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.
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!
My life has been very busy with football and a young family; and our involvement with the players was minimal for many years. In 2009 I was asked to play trombone in the orchestra for Chicago. Ben Watkins said they were desperately looking for another trombonist. I told him they had to ask me, but I went back and played. I am so happy! I sorely missed the opportunity to perform. Seeing and hearing Don Conaway step into the spotlight and float the unmistakable opening phrase of “Chicago” over the audience was like coming home.
“Chicago” was a dynamic show that brought some new faces to Northland Players. We’re all used to the old standby musicals: “Music Man”, “Fiddler on the Roof”, “Annie Get Your Gun”, “State Fair”; and for some unknown reason “Oklahoma” (weirdest story about sexual assault and implied violence, but hey, we got a surrey with fringes on top)
“Chicago” is dark, full of sexual innuendo, cartoon violence, crazy jazz music, clever lyrics and tongue-in-cheek dark humor. “Chicago” has virtually no socially redeeming Pollyanna message. You can get away with murder playing the crooked scheme with an even crooked attorney? It is the story of our time!
“Chicago” had appeared as a well-known film. The libretto we got was remarkably similar to the film, so it translated well. It was a unique trade fair for us in many ways and broadened our horizons. There were some pearls among the old guard, but we made a boatload of money by attracting a newer, younger crowd.
Since then we’ve done shows that are less well known: Nice Work if You Can Get It, Drowsy Chaperone, Pajama Game. They’re compelling 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. Show selection is always a risk and a bit of a bummer.
In 2020, Doug Conaway and I directed 39 Steps, a broadcast of a Hitchcock film. The show was scheduled to open in March 2020 in the Fraternal Order of Eagles. Then everything stopped because of COVID-19. A year and four months later we were able to perform on the stage of the opera house. The audience was masked but we were all so heartbrokenly glad to be there together that COVID-19 couldn’t ruin the party.
My parents’ Abitur took place in the opera house. My older children were banned from concerts on the OH stage. My youngest descendant, Stewart, was very involved in Summer Youth Theater, then high school musicals, and then Northland Players. The Opera House building was a generational presence for my family. I look forward to seeing a chamber music concert this summer, one of the many ways the Opera House makes Cheboygan a great place to live.
About Jay Johnston: Jay was born and raised in Cheboygan to Faye and James Johnston. He was active in music and with the Northland Players in high school, graduating in 1977. Jay marched in the University of Michigan Band from ’77-’81 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 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 construction business in 1989 and still runs Johnston Metalwork Inc.