Originally Posted Online: Nov. 17, 2012, 11:40 pm
Last Updated: Nov. 18, 2012, 11:10 pm

Neither snow nor rain nor heat can keep this 96-year-old from Circa

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By Jonathan Turner jturner@qconline.com

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Photo: Gary Krambeck
Lillian Nelson, Davenport, sits inside Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse, Rock Island. The 96-year-old is the theater's oldest subscriber, has seen every main show, and is among just 10 'charter' subscribers who've bought tickets for every show since Circa opened in 1977.

Lillian Nelson of Davenport is older than the Rock Island landmark that houses Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse. To the theater, which kicked off its 36th season this month, the 96-year-old Davenport woman is a treasured institution herself.

"She is a very active lady. She's a very, very dear lady," said Circa '21 owner/producer Denny Hitchcock, noting Mrs. Nelson is the theater's oldest subscriber, has seen every main show, and is among just 10 "charter" subscribers who've bought tickets for every show since Circa opened in 1977.

Circa currently has about 2,000 season-ticket holders, and its current show, "Miracle on 34th Street," is its 229th main-stage production.

"They're the reason any arts organization is able to survive," Mr. Hitchcock said of subscribers. "It gives us the base, and we know from there how many tickets we're going to be selling. They're critical."

"I just love it so much," said Mrs. Nelson, who no longer drives but is in good health, of Circa from her apartment at Ridgecrest Village. "It's really been a terrific addition to our community, and we've got Denny to thank for that."

Mrs. Nelson's late husband,Dr. Harry Nelson, died in 2003 at age 90. A longtime Augustana College math professor, he was a colleague of Mr. Hitchcock when the theater impresario taught there from 1969 to 1976.

"He and Harry hit it off. They really clicked," Mrs. Nelson said. "Denny came to Harry and asked, 'Do you think the community would support a dinner theater?' Harry said, 'Yes, and if you build it, I'll be the first subscriber.' We just kept it up all these years."

"It's just the friendliness of Circa and the thrill of being there," she said. "It's just kind of special. The food is wonderful. The Bootleggers (the performing waitstaff) are fun; they do a good show. A lot of them know me by name. I think he's really doing pretty well."

Mr. Hitchcock said the Nelsons were great supporters of Augie's theater program when he taught there, as well as the Augie summer-stock company, The Pitchfork Players. Of Dr. Nelson — who led the drive to build the John Deere Planetarium in 1969 — he said: "He was incredibly warm and welcoming, a charming and humble man.

"From the day I met him, he was incredibly supportive of everything we did," Mr. Hitchcock said. "Often the arts and the sciences don't cross over."

The former Fort Theater, a 1921 movie house, was dilapidated and being used to show porn films in the mid-1970s when Mr. Hitchcock launched renovations to create a dinner theater.

When the Nelsons started their subscription, they already were longtime subscribers to the Quad City Symphony Orchestra — since 1946, in fact, when they moved to the area, Mrs. Nelson said. She has continued her subscription to the Sunday concerts at Centennial Hall at Augustana. She typically attends Circa shows and symphony concerts on the same weekend, accompanied by her daughter Lois, who lives in Chicago.

"She's fun to be around; she always gets dressed up," said Lois, who was a theater major at Augie and has worked in theater in Chicago. "It's fun to go."

"Denny is like family to us. He does great shows," Lois said. "I think it means a lot to Denny, which obviously means a lot to us."

Dr. Nelson, who earned his doctorate in applied mathematics, specializing in astronomy, at the University of Iowa, was a 1935 Augie grad, and taught at the Rock Island private college for 43 years. A highlight of his career was organizing a February 1972 seminar at Augustana on space exploration; in attendance was Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong, who in 1969 became the first man to walk on the moon.

"It was just something to have him here. He was so humble, so gracious," Mrs. Nelson said of the astronaut, who died in August at age 82. The Nelsons were invited by Mr. Armstrong to attend the launch of Apollo 17, which they did in December 1972.

Lois said her parents treated every night at Circa as a special occasion, and they acted as walking ads for the theater, recommending the family-friendly shows to others. "He has the reputation and has maintained integrity throughout his career there," Lois said of Mr. Hitchcock.

Mrs. Nelson and her husband had been married for 62 1/2 years at the time of his death. The oldest of six girls in her family, Mrs. Nelson has three children, three grandkids, and a new great-granddaughter she recently traveled to Maine by car to visit.

Since Circa is often used as a spot for couples and families to celebrate birthdays and anniversaries, she marked her 95th birthday there last year with her children.

"I hope to keep going as long as I can," Mrs. Nelson said, chuckling while adding that a nephew has a bet that she'll make to her 100th birthday.

"I can't imagine coming home, and Mom saying 'We're not going to go anymore,'" Lois said of Circa. "It's too much fun. We go in the snow, go in the rain, and we go in the 100-degree heat."