Many notable people have lived in the Northwoods at one time or another in their lives. Sometimes some very accomplished people that listeners may not have known about started out right here in the Northwoods. Dale Wasserman was one such person.
Many notable people have lived in the Northwoods. Some are born in the area, some move here from other places, while others have come as visitors at one time or another in their lives. A few notable people have chosen the Northwoods as a good place to retire, but an equal number of important people got their start in the Northwoods but for one reason or another decided to move on to other areas.
Dale Wasserman was one such person. Dale Wasserman was born in Rhinelander in November 1914. His parents were Russian immigrants to the United States, and in the Northwoods his father earned a living as a fur trapper. Sometime after he passed his third birthday Wasserman’s parents moved west in search of greener pastures, but something went wrong during the journey. Before he turned nine, both of Wasserman’s parents were dead. Along with his older brother, he was sent to live in a state orphanage in South Dakota. Neither boy accepted life in the orphanage, so together they ran away and jumped on a train headed west. They worked their way to Los Angeles, lived as hoboes, and ultimately found work as laborers in the Hollywood studios. Wasserman never got a formal education and dropped out after one year of high school. Nevertheless, he was bright, attentive, and a quick study. By the age of nineteen he was a self-taught lighting designer, director and producer. His passion was for theater rather than film, and it was Wasserman who designed the lighting sets for the Katherine Dunham Company of dancers.
Wasserman made a name for himself and successfully directed plays in Los Angeles, New York City, London, and Paris. It was while directing a play on Broadway that Wasserman threw his hands up in disgust at the material and walked out. Realizing that he couldn’t possibly write worse stuff than what he had been directing, Wasserman decided right then and there to abandon everything he had done up to that point and become a writer. His first play, “Elisha and the Long Knives,” was produced in 1954. Wasserman found tremendous success as a playwright and is the author of the theater version of Ken Kessey’s novel “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” This is the version adapted into the popular film. In all he authored over fifty plays.
Wasserman became a founding member and trustee for the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center and the artistic director for the Midwest Playwrights Laboratory. In 1974, when the Nicolet College theater put on a performance of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” Nicolet drama instructor Phil Boroff discovered that Wasserman was native to the area. He extended an invitation to the playwright to attend a performance, and Wasserman accepted. Along with his actress wife, Ramsey Ames, he returned to Rhinelander for the first time in over fifty years. Wasserman had a reputation for his crusty personality, but his reception that night could not have gone over better. Rhinelander’s native son, if only briefly, came home.