Remembering Joette Pelster (1951-2022)

Joette Pelster, October 2022 (photo by Jim Vaiknoras)

A skilled fundraiser, the longtime executive director of the Coterie Theatre was known for her straight talk and vibrant sense of humor

I was as stunned as anyone to learn that Joette Pelster, longtime executive director of the Coterie, had died in her sleep the day after Thanksgiving — and only a week after announcing her planned retirement.

Pelster also worked with other arts organizations — the Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey, the Gem Theater, the Folly — but she served longest at the Coterie. In the theater company’s formal announcement of her passing, her skills at fundraising were noted. At the Coterie under her leadership, the budget grew from $600,000 to $1.6 million.

That fact immediately triggered a memory. One night, in the Unicorn Theatre lobby, Pelster described her job irreverently: “All I do is ask people for money,” she said. Then she reached over and grabbed my lapel and in the tone of a mob boss said: “Gimme some money!”

Pelster was a straight shooter. The kind of person journalists like to cover. She usually called it as she saw it. No tap dancing, no word salads, no B.S.

Pelster, a Nebraska native, earned degrees in political science and arts administration. She was a strong advocate for the Coterie’s role in promoting diversity and inclusion. In partnership with Jeff Church, the Coterie’s longtime artistic director, the young audiences company at Crown Center cultivated succeeding generations of young playwrights and theater artists of all kinds.

One day I was on the phone with Joette and the conversation turned to a legendary opera production. Opera Omaha, where Pelster worked for a time, produced in 1983 a spectacular production of Verdi’s “Aida” that was so expansive that it had to be staged in the Ak-Sar-Ben Coliseum. The cast and chorus numbered 400.

In a scene depicting a triumphal return of the Egyptian army after a battlefield victory, all manner of live animals joined the procession — camels, leopards, lion cubs, a chariot drawn by white horses and a total of three elephants. Suddenly, one of the pachyderms, named Toto, broke free from his trainer and rushed toward a section of the audience. Before anyone could be harmed, Toto’s trainer regained control of him.

But Pelster remembered a detail that didn’t make it into the press coverage. Toto, having been a circus elephant, did indeed seem to rush toward the audience but suddenly stopped — and took a bow, just as he had been trained to do in the circus.

As Pelster told this story, she became increasingly animated, and I could hear people in the Coterie office laughing. I was laughing too. Proof yet again that the best theater stories are about things that go wrong.

I covered Kansas City’s theater scene for over three decades, so news of Pelster’s passing hit me a bit like that confused, lost elephant. In that spirit all I can do is take a bow and reflect on how lucky Kansas City was to have her.

Robert Trussell

Robert Trussell is a veteran journalist who has covered news, arts and theater in Kansas City for almost four decades.

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