On Theater: Accomplished director packs his bags

June 23, 2010|Tom Titus

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."

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