MacInnis. “She taught me how to fake confidence until it was real, and how to shake my stage fright.”
“When I was cast for the first real play I did with Community Theatre of Howell, ‘The Miracle Worker,’ the amazing Vera Cunningham was one of the primary acting coaches I had as a young performer, and she was there for every CTH production I was in after that,” said Eric Major in a post on Facebook. “Outside of my parents, Vera was one of my primary influences when it came to developing my love and passion for the arts, and I have thought of her often over the years, always fondly, and always as the amazing lady that she was.”
Vera was also able to share her love of theater with a most unusual group of actors: inmates at the Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet, Ill, one of the toughest maximum-security prisons in America, the lock-up in which mass murderer Richard Speck and serial killer John Wayne Gacy did their time.
It was also where Vera was employed as the facility’s cultural arts supervisor for 13 years, from 1979 to 1992. Vera ran the prison’s art program, music program, and newspaper, in addition to starting the prison’s library.
She founded the Stateville Con Artistes, a troupe of 28 actors she directed in productions including “Twelve Angry Men,” “Mister Roberts,” “Inherit the Wind,” “The Odd Couple,” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
It was while she was at Stateville that the famed prison served as the backdrop for several Hollywood productions, in which some of the Con Artistes got to appear as extras. Those productions included the films “Red Heat,” with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jim Belushi, and “Weeds,” starring Nick Nolte; the television pilot of “Gabriel’s Fire,” starring James Earl Jones; and a show about capital punishment by Scott Bakula.
It was not all that far from the prison, about an hour or so away in Chicago, that the story of Vera June Cunningham began. She was born on Feb. 5, 1935, to Elling Jacobson and Florence Gregory. Her father was an immigrant from Norway and she was always fiercely proud of her Norwegian heritage.
She grew up in Aurora, Illinois, and studied theater at the University of Illinois. She married Hank Moorehouse, and they had three children, Kimberly, Buddy and David.
While living in Illinois, Vera taught kindergarten and became involved with her first community theater group, the Palos Village Players in Palos Park, Ill.
In 1968, the family moved to Michigan, and immediately became involved with the Ypsilanti Players. Vera then went back to school, earning her master’s degree in theater history at Eastern Michigan University, where she also taught theater and speech and became involved in the theater program.
Upon graduation, Vera started work on her Ph.D. at the University of Michigan, where she also taught theater and speech. She was only seven hours short of earning her doctorate when she dropped out of school and took a job teaching drama at Ypsilanti High School.
Though she was only at Ypsi High for two years — from 1977-79 — she ended up directing six shows. At the time of her death, she was still in contact with many of her students from Ypsi High.
In 1979, Vera and Hank divorced and she moved back to Illinois, where she married a childhood friend, Richard Cunningham. He was a farmer who lived in a small town called Sugar Grove, right near her old home of Aurora.
Vera needed a job, and when she couldn’t find any openings for a drama teacher at a local high school, she took the job at the Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet.
In 1990, her husband, Dick, passed away, so Vera moved back to Michigan to be closer to her children and grandchildren. She jumped into the local theater scene right away, landing a role in a Livingston Players production, appearing at the old Mill Pond Theater in Brighton.
She then became involved with the Community Theatre of Howell, helping out as the assistant director for its production of “Oklahoma!” She fell in love with CTH, and CTH fell in love with her, and it became her home and extended family for the next 25 years.
By the time Vera moved to Florida in 2016, where she was able to be close to her son David and his family, she had directed 14 shows for CTH — 10 big-stage musicals and four dramatic plays, everything from “The Music Man” and “Guys and Dolls,” to “Inherit the Wind” and “To Kill a Mockingbird” — and she acted in numerous others.
In 2017, Vera was honored by the Community Theatre Association of Michigan with the Dorothy Arnett Volunteer Service Award — the group’s highest honor. And CTH named its library of scripts and other theatrical materials “The Cunningham Library” in her honor. If you’d like to see the presentation the Community Theatre of Howell put together when it named its library in Vera’s honor, click here: TRIBUTE TO VERA CUNNINGHAM
Memories of Vera are being shared on social media:
One of the reasons Kathy Wilmoth’s daughters went on to have careers in theater was Vera, described by Wilmoth on Facebook as a “force of nature.”
Vera could “light up a room with her larger-than-life spirit,” said Anni Ulman. “She made everyone she came into contact with feel so valued in her presence.”
Tim Meixner worked with Vera in many shows: “To call Vera a legend is a gross understatement,” he said. “What makes her different from most is her total and complete lack of an ego, and any personal agenda other than to create the most beautiful projects and experiences for the ones blessed to work with her.”
“This is devastating,” said Mary Jo Del Vero. “Seeing all the people on Facebook post their love for her, you realize how many people she impacted. She was fierce in everything she did: fiercely loyal, fiercely compassionate, fiercely dedicated, fiercely talented … Although she will be missed, you can clearly see that she will live on through the countless people she loved — fiercely.”
“Her distinct laugh could inspire an entire cast of 40 actors to perform a three-hour show in an effort to get just one more laugh out of her,” said Steve DeBruyne, who owns The Dio dinner theater in Pinckney. “What a fantastic woman!”
Survivors include her three children: daughter Kim Moorehouse and son-in-law Bill Leaton of Winter Springs, Fla.; son Buddy Moorehouse and daughter-in-law Kathy Moorehouse of Gregory; son David Moorehouse and daughter-in-law Nina Moorehouse of Palm Harbor, Fla. Seven grandchildren: Adam Hickey and Leslie (Ryan) Huntley of Florida; Amelia and Lottie Moorehouse of Gregory; and Dana, Sean and Brady Moorehouse of Florida. Two great-grandchildren: Dominic and Liza Huntley of Florida. Two brothers: Robert and Norman Jacobson, both of Florida.
A memorial service for Vera will take place at 10 a.m. Friday, March 15, at Shalom Lutheran Church, 1740 E. M-36 in Pinckney, with the Rev. Kurt Hutchens presiding.