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Drama at the Johnson City Community Theatre

Robert Houk • May 26, 2019 at 12:15 PM

The Johnson City Community Theatre has been a vibrant part of the cultural and artistic landscape for most of Johnson City’s history. The theater’s first incarnation was born just 14 years after the city’s founding.

Today, the JCCT is the oldest continuously running theater organization in Tennessee, and among the oldest in the nation. Not bad for a theater group that was chastised as evil by many of the city’s clergy in 1885.

According to the JCCT’s Facebook page: “Preachers at the Methodist churches in town took to their pulpits, promising hellfire and damnation to anyone who darkened a playhouse door.”

The condemnation didn’t stop the shows from going on. By 1912, the city’s theater group was performing as many as three shows a year.

The group was then called the Johnson City Dramatic Society, and it put on its first production — “An American Girl” — in the VA Memorial Theater in the summer 1912.

The theater group staged the same play a year later at the newly opened Johnson City Country Club. The theater company had no true stage home for many years, often performing at the VA, the country club and the old North Junior High School.

Records show plays were even performed at Munsey Memorial United Methodist Church, which the JCCT Facebook page notes the Methodist “obviously had lightened up on play acting.”

Minutes from the theater group’s minutes show Mary Gump was elected the first president of what had come to be known as the Johnson City Little Theatre Guild.

“Since this is not a social club, there are to be no refreshments,” Gump is quoted as saying.

The dues for the organization were $2 during that first year. Guild players continued to perform in various locations until they found a permanent home in 1956 at the former Temple Baptist Church, 600 E. Maple St.

The first production at the theater was “The Curious Savage,” which was directed by the wife of Bud Frank, the namesake of East Tennessee State University’s theater.

Records show the theater group’s name was changed from Johnson City Little Theatre Guild to Johnson City Community Theatre in 1967. Cheryl Laws was serving as president of the group at the time.

The latter part of the 20th century was a time of growth and innovation for JCCT. Productions became more contemporary and cutting edge.

The JCCT celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2012 with five productions that year, including Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Nile.”

In 2017, Press staff writer Hannah Swayze interviewed a veteran member of the JCCT for a retrospective on the theater’s history. Bill Campbell joined the group in the mid-1960s, when he said the JCCT truly became a community theater.

“It was a fun place to be,” Campbell said. “It became a very welcoming place.”

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