On Theater: Accomplished director packs his bags

The year 1965 witnessed several beginnings in local theater. South Coast Repertory put down roots in Newport Beach, the Costa Mesa Playhouse was born on the Orange County Fairgrounds, and your correspondent was just getting his feet wet as the Daily Pilot's new theater columnist and critic.

In Anaheim, a young director fresh from the Windy City mounted his first Orange County production, "The Diary of Anne Frank," and since the Pilot's sphere of influence was much broader in those days, we took notice. His next production made local history.

"Stop the World — I Want to Get Off" with Thor Nielsen and Costa Mesa's Ellie Swindell garnered rave reviews and sold out the Anaheim Playhouse for 16 weeks. Kent Johnson had arrived.

Over the next four and a half decades, Johnson became the monarch of musical theater in Orange County, mounting productions at various venues in Costa Mesa, Newport Beach, Huntington Beach and Laguna Beach.

He also wrote a few. His production of "The White Arrow," created by Johnson and musical director Tim Nelson, premiered at the Newport Theatre Arts Center and won the Daily Pilot's "best play of the year" honors. Johnson was the second recipient of the Pilot's "man of the year in theater" laurels in 1975 (following David Emmes of South Coast Repertory).

Now, after more than 200 stage production and some 1,000 television shows — he also served as a producer-director for KOCE-TV — Johnson is departing the O.C. He moved to Seattle last week to live near his daughter.

Johnson leaves a bulging scrapbook of local accomplishments behind. He restaged "Stop the World" at several other local theaters, including the old Laguna Playhouse. When the new playhouse opened in Laguna, his "Little Mary Sunshine" was the first musical in that venue.

When he mounted "El Grande de Coca-Cola" at the Huntington Beach Playhouse, the show won the National Community Theater Award as best production. He later directed that comedic romp at the Newport Theatre Arts Center, where audiences there also remember his versions of "The Mikado," "The Pirates of Penzance" and "Zorba," among others.

Also an actor, Johnson wrote "The Inventive Benjamin Franklin," a one-man show he performed for 12 years. He created a psychological thriller titled "Memories on the Wind" in 2002, and most recently wrote a musical revue called "Those Fantabulous Fifties."

Performing is nothing unusual for Johnson. As far back as the Korean War, he toured Japan, entertaining the troops at a very early age.

Johnson not only does musical theater, but teaches it as well. He's been an instructor of acting and television production classes at several colleges and universities including Orange Coast College, Golden West College, Cal State Fullerton, Fullerton College and USC.

He's served on the boards of directors of numerous local theater groups, including the Newport Theatre Arts Center, the Huntington Beach Playhouse and the Laguna Playhouse. Johnson also won two Sigma Alpha Iota music awards and a 2007 Telly Award and was nominated for two local Emmys.

Johnson served as artistic director for Sebastian's West Dinner Playhouse in San Clemente and has staged shows for several other dinner houses in and outside of Orange County.

With all those credits, one might think Johnson would be above a little pro bono work for a local children's show. Not so. When my then-wife Beth wrote and directed a holiday play called "Visions of Sugar Plums," in which toys come to life, for the Huntington Beach Playhouse in 1981, guess who cheerfully took on the part of the jack-in-the-box?

As Johnson packs it in and heads for Seattle, he leaves me with just one regret — we both did theater for four decades in Orange County, but never worked together. Well, maybe in the next life.

TOM TITUS reviews local theater for the Independent.

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