John B. Johnson

Age 77 City's 'patriarch of community theater' helped settle the Vagabonds into a permanent playhouse in Fells Point.

July 31, 2008|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,Sun Reporter

John Bruce Johnson, a retired teacher whom friends called the "patriarch of community theater in Baltimore," died of dementia Sunday at Seasons Hospice and Palliative Care. The Canton resident was 77.

"The Vagabond [Players] 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," said a 1998 Sun profile of him.

The paper's story went on to describe him as "an oddly typical old-time amiable Baltimorean with old-time Baltimore idiosyncrasies. He grew up in Hamilton, where he lived 50 years in the same big old house. He has never owned a car, and he doesn't have a driver's license. He's not married. He doesn't have any children. And he was very good to his parents."

His brother, Gary E. Johnson Sr., who lives in Reisterstown, said that Mr. Johnson's first stage work was at Polytechnic Institute, where he helped put on the annual show, the Poly Follies. As a child, he liked rallying his siblings to play characters from the comic strip Dick Tracy.

He enlisted in the Army during the Korean War. He learned Mandarin Chinese at the Army Language School in Monterey, Calif., and helped interrogate prisoners of war in Korea.

After earning an education degree at Towson University, he taught English and social studies for 28 years in the same room at Parkville Junior High School.

"At Parkville, I did 25 original musicals for teenagers, with Fred King, from the Chorus of the Chesapeake, the music teacher," he told The Sun in 1998. "They were legendary. You couldn't buy a ticket. ... People came from as far away as New Jersey."

Mr. Johnson also worked part time for 34 years at the old Hutzler's department store on Howard Street. He sold cameras and tapped his knowledge of entertainment and show business to recommend recordings to his customers.

"He was really the patriarch of community theater in Baltimore," said F. Scott Black, dean of the School of Liberal Arts at the Community College of Baltimore County, who was a friend. "He was a very determined person. His word was his bond."

In the 1998 interview, Mr. Johnson insisted he was not an actor. "I've probably been in a hundred plays, but I don't like to act," he said.

Mr. Johnson first appeared on the Vagabond stage in 1960 as an actor in The Great Sebastians. He directed his first play at Vagabond - You Can't Take It With You - in 1967, then became president the next year, a post he held until 1998.

When other members of the Vagabond company thought the group should disband because it lacked a permanent home, Mr. Johnson disagreed. Under his stewardship, the Vagabond Players ended a nomadic existence and settled into a permanent playhouse in Fells Point.

"He was a great administrator and teacher," said a longtime friend, Orem Wahl. "He was also an accomplished stage technician. It mattered very much to him how the sound effects worked and if the lighting was good. And he also was very satisfied that the Vagabonds remained on the small scale."

Mr. Johnson moved the Vagabonds to Fells Point in 1974.

"Then it was a really tough place," he said in 1998. "We wanted to do Tennessee Williams' Small Craft Warning," he said. "And I thought there must be an empty bar in Fells Point we can do this play in."

He found Corral's Bar on South Broadway. "We moved in and never moved out," he said of the building he helped buy and refit as a theater.

"I had to drag the company kicking and screaming down here," he said. "Fells Point was not a place ladies came."

He also appeared for eight years as the lead in The Drunkard, a hiss-the-villain Victorian melodrama that ran for nearly two decades at the Four Corners Cabaret in Jacksonville and Minnick's Restaurant in Dundalk.

Mr. Johnson was a founder of Cockpit in Court theater in Essex and the Baltimore Playwrights Festival. He was also involved in numerous other local theater companies.

A memorial tribute will be held from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Aug. 30 at the Community College of Baltimore County at Essex's Main Stage Theater, 7201 Rossville Blvd.

In addition to his brother, survivors include another brother, Robert D. Johnson of Havre de Grace; and numerous nieces and nephews.

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