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Moments in Time: Gloria Hendrickson
Gloria Hendrickson (Times photo: Anthony Wahl)
MONROE - It may have been during a time when a woman's "place" was in the home, but Gloria Hendrickson was ready to knock down some metaphorical doors in the 1950s - spending her days working, performing and ultimately helping to start a theater guild for the town that she's now called home for 66 years.

Hendrickson was born in Martintown and has fond memories of her childhood, a time when her imagination flourished. She was a child during the Depression, and she found her fun in playing with pieces of her mother's meat grinder and making up stories while she played near the cook stove where she warmed herself in the winter. She lived a block from a small general store where she would take a penny to buy candy.

At age 5, Hendrickson moved with her family to Blanchardville. Their home was near the park and pool. She loved the water and recalls the pool had a mud bottom. Her dog, Peggy, would walk her to school and be waiting to walk home with her.

Although school brings back wonderful memories, Hendrickson admits she was never a great student. Instead, she focused on having fun and was somewhat of a prankster. In her homeroom, she was often making people laugh instead of focusing on her studies, she said.

She wasn't the one chosen for the team at recess, but she never let it bother her. She said she wasn't a sports person, instead finding her niche in the Glee club and forensics. And she almost always had the starring role in plays.

Hendrickson said she knew "at birth" she would become an actress - it was something that was simply always a part of her. She found comfort in front of a crowd - the bigger the audience, the better it seemed.

"A large audience to me becomes one sort of being," she said.

After her graduation from Blanchardville High School in 1945, Hendrickson had a plan. She hoped to attend a drama school in Appleton with help from her father - but he made her promise she would finish the three-year program. She said she simply couldn't commit to that because she was in love with Jim, literally the boy next door.

He had joined the Navy, and she wanted to be with him.

"I've never been sorry for that decision," she said with a smile.

Hendrickson said becoming a nurse, teacher, waitress or secretary never quite interested her, but by default she attended the Groves Barnhart School for Secretaries in Madison. She calls the career choice a disaster - admitting she wasn't great at office duties other than typing. But she moved in with her older sister in Monroe where an insurance agency hired her as a secretary.

She recalled the man she worked for was forgiving of her shortcomings. Hendrickson would pass the time by singing a popular tune, and the insurance agent, who Hendrickson said was a beautiful singer, would join in. Hendrickson said it made the bad situation much more tolerable.

When Jim returned from the service, the couple moved to Madison while he attended Madison Business College.

The couple was married in Blanchardville and was the first wedding party to wear tuxedos and the first couple to have a photographer in the church during the ceremony, she said.

They loved Madison and enjoyed seeing late movies for cheaper prices. Eventually, the couple purchased a Model T Ford.

In 1949, Hendrickson had her first son, and the couple moved back to Blanchardville with her parents. Jim took a temporary position at John Deere and eventually, they moved to Monroe where Jim was the bookkeeper. They moved into a small apartment with just a few pieces of furniture and a mattress, but it was a good life and convenient enough for Hendrickson to be able to walk the baby in the stroller around the Square.

Saturday nights in Monroe was the most fun evening out, she said. They would sit outside The Chocolate Shoppe on the Square and visit with other families.

Hendrickson soon got a seasonal position working at Swiss Colony where she met Helen Miller, and the two connected instantly. Miller belonged to a welcoming club in Monroe and was asked to find a program.

Hendrickson had an idea. The Pretenders were soon born - a pantomime duo that offered lip-syncing and comedy routines, inspired by Spike Jones and Homer and Jethro. Their first performance was the "Key To the City" and it was a hit. People began calling the Pretenders for performances regularly.

One evening while performing at the Trask Bridge Picnic in Pecatonica, Illinois, there was so much mud from the rain that Hendrickson couldn't get on stage with her shoes because she was stuck - so she went on without them. Both she and Miller had a natural ability for sewing and made beautiful dresses for their performances, she said.

They'd often begin their performance with a song. They were well received by their crowds, but family at home reminded them to keep their performances to a few times a week.

"Everyone has a passion in their heart - a destiny," she said of performing. "This was going to be a way of life for me."

In 1966, Helen's family moved to Madison, bringing an end to The Pretenders' 14-year run. Hendrickson was sad to say goodbye, but the kindred sisters kept in touch and still talk regularly. Shortly after the move, they performed a dinner theater in Madison, and a director there asked Hendrickson if she'd take a part in a play called "Under the Yum Yum Tree."

"The fire was burning to do something," she said after The Pretenders quit performing. Acting was in her blood, and Hendrickson wanted to continue.

When Hendrickson heard the Woman's Club in Monroe had an active drama program, she knew she wanted to become involved.

Once in the Woman's Club, she was asked to support Badger Camp, a facility for special needs children, and they needed a three-act play of her choice to direct.

She told them she'd done it before - which she admits now was a flat-out lie.

"I knew I could do it," Hendrickson said with a laugh. She was right. No one could believe the play was done by amateurs, and it was a huge hit with the crowd, she said.

That was seemingly a springboard to start a theater in Monroe, so they put an ad in the paper about a meeting to start the Monroe Theatre Guild (MTG).

She belonged to the MTG for nine years before she acted in a play. Although she had the itch to act again, Hendrickson was busy directing and helping with props, costumes and other backstage items.

"It was needed so badly," she said. "It was more than my need to get on stage."

Today, she is proud to have directed and acted in more than 25 plays.

Hendrickson also worked at JC Penney for 24 years and loved her time there. She decorated the display windows and said she seemed to find the creative aspect in almost everything she did. She'd even pretend to be a mannequin in the window and wave at the passers-by. After Penney's closed, she worked at Merle Norman for several years and said she truly enjoys people.

"What you give out, you get back," she said of working so closely with people.

Before he passed away about five years ago, her husband Jim was one of her biggest fans and always supported his wife's performing. In her home a photo is displayed of her and Jim on their 50th wedding anniversary. The couple had gone to a photographer and at the end of the photo shoot, Hendrickson suggested they do something fun, so she pretended to punch him. That photo was that year's Christmas card from the couple.

"Theater is something I hold dear to my heart because it filled so many dreams and aspirations," she said.

Hendrickson said there might be a little something inside of her that has an itch to perform again - possibly just one more act, but she isn't sure what it would be.

"Maybe I'll do that sometime," she said with a laugh. "Something to think about. That's what I do best - sit and think."

Hendrickson feels fortunate to have all three of her sons in Monroe. She still enjoys cooking and finding new recipes to try. She also enjoys spending time with her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

"I'm filled with peace," she concluded. "And my glory goes to God."