Jay Johnston — second generation on stage

Cheboygan native Jay Johnston sat down with former Cheboygan Opera House executive Kathy King Johnson to share his experiences.

For me, the history of the opera house is inseparable from the history of the Northland Players, Cheboygan’s community theater company. The opera house was closed from the mid-1960s to 1982. Northland Players were formed in 1971 by Joyce Leslie and Jeannette Bronson.

While the opera house was closed, the players performed in the high school auditorium. We had to remove a few rows of seats to accommodate the orchestra, piano and conductor. All considered; We’ve done a great job of bringing musicals to the stage. We had an appreciative audience. But we were always faced with the intrinsic limitations of the high school venue: lighting, acoustics, and most importantly, space.

When Cheboygan was faced with the impending demolition of the Opera House/City Hall building, Northland Players offered $1,000 needed for a feasibility study to determine a renovation plan. I remember as a high school kid attending a public meeting where the architects were asking for citizen contributions. Without the Northland Players there might not be an opera house.

In 2021, Jay and Doug Conaway directed "39 steps," Bringing live theater back to the opera house.  Matt Kwiakowski and Jordan Hogg fly the plane in this slapstick comedy courtesy of Fred Reynolds.  (Photo Tony Johnson)

After graduation, my wife Nanette and I lived in Ann Arbor for 10 years. When we got back to Cheboygan, the opera house had been renovated and reopened. The Northland Players, Follies and many other performance groups now had a beautiful place to entertain our community.

In the early 90’s we appeared in Camelot and My Fair Lady. Leo Cocciarelli first showed up to help out on the set of My Fair Lady. I created a two story Frankenstein set with a spiral staircase for Eliza’s grand entrance at the prom. Leo helped set up and transport the set. For many years he was a fixture behind the scenes of the opera house. Leo needs his own chapter!

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