In the Disney classic Pinocchio, Honest John and Gideon try to persuade Pinocchio to join the theater caravan to Pleasure Island.

do you remember her song

Hello Diddle Dee Dee,

It’s an actor’s life for me.

A tall silk hat and a silver cane,

It’s an actor’s life for me.

Hello DiddleDee,

It’s an actor’s life for me.

Judy Olsen of St James ran away to join the theater many years ago. Now she’s back home in St. James with a holdall full of memories.

She began at what was then Mankato State University with Ron Olauson and his wife Marcia, who was Olsen’s roommate.

“Oh, it’s been so long,” she says while petting Molly, a Yorkie on her lap. (She takes care of it for a friend). Animals have been a part of Olsen’s career because not only has she worked behind the scenes as a stage manager and on the technical side, but she has also worked with animals big and small.

Olsen says that in the world of theater most work is recommendation based.

“You finish one job and get a call for another,” she says. “Once when I was working in New York City, we had an elephant that we had to fire because it couldn’t keep up with the music.”

Olsen began as a stage manager on Minnesota productions of The Alchemist, Three-Penny Opera, starring George Rose, and Long Day’s Journey into Night, starring John Carradine, directed by Ron Olauson.

From Minnesota we headed to Chicago for a long line of shows at Arlington Park Theatre.

Olsen compiled a long list of shows that featured some notable stars alongside the elephant. She has done 22 shows as either stage manager or assistant stage manager with notable actors such as Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca and another with Don Knotts and Pamela Britton.

When they were making Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller was brought in as a consultant. She has done several shows starring Burt Reynolds. Donald O’Connor starred in The Seven Year Itch. Olsen fondly remembers her work as Zsa Zsa Gabor’s dresser in Forty Carats.

“Zsa Zsa Gabor was one of the smartest actors I’ve ever worked with,” says Olsen, “and she was nice to me and my mother.”

Olsen’s life was a series of experiences, but none as interesting as the one that brought her to work with animals.

“We had a customer who called and wanted a lion. We told him the lion would cost $500 an hour for a maximum of four hours. The customer said, ‘I can get Cheryl Tiegs for less!'” Judy laughed, noting, “Yes sir, but Cheryl Tiegs doesn’t eat people.”

In another case, “I picked up the phone and the customer wants to know if we rent roaches. I asked, ‘How many and when?’”

The animal agency’s appearances were sprinkled with theatrical tech jobs. The role of stage master requires assertiveness and discipline. Stage masters run the show after the director lets go. In the military it would be analogous to Command Sergeant Major. The nickname for this role is “Top,” and that was Olsen when she made the leap to the big stage in New York City.

She was a proud member of the Stagehands Union, Local No. 1. There continued her tally of shows. She was like a baseball utility infielder – her expertise got her called to many jobs.

Perhaps her best-known achievement is her work on the hit musical “Cats.” Olsen was the fourth woman to become a member of the Stagehands Union. She worked on installing sound systems for “Grand Hotel”, “Les Miserable”, “Starlight Express”, “Singing in the Rain”, “La Cage aux Folles” and many more.

She gasps and says, “It’s been so long.”

Olsen stops to pet the Yorkie on her lap, smiles and says, “And then there was my work with Toto on the set of The Wiz. We had several backups for the role, but in the end we only had one tote and I was his favorite guide. He would run and jump into my arms. The director relied on me to get Toto to do what he wanted. And I did. But that was so long ago.”

Today at St James, Olsen volunteers with a group of people bringing concerts to the Watonwan area. Some things never change for them. The producer asked Judy to look after his dog, Molly, and Olsen is the dog’s favorite.

Olsen grabs her tall silk hat and dancing stick and she sets off on a new adventure.

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