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Playing for keeps with JCCT

Jan Hearne • Mar 27, 2012 at 11:38 AM

Johnson City was 14 years old when its first theater group was formed in 1870. Preachers at the Methodist churches in town took to their pulpits, promising hellfire and damnation to anyone who darkened a playhouse door.

A little more than a half-century later, in 1912, Johnson City’s theater group began performing at least three shows a year. That organization continues to this day, making the Johnson City Community Theatre the oldest continuously running community theater in the state of Tennessee.

The group, then known as the Johnson City Dramatic Society, put on its first production, “An American Girl,” at the VA Memorial Theater in the summer of 1912, Bill Campbell, a 48-year member of JCCT said.

“It was an old timey melodramatic play,” Campbell said, adding “American Girl” has since been lost to history.

In 1913, that same play was produced at the Johnson City Country Club, which had just opened.

Those early years for the theater were nomadic. In addition to the country club, plays were performed at the VA Memorial Theater at Mountain Home, St. John’s Episcopal Church, Old North Junior High across the street from St. John’s and Munsey Memorial United Methodist Church, which obviously had lightened up on play acting.

In 1924, minutes show Mary Gump was elected the first president of the Johnson City Little Theatre Guild.

“Since this is not a social club,” Miss Gump said, “there are to be no refreshments.” Dues were $2 for the first year.

The guild players continued to perform without a place to call their own until, in 1958, they found a permanent home at the former Temple Baptist Church at 600 E. Maple St, where the theater is still located.

“The first production done in our building was ‘The Curious Savage,’ which is our first production this year,” Campbell said.

The play was directed by Darryl Frank, wife of Bud Frank for whom East Tennessee State University’s theater is named. “In the course of the rehearsal, the girl who took the role of Lily Belle got sick and Darryl had to take over and do the part,” Campbell said. The show must and did go on.

In 1967, under Cheryl Laws’ presidency, the theater group’s name was changed from Johnson City Little Theatre Guild to Johnson City Community Theatre. “They decided that ‘Little Theatre’ was a bad name. It was so much more than that,” Cambell said, adding, “We still have equipment labeled ‘Little Theatre.’ That’s how old it is.”

Through the years, the theater has seen its ups and downs as the economy waxed and waned. The 1970s were a lean time, Campbell said, with one exception, the production of “Oliver!” directed by Stewart Cannon to whom this season is dedicated. It was also Campbell’s first role with the theater; he played Bill Sikes.

“That was one of the most requested plays for us to do this year,” Campbell said. “We haven’t done it since the 1970s. It’s just the play to have a really great time.”

The 1980s and 1990s were a period of growth for JCCT. “In the ’80s we did the longest-running play that was a nonmusical, Tennessee Williams’ ‘Summer and Smoke,’ Campbell said.

It was performed in the middle of renovations, in the middle of August, with no air conditioning.

“We ran that show 15 times to sell-out audiences,” he said.

JCCT’s longest running musical was Alex Zanetis’ “Looking for the Sun,” the story of how Zanetis got started in country music with Kris Kristofferson.

“That ran 24 performances. We kept adding and adding shows, then Christmas came. We took a month break and started up in January again with one pickup rehearsal, but everyone remembered it,” Campbell said. “It’s a good show, it’s got some great music in it.”

Campbell names founding member Dr. Charlie Jones as “the dynamo” who kept the theater going in the 1980s. “He was the president for about six years in the ’80s. He got us sponsors and contributors; he was a director and actor who always had a big draw.”

The last decade has been marked by the audience and theater’s discovery of the great mystery writer Agatha Christie. “We’ve done six of her shows, and they’ve all be sellouts,” he said. “We’re doing ‘Murder on the Nile’ this year. She has this wonderful sense of humor and intricate plots and the audience just loves it.”

Comedies by Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope and Jamie Wooten, including “Christmas Belles” and “Dashing Through the Snow,” have been big hits.

“They are very funny plays,” Campbell said. “We have learned in this economic time especially people want to laugh and have a good time.”

“Dashing Through the Snow” did so well, JCCT is getting some renovation work done.

“We have new seats for the first time,” Campbell said. “We’ve got new lighting for the audience and we’re going to re-carpet the lobby area. It’s exciting to be there right now.”

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