Myrna Johnson and Northfield Musical Theater
Originally Published in the August 2016 Entertainment Guide
“The overture is about to start. You cross your fingers and hold your heart. It’s curtain time and away we go. Another opening of another show!” Any true fan of musical theater recognizes Cole Porter’s lyrics in Kiss Me, Kate. Summertime is the perfect time to celebrate such marvelous musicals, as we at the Entertainment Guide salute all the performing arts this month.
In the summer of 1974, the newly formed Northfield Musical Theater presented not one but three musicals: The Boyfriend, You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown and Oliver! Knowing the popularity of musicals, Myrna Johnson and three theater-loving friends, Sue Shepard, Marie Sathrum and Dick Cantwell, felt that the community would support such a venture. The letter to the board of the Northfield Arts Guild on Dec. 10, 1973, expressed their desire “to form a professional company to produce summer stock type musicals during August and September.” Their aim was to entertain the community and “provide a needed outlet for the extra-enthusiastic experienced local quasi-professionals.” On Jan. 8, 1974, Northfield Musical Theater was approved as a part of the Northfield Arts Guild.
Johnson explained to me that there had been many theatrical presentations, including musicals, since the Northfield Arts Guild had begun in 1959, but NMT would create more opportunities for those who loved to sing. They would even share the profits because “the arts people sold their paintings and we figured we could sell our singing.” It was estimated that each participant devoted 102 hours to each show which might only work out to 50 cents an hour but being paid recognized what NMT called the “extra commitment and conscientious cooperation among people who are serious about the work.” Eighteen people auditioned to be part of the first summer. Paying ceased in 1985, with profits then going to the Northfield Arts Guild, but the Northfield Musical Theater continued on until 2003.
Johnson has been actively involved in the Northfield Arts Guild from its beginning as one of its founders. She has directed an astounding 134 plays and musicals for the Guild, from the one-act drama The Bad Penny of 1960 to the musical Jesse in 2009. She retired as Artistic Director of the Northfield Arts Guild in May of 1993, a position she had held since 1963, but she did not retire from directing and she still serves as archivist for the Northfield Arts Guild. She also has played the organ, directed festival skits, pageants and the choir at Bethel Lutheran Church in Northfield. She later went on to teach courses in theater and film history at the Senior Center and Cannon Valley Elder Collegium.
Although Johnson loved the theater from an early age, it wasn’t until she came to Northfield in 1957 that this interest was able to flourish. She grew up in Osakis, Minnesota, where her parents, John and Alpha Hanson, had a furniture store and were undertakers. She told me she remembers writing plays that she, her siblings Bob and Joanne and neighborhood children would perform in an old woodshed used as a playhouse in their backyard. In second grade, she was chosen as a child actor for a high school play and still remembers how special it was to be acting on stage, wearing the new dress her mother made for her. She took piano lessons from an early age and also played French horn in the band which was established when she was in 7th grade.
Johnson majored in English and minored in speech at Concordia College in Moorhead. She found she did not have time for theater work then because she was a member of the college choir, directed by her musical mentor, Paul J. Christiansen, the son of F. Melius Christiansen, the founder of the St. Olaf College Choir. A highlight was when her choir spent almost two months touring Norway in 1949. It was at Concordia that she met her future husband, Miles (Mity) Johnson, who became the much beloved conductor of the St. Olaf Band from 1957 to 1994.
When the Johnsons arrived in Northfield in the fall of 1957, Myrna Johnson found to her surprise that there was no community theater opportunity. In 1959, a group of about 50 Northfielders got together as cast and crew to present Eugene O’Neill’s Ah Wilderness!, a drama directed by Ralph Haugen at St. Olaf. In the fall, Carleton art professor Dean Warnholtz began to offer drawing and painting classes. The Northfield Arts Guild was founded that year with Warnholtz as the first president and, by the time the old St. Peter’s Lutheran Church building at 411 W. Third Street became its home base in 1961, the Northfield Arts Guild had classes in visual arts, dance, music, theater and creative writing. The Arts Guild moved its operation to 304 Division St. (the former YMCA and City Hall Building) in 1979, leaving the former church free for theater events.
In a history of the Northfield Arts Guild written by Dick Cantwell in 2000, Myrna is called the spirit of the theater program: “When enthusiasm flagged, Myrna hit the telephone and found people to make things happen.” She both performed and directed. In 1985, an addition at the back of the theater was named for her.
Johnson made some professional connections in the summer and early fall of 1967 which would prove to be of great importance when she performed in three melodramas produced at the Stagecoach Opera House in Shakopee. There she renewed an acquaintance with Vern Sutton who was in graduate school at the University of Minnesota and became a professor of music there until 2003. (Sutton, a versatile singer and actor, also became a frequent guest on Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion.) She also met director Bob Moulton, a theater professor at the University, and his wife, Maggie. When the Northfield Musical Theater was established in 1974, Johnson called on Sutton to direct the very first musical, The Boyfriend. He returned in 1975 to direct George M! and to star with her in I Do, I Do! He also directed Kismet in 1981 and Kiss Me, Kate in 1983.
Moulton also directed many musicals for the Northfield Musical Theater, starting in 1976 with a musical which had been developed specifically for the NMT from a melodrama he and his wife had originally written for the Stagecoach about the outlaw Jesse James. Johnson thought a musical adaptation would be a perfect fit for NMT in 1976, the bicentennial year, which was also the 100th anniversary that September of the James-Younger bank raid in Northfield.
Grants-in-aid from the Minnesota State Legislature, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Minnesota Bicentennial Commissions provided funds to turn the script into a full-fledged musical melodrama. Moulton (whose talents also included dancing, acting and choreographing) did the staging and Sutton wrote the lyrics and assisted with staging. The music was written by William Huckaby, who had been music director of Minnesota Opera Co. and was then music director of the Western Opera Theater, the touring company of the San Francisco Opera.
Johnson was production manager in 1976 and directed subsequent shows of Jesse in 1977, 1986, 1994, 2001 and 2009. The show in 2009 honored the 50th anniversary of the Northfield Arts Guild. Donna Paulsen had played piano and been musical director from the beginning and, for the 1986 production, she expanded Huckaby’s melody line into an orchestrated score. Johnson said that the original roles were tailored for the talents of certain Northfield performers, with Charlie Black as a magnetic Jesse James, Donovan Parker as the “dirty little coward” Bob Ford, Judy Brandt as the jealous Cindy Ford, Gordon Forbes as the villainous Wagstaff and Johnson as Kate, proprietress of Kate Clark’s Fancy House, alongside “wild girls who made the Wild West wild,” including NMT regulars, Marie Sathrum and Sue Shepard. Maggie Lee wrote in the Northfield News of Sept. 16, 1976, that Jesse was a “fast-moving, exceedingly entertaining experience. And even though you’ve never heard the music before, it seems as though the songs are old friends.” The premiere featured chuck wagon food with seating on hay bales and the arrival of the James-Younger Gang on horseback.
When Jesse was presented on the 110th anniversary of the bank raid, Maggie Lee wrote on Sept. 11, “The 1986 version is even more sparkling than the first one.” She was more accepting of the tale as a “pleasant fable” because “Moulton had said that he felt the image of Jesse James must be larger than life and that by now any treatment of James must deal with the mythical proportions he had assumed.” While based on some facts of the famous outlaw’s life, the melodrama casts Jesse in a more favorable light than his (boo, hiss!) adversary, Pinkerton agent Clyde Wagstaff.
The Lockwood Theater Company (not connected to the Arts Guild but including many NAG performers) put on Jesse, directed by Kathy Rush, at the Grand Event Center during Defeat of Jesse James Days in September of 2011 and 2012. For both years, this company secured the services of Scott Thompson Baker as Jesse, a soap opera actor who had appeared in General Hospital, All My Children and The Bold and the Beautiful.
In the midst of all Johnson was doing for the Northfield Arts Guild, she also directed many theatrical works for Northfield High School in the 1970s and 1980s. Among these were three musicals: Bye Bye Birdie in 1975, Grease in 1987 and A Chorus Line in 1989, her final time as director at the high school. She also directed a couple Gilbert and Sullivan shows at Carleton.
This summer’s Northfield Arts Guild musical is the abridged Student Version of Grease, with book, music and lyrics by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey, suitable for all ages. It is at the Arts Guild Theater, July 29-Aug. 14, directed by Joe Jorgensen, musical direction by Kristen Kivell and choreography by Jana Hirsch. It is interesting to note that this is the first time this staple of community theater, with its humorous plot and infectious rock and roll score sung by teenagers of Rydell High in 1959, has been presented by the Arts Guild. The 1987 Norhian yearbook said that the NHS show which Johnson directed before packed crowds was “quite a challenge for both the cast and technical crew,” with feats including “pulling a real car on and off stage.” Mike Legvold, who played the part of Kenickie, told me he sang Greased Lightning and danced around the car holding a pair of the oversized fluffy dice that were standard auto decorations of that time. Nathan Kuhlman, who played the Teen Angel and sang Beauty School Dropout, said, “Wrangling young actors is hard work,” but Johnson made it look easy and everyone felt Grease was “tons of fun.”
Many give credit to Johnson for giving them inspiration and guidance. The multi-talented singer, actor and director Gary Briggle (St. Olaf Class of 1975) was given directing opportunities by Johnson with the musical Dear World in 1978, the drama Belle of Amherst (a solo turn by Johnson) in 1978 and 1979 and The Importance of Being Ernest in 1980. In 2012, Briggle returned to direct Into the Woods at the Paradise Center for the Arts in Faribault, a collaborative production with the Northfield Arts Guild. Briggle most recently appeared in the Jeffrey Hatcher/Chan Poling musical Glensheen at St. Paul’s History Theatre. (You can find my profile of Briggle in my Historic Happenings at St. Olaf College book.)
Kathy Rush told me she started in the chorus of NMT’s The Count of Monte Cristo in 1983 and went on to other roles. She found that Johnson “did it all, from directing to helping costume, to finding props, to painting the stage floor” and “always demanded that you do your best,” but in a gentle way. Johnson helped Rush with auditions and rehearsals when Rush began directing in 1994 with a female version of The Odd Couple. Besides the Northfield Arts Guild, Rush has directed at the Little Theater of Owatonna and at Faribault’s high school and Paradise Center for the Arts. Rush noted that on occasions when Johnson took the stage herself, with a visiting director, Johnson “lit up the theater with her acting and singing ability” and showed “how much she loved to perform.”
In 1980, St. Olaf Choir member Billy Saetre (Class of 1983) of Warren, Minn., gave his rich voice to the role of Nicely Nicely Johnson in the NMT production of Guys and Dolls. He later performed with the Boston Lyric Opera, San Francisco Opera and in Germany, among other professional stops.
Holly Sina had leading roles as Annie in Annie Get Your Gun in 1992, Guinevere in Camelot in 1993 and Lilli/Katherine in Kiss Me, Kate in 1995. She went on to sing in many professional opera and musical theater productions and was a voice teacher for 25 years, including at Watertown High School in Wisconsin. In 2012, she played Sister Margaretta and understudied the role of the Mother Abbess in The Sound of Music at Milwaukee’s Skylight Music Theatre. Sina told me, “Myrna was a gentle and creative leader. She had a vision for the shows she directed, but also gave the actors room to explore. She had a great way of making the most out of the small space we performed in, putting actors on different levels and using interesting, minimalist set designs. Myrna’s love for the theater was truly evident in her preparation as a director and care for everyone involved in her productions.”
Sina’s co-star in Northfield Musical Theater’s Kiss Me, Kate in 1995 was Steve Staruch, as Fred/Petruchio. He had performed with Sina in Annie Get Your Gun in 1992, also directed by Johnson. At that time, Staruch was a radio host and producer with WCAL, St. Olaf’s classical music FM radio station. Today this versatile tenor and violist is on the staff of Classical Minnesota Public Radio, with a drive-time afternoon show. He has sung with the well-known Dale Warland Singers and performs with many Twin Cities ensembles. Staruch told me that Myrna Johnson was “very good at making everyone in the production feel important. She treated you as if there was no one else but YOU who could do your job. And she expected your best.” Family was important to her, so “she was like a Mom to all the cast and crew.” Staruch remembered that at one performance he skipped an entire verse of a song. He did not panic, but “made the best of it.”
Afterwards, “Myrna didn’t chastise me but told me I had better thank my lucky stars that the music director, Donna Paulsen, was good enough to follow me and cover what could have been an on-stage train wreck.” Johnson told him, “She deserves a thank you for that.” Staruch said, “I did as I was told!”
Growing up in Northfield, Brian Sostek (NHS Class of 1985 and Carleton College Class of 1990) acted in plays and the Northfield Musical Theater musicals, The Sound of Music in 1976, Oliver! (as the Artful Dodger) in 1979 and The Count of Monte Cristo in 1983. In the summer of 1996, Johnson directed Sostek in the NMT musical Crazy for You. Sostek performed in and choreographed the show, which was dedicated to Sostek’s mother, Toni, who had died earlier that year and had been the choreographer for many NMT productions. Brian Sostek and his wife, Megan McClellan, won the Ivey Award last September for their choreography and playwriting of Trick Boxing and were featured in my December 2015 Historic Happenings column for their many performing arts achievements.
In May of 1993, Johnson turned over her duties as Artistic Director to Patsy Dew, although she continued to direct for the Guild until 2009. (In 2003, the Northfield Musical Theater ended its run with the musical Pump Boys and Dinettes, directed by Tania Larson Legvold at the Grand Event Center.) Among the tributes written to Johnson in 1993 was one from Lucy Sweitzer, thanking her for “giving me a chance, giving me a start and for being such an inspiration.” Sweitzer, owner of the Division Street shop Anna’s Closet, had been given opportunities to be stage manager and choreographer for Jesse in 1986, then choreographer for Grease at the high school in 1987 and, in 1989, performed as Adelaide in Guys and Dolls for Johnson, among other roles. Sweitzer had some credits as a dancer before but told me, “Myrna lets you blossom. She seeds you, she waters you and lets you grow. She let us do our own thing, though we didn’t realize it at the time. She was molding us. She would let the magic happen and tweak it.”
Vern Sutton’s tribute to her in 1993 was especially heartfelt. He said, “Myrna and I have been kindred spirits from the start: we both like to wear many hats and don’t like to be pigeon-holed.” He said she was a singer, actress, teacher, director, producer, friend and great human being and “manages to be first class at each of them.” Sutton wrote he had learned a lot from her over the past 25 years – “patience, commitment, diplomacy, and the art of making anyone look good.” He concluded, “I count myself lucky to be her colleague, cohort and friend.”
When I asked Johnson about her theater work, she said that perhaps her secret was that she could take people and “make them into something they weren’t.” For example, Wayne Eddy (of KYMN radio in Northfield) had never been on stage but she saw his potential. (See sidebar on Eddy’s experiences with the Northfield Musical Theater.) She is not sure how what she said inspired the actors to be better than they thought they could be, but she had confidence in her decisions. And what was her favorite musical? She said it was always “the one I was working on.”
Myrna and Miles (Mity) Johnson had three children, Sarah, Sigurd and Tor. Sarah is a music therapist now living in Poland. Sigurd is the marching band director at NDSU in Fargo and Tor is the performing arts director at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Minneapolis. In 1994, Myrna’s husband retired from directing the St. Olaf Band after a gala concert in Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis featuring the St. Olaf Band, Choir and Orchestra. After a six-year struggle with Alzheimer’s, he passed away on Aug. 26, 2004.
In 2010, along with artist Ray Jacobson, Johnson was named a Living Treasure by the Northfield Arts and Culture Commission and praised as a founding member and major force in the growth and development of the Northfield Arts Guild. The citation read, “Because of Myrna Johnson’s contributions to this community, through her love of theatre, through her own artistry, through her inspirational devotion to the Arts Guild and to the achievements of others, and through her unflagging enthusiasm for the community in which she lives, Northfield is a better place. Accordingly, Myrna Johnson is deemed a Northfield living treasure.”
There is no more deserving person than Myrna Johnson to be featured in this August 2016 Performing Arts issue of The Entertainment Guide.
Wayne Eddy’s Northfield Musical Theater Experiences
Wayne Eddy, a Minnesota Hall of Fame broadcaster who has been a major figure at Northfield’s KYMN radio station since its founding in 1968, had never been in theater before Johnson cast him in Annie in 1985, Jesse in 1986, Scrooge in 1989 and Hello, Dolly in 1994. On his weekday morning radio show on June 30, I asked him about his experiences as a neophyte in the Northfield Musical Theater.
He said he played several roles in Annie, a dogcatcher, policeman and a judge, necessitating costume changes. Johnson directed the cast to “sing out to that person in the back row!’ and when the time came for those on stage to sing “The sun will come out tomorrow” before an audience, he thought to himself, “This is fun!”
In the 1986 performance of Jesse, Eddy had a major role and played it to the hilt. Maggie Lee, in the Northfield News of Sept. 11, 1986, wrote, “A gem in this musical is Wayne Eddy who has the role of Clyde Wagstaff, Pinkerton agent who is the villain! Eddy readily prompts the desired hisses from the audience as he lays traps for the James brothers who are portrayed as innocents of the Middle Border forced to be bad by Union forces and Pinkerton detectives.”
Eddy told me, “That was so much fun. I got to whip Charlie Black [playing Jesse James].” Eddy would throw Charlie to the floor, smacking the floor with the whip, causing the audience to react as if the character of Jesse had been hit. In another scene, Jesse is hiding out in a house of ill repute. Eddy as Wagstaff takes after Jesse but is captured by the ladies, who tie Wagstaff to a chair with ropes. Jesse, disguised as a woman, slaps Wagstaff. Eddy remembers that he found himself in an unscripted moment flying off the chair, landing on the floor and bouncing back up, much to Charlie’s surprise. Eddy was impressed with the singing and dancing of the “wild, wild west girls,” led by Myrna Johnson as the madam. And he remembers the difficulty of singing different words to the same tune with others in the song Money Talks and being able to end on the same note. Eddy said his experience in radio helped him adlib if he would lose a line – “You don’t want dead air, so you keep talking.”
In Scrooge, Eddy played the spirit of Christmas past to Dick Cantwell’s Scrooge. Five years later, Johnson cast him as the lead male character, Horace Vandergelder, in Hello, Dolly. After two weeks of rehearsal, Eddy told Johnson that he could not play the role because he couldn’t remember all the lines. Johnson said, “No, you’re going to do it. I chose you to do that role.” She asked Ruth Legvold, who was playing Dolly Levi, to read lines with Eddy. Eddy told me after that, “I finally got the confidence.” Eddy also credited Donna Paulsen for helping him with his singing. By the time the last show was over, Eddy was wishing the run could have gone on longer.
Eddy said that he both “feared and loved” Johnson as director. She “directed with such confidence in each individual that they could do their part” and “the fear came that you would disappoint her” after she had chosen you for the roles. “You gotta come through for Myrna. She just was a sweet lady that created fear, but the good fear that brings things out of you.” He added, with a laugh, that she was not afraid to tell him, “You’re overdoing it.”
Eddy concluded, “I would encourage anybody if you’ve ever had a desire to be on stage and sing or dance or whatever, this community has a great local theater, recognized throughout the area as tops.”
In Memoriam: Myrna Johnson
The Entertainment Guide was saddened to learn of the passing of Myrna Johnson on March 23. If anyone personified “entertainment” in Northfield, it was Myrna. One of the founders of the Northfield Arts Guild in 1959 and of the Northfield Musical Theater in 1974, she performed in and directed hundreds of stage productions over her lifetime. In 2010, Myrna was given a Living Treasure award by the Northfield Arts and Culture Commission with a citation that read, “Because of Myrna Johnson’s contributions to this community, through her love of theatre, through her own artistry, through her inspirational devotion to the Arts Guild and to the achievements of others, and through her unflagging enthusiasm for the community in which she lives, Northfield is a better place.”
Published in the April 2021 Entertainment Guide
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