For 30 years, he didn't like the theater Leader: John Bruce Johnson, former president of the Vagabond Players, will sit in the audience this fall.

September 10, 1998|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

John Bruce Johnson, the departing president of the Vagabond Players, has always guarded the F. Scott Fitzgerald chair like the sacred relic of some literary saint.

Vagabond lore holds that in 1933 Fitzgerald dropped wearily into the huge throne-like chair after the dress rehearsal of his wife Zelda's play "Scandalabra" ran to five hours. Fitzgerald sat and drank beer all night and chopped away huge chunks of Zelda's huge clunk of a play.

Johnson has preserved the venerated chair. But missing from the jumbled archive he's created in his office overlooking the square in Fells Point are other cherished pieces from Vagabond history: the 1916 program for their first production, H.L. Mencken's one-act satire "The Artist," and the original manuscript of "Bound East for Cardiff," which a young Eugene O'Neill brought for the 1917 season.

Johnson, just a youthful 67, wasn't present at the creation of the Vagabond Players. But he has been around for nearly four decades. The Vagabonds claim to be the oldest continuously running little theater in the country, and Johnson is really only the second long-term leader it has had in its 82 years. He stepped down as president when the last season closed and the company opens its new season this fall without him as its head for the first time in 30 years.

The new president is Marylee Barnes, a 10-year Vagabond veteran.

Johnson is keeping an office at the theater, and comes around a couple times a week to do what there is to do, even though he still says: "I don't know how I got involved with this. I didn't want to be in the theater. I was just hanging around with some friends that did. I've never liked it. I mean getting up on stage and saying lines and all that... it's enough to drive you crazy," he says, with bemused self-deprecation.

No, he's never liked it. But for half a lifetime, the Vagabond theater has been a labor of love.

During Johnson's stewardship, the Vagabonds ended their nomadic existence and settled into their handsome theater at 806 South Broadway in 1974. And during his tenure, movie star Kathleen Turner appeared on the Vagabond stage forgettably, the late Howard Rollins Jr. acted memorably and Steve Yeager, whose documentary on John Waters won a first prize at the Sundance Festival, directed promisingly.

Johnson himself first appeared on a Vagabond stage in 1960, as an actor in "The Great Sebastians." He directed his first play as a Vagabond -- "You Can't Take It With You" -- in 1967, then became president the next year.

"When I first came to the Vagabonds, it was in the Congress Hotel on Franklin Street," he says. "In the rathskeller downstairs. The Vagabonds were there from 1950 to 1964."

The Congress is a sad old derelict now, and the rathskeller ended its run as the Marble Bar, a haven for alternative rock and alternative lifestyles.

"In those days the Vagabonds was practically the only game in town," Johnson says. "There were three or four other theaters around. But if you wanted to be in the theater, you sort of had to work for the Vagabonds."

Now 29 little theater companies have joined the Baltimore Theatre Alliance, Johnson says. The scene is lively and the quality is good.

About halfway through his tour of duty with the Vagabonds, he resuscitated Scott's revision of Zelda Fitzgerald's "Scandalabra."

"It was not a very successful venture," he says, blandly. "Nothing made any sense."

He put on Mencken's play, too.

"It's worse than Scandalabra."

Reminiscing in the orchestra of the theater he helped create out of scratch in an old Fells Point bar, he's still good-looking, personable and relaxed in a faded denim shirt. In his youth, he was handsome enough to be a leading man. But he again demurs.

"I'm not an actor," he says. "I've probably been in a hundred plays, but I don't like to act."

Nonetheless, for eight years he played the lead in "The Drunkard," the hiss-the-villain Victorian melodrama that ran for nearly two decades at the Four Corners Cabaret in Jacksonville and Minnick's Restaurant in Dundalk.

"I was the drunkard, Edward Middleton," he says. That role he liked. "That was a hell of a lot of fun."

He played the 18-year-old Middleton character until he was 40: "I'm looking in that mirror and saying Max Factor do your duty."

The "Drunkard" audience thought everything was part of the farce. Johnson banged into a chair during a blackout one night and cut his nose, and the audience laughed. "Blood all over the place and the audience's [yelling] 'Yah, look at that, he bleeds every Saturday night.'"

The script calls for the heroine's mother to sing "Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone," then drop dead. One night the actress playing the part did just that.

"She dropped dead on the floor. Dead! Seriously! Dead! The audience's applauding and having a great time: 'Look at that great job!' And the poor woman's dead."

The chortling stopped only when they called 911.

"But that's the only acting I've ever liked," Johnson says.

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