Cheboygan native Jay Johnston sat down with former executive director of the Cheboygan Opera House Kathy King Johnson to talk about his experiences.
For me, the story of the Opera House is inextricable from the story of Northland Players, Cheboygan’s community theater group. The Opera House was closed from the mid-'60s to 1982. The Northland Players formed in 1971, founded by Joyce Leslie and Jeannette Bronson.
While the Opera House was closed, the Players performed at the High School auditorium. We had to remove a couple rows of seats to accommodate the orchestra, piano and conductor. All things considered; we did a great job of putting musicals on the stage. We had appreciative audiences. But always we were faced with the intrinsic limitations of the High School venue: lighting, acoustics, and mostly, space.
When Cheboygan was confronted with the imminent demolition of the Opera House/City Hall building, Northland Players offered $1,000 needed for a feasibility study to determine a plan for renovation. I remember as a high school kid attending a public meeting at which the architects were soliciting citizen input. If it weren’t for the Northland Players, there might not be an Opera House.
After graduation, my wife Nanette and I lived in Ann Arbor for 10 years. When we came back to Cheboygan, the Opera House had been renovated and reopened. The Northland Players, Follies and many other performance groups now had a beautiful venue in which to entertain our community.
We performed in Camelot and My Fair Lady in the early '90s. Leo Cocciarelli first showed up to help on the set for My Fair Lady. I created a Frankensteinian two story set with a spiral stairway for Eliza’s grand entrance to the Ball. Leo helped build and move the set. For many years he became a fixture backstage at the Opera House. Leo needs a chapter all his own!
My life got very busy with soccer and a young family; and our involvement with the Players was minimal for many years. In 2009, I was asked to play trombone in the orchestra for "Chicago." Ben Watkins said they were desperate for another trombone player. I told him that they needed to be desperate to ask me, but I went back and played. I’m so glad! I had sorely missed the opportunity to perform. To see and hear Don Conaway step into the spotlight and float the distinctive opening trumpet phrase from "Chicago" out over the audience was like coming back home.
"Chicago" was a dynamic show that brought some new faces into Northland Players. We are all used to the old standby musicals: "Music Man," "Fiddler on the Roof," "Annie Get your Gun," "State Fair"; and for some unknown reason "Oklahoma" (weirdest story line of sexual coercion and implicit violence, but hey we got a surrey with a fringe on top)
"Chicago" is gritty, full of sexual innuendo, cartoon violence, crazy jazz music, clever lyrics, and ironic dark humor. "Chicago" has virtually no socially redeeming Pollyanna message. You can get away with murder if you play the crooked system with an even more crooked lawyer? There’s the story of our times!
"Chicago" had been released as a well-known movie. The libretto we got was remarkably similar to that of the movie, so it translated well. It was a unique show in many ways for us and broadened our scope. There was some clutching of pearls amongst the old guard, but we made a boatload of money because we attracted a newer, younger audience.
Since then, we’ve done shows that are less well known: "Nice Work if You Can Get It," "Drowsy Chaperone," "Pajama Game." They are engaging shows, great fun for the cast, but less impact at the box office. On the other hand, "White Christmas," "Addams Family" and "Mary Poppins" did very well. Show selection is always a risk and a bit of a crap shoot.
In 2020, Doug Conaway and I directed "39 Steps," a send-up of a Hitchcock movie. The show was set to open at the Fraternal Order of Eagles in March of 2020. Then, everything stopped due to COVID-19. One year and four months later, we were able to perform on the Opera House stage. The audience was masked, but we were all so profoundly glad to be there together that COVID-19 could not ruin the party.
My parents’ high school graduation was held at the Opera House. My older kids were in ban in concert on the OH stage. My youngest progeny Stewart was very involved in Summer Youth Theatre, then high school musicals, then Northland Players. The Opera House building has been a multi-generational presence for my family. I’m looking forward to seeing a chamber music concert this summer, one of the many ways in which the Opera House makes Cheboygan a great place to live.
About Jay Johnston: Jay was born and raised in Cheboygan, son of Faye and James Johnston. Active in music and the Northland Players in high school, he graduated 1977. Jay marched in University of Michigan band from ‘77-’81 and sang in Early Music Ensemble at UM. He married high school sweetheart Nanette Leslie in 1980. From 1982-1987, he built medieval armor in Ann Arbor. The family moved back to Cheboygan in 1987 so their kids and their parents could know one another. Jay and Nanette have four children: Ian, Kyle, Jenny, Stewart and 7 grandchildren. Jay took over his father’s dock-building business in 1989 and still runs Johnston Metalwork Inc.
This article originally appeared on Cheboygan Daily Tribune: History of the Opera House: Jay Johnston — second generation on stage