Cheboygan native Jay Johnston sat down with former Cheboygan Opera House Executive Director Kathy King Johnson to talk about his experiences.
For me, the history of the Opera is inseparable from the history of Northland Players, Cheboygan’s community theater group. The Opera House was closed from the mid-1960s until 1982. The Northland Players formed in 1971, founded by Joyce Leslie and Jeannette Bronson.
While the opera was closed, the players performed in the high school auditorium. We had to remove a few rows of seats to accommodate the orchestra, the piano and the conductor. All things Considered; we’ve done a great job bringing musicals to the stage. We had grateful audiences. But we have always been confronted with the intrinsic limits of the place of the school: lighting, acoustics and above all space.
When Cheboygan was faced with the impending demolition of the Opera House and City Hall, Northland Players offered $1,000 needed for a feasibility study to determine a renovation plan. I remember, when I was a high school student, having attended a public meeting during which the architects solicited the opinion of the citizens. Without the Northland Players, there might not be opera.
After graduation, my wife Nanette and I lived in Ann Arbor for 10 years. When we returned to Cheboygan, the Opera House had been renovated and reopened. The Northland Players, Follies and many other performance groups now had a beautiful venue to entertain our community.
We starred in Camelot and My Fair Lady in the early 90s. Leo Cocciarelli first showed up to help on the set of My Fair Lady. I created a two-story Frankensteinian set with a spiral staircase for Eliza’s grand entrance at the ball. Leo helped build and move the set. For many years, he became a fixture behind the scenes at the Opera. Leo needs a chapter of his own!
My life has become very busy with football and a young family; and our involvement with Players was minimal for many years. In 2009, I was asked to play trombone in the “Chicago” orchestra. Ben Watkins said they were desperate for another trombone player. I told him they must be desperate to ask me, but I came back and played. I’m so glad! I had sorely missed the opportunity to play. Seeing and hearing Don Conaway step into the spotlight and float the distinctive opening trumpet phrase of “Chicago” over the audience was like coming home.
“Chicago” was a dynamic show that brought new faces to Northland Players. We’re all used to the old relief musicals: “Music Man,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Annie Get your Gun,” “State Fair”; and for some reason “Oklahoma” (weirdest story of sexual coercion and implied violence, but hey, we’ve got a surrey with a fringe on top)
“Chicago” is gritty, full of sexual innuendo, comic book violence, crazy jazz music, clever lyrics and wry dark humor. “Chicago” has virtually no socially redemptive Pollyanna message. Can you get away with murder if you play the twisted system with an even more twisted lawyer? This is the story of our time!
“Chicago” was released as a well-known movie. The booklet we got was remarkably similar to the movie one, so it translated well. It was a unique show in many ways for us and broadened our reach. There were a few gems among the old guard, but we made a lot of money because we appealed to younger, younger audiences.
Since then, we have done lesser-known shows: “Nice Work if You Can Get It”, “Drowsy Chaperone”, “Pajama Game”. These 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. Selecting shows is always a risk and a bit of a crapshoot.
In 2020, Doug Conaway and I made “39 Steps”, a send off of a Hitchcock movie. The show was scheduled to open at the Fraternal Order of Eagles in March 2020. Then it all came to a halt due to COVID-19. A year and four months later, we were able to perform on the stage of the Opera. The audience was masked, but we were all so deeply happy to be there together that COVID-19 couldn’t spoil the party.
My parents’ high school graduation took place at the Opera. My older kids were banned from performing on the OH stage. My youngest offspring, Stewart, was heavily involved with Summer Youth Theater, then high school musicals, then Northland Players. The Opera building has been a multi-generational presence for my family. I look forward to seeing a chamber music concert this summer, one of the many ways the Opera House is making 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 in 1977. Jay marched in the University of Michigan band from 1977 to 1981 and sang in the Early Music Ensemble at UM. He married high school sweetheart Nanette Leslie in 1980. From 1982 to 1987, he built medieval armor in Ann Arbor. The family moved back to Cheboygan in 1987 so that their children and parents could get to know each other. 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.