On Stage in Vicksburg

VICKSBURG — As a child, Dr. Walter Johnston Jr., sat in the crowd on a retired steamboat named the Sprague and cheered along with audiences for his father, a physician by day who played the onstage hero in a Vicksburg community theater show by night.

By the time the younger Johnston was in high school, he had been promoted to play the role of the hero himself. Rowdy crowds continued to pack the theater to cheer for the good guy, heckle and throw peanuts at the bad guy and clap and sing along to the world’s longest running melodrama, Gold in the Hills. In the early 1970s, Johnston switched to the role of Big Mike the Bartender, a role he still portrays today.

“It’s about tradition — my father participated for years and years,” Johnston said. “He enjoyed it, and I enjoy the theater, participating in and helping out with shows.”

In addition to being an original cast member for Gold in the Hills, Johnston’s father was one of the founders of the Vicksburg Theatre Guild, the oldest chartered community theater in the state. With roots dating to 1936, the group got its start trying to emulate a tourism push in Natchez. They saw the theater as an effort to bring more visitors to Vicksburg and offer them more things to do.

“People needed something to do at night, this being 1936, so they started performing Gold for evening entertainment,” said Mike Calnan, immediate past president of VTG. “It became a recurring play, because everybody liked doing it, and it developed an audience.”

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Since its first run 80 years ago, actors returned to play their parts year after year, and, as time went by, their children also became involved. To date, the Johnston family has had three generations act on stage in Gold in the Hills and other VTG productions.

“People will start as children, and, as they age, they’ll move up to teenager and adult characters and just keep performing,” Calnan said.

IMG_1855The River City is also home to another community theater — the Westside Theatre Foundation. The group was established in 2008 with its first performances being shown in the Coral Room on the mezzanine of the old Hotel Vicksburg. A few years later, producer Jack Burns stumbled upon the Strand, an abandoned theater just two doors from the hotel. After restoring the Strand, as well as building a stage and lighting for live stage shows, the group moved their acts.

“We pretty well have at least one event every weekend,” Burns said, adding that the group shows movies as well as performs stage shows. “We try to keep busy, and we try to keep providing opportunities for actors, singers, dancers and musicians to hone their crafts.”
For Burns, offering a channel for talent is just as important as offering entertainment for audiences.
“A lot of times, the audience is friends and a family of performers, like any small town,” Burns said. “But we grow our audience a little at a time. There tend to be theater-goers who attend every production at both theaters because they love it. They love cultural opportunities in their town.”
“It really serves two purposes; one to entertain audiences that see our plays and another to provide an outlet for the amazing talent we have here in Vicksburg,” Calnan said. “It’s a function of the education system, not just schools, but the music teachers, the dance studios, basically just the way kids are brought up here in Vicksburg to have a broad exposure to the arts. Community theater gives them that outlet to be able to get on stage and show off their talents.”

The Vicksburg community theater scene is made up of all walks of life — from Johnston, a family medicine physician, to a cook at a local restaurant, lawyers, engineers, teachers, retired military and many others. But locals aren’t the only ones interested in the community theater scene in Warren County. Last spring, an amateur actor from Columbus, Miss., reached out to VTG because acting in Gold in the Hills was on his bucket list.

“He came down for auditions and appeared every weekend in the six performances we did,” Calnan said. “He was delightful to work with. It was something that he had dreamed of doing since he had spent some of his childhood in Vicksburg. We have that kind of interest.”

_IGP0298Westside Theatre Foundation’s talent is almost “exclusively local,” Burns said, unless the production is high-profile and well-known or particularly edgy, in which case performers from Clinton, Jackson or even eastern Louisiana make the trek to be part of the show.

Committing to a show is no joke, as rehearsals for Westside Theatre Foundation’s production of the musical Chicago lasted four months.

“It’s funny, though, when the theater bug bites people, sometimes this becomes almost an obsession,” Burns said. “When the show wraps up, it’s bittersweet. Yes, we did all this work and produced a wonderful production that was well-received critically and financially, but it’s like ‘quick, cast me in another show, or what do I do with my
time now?’”

And at the Westside Theatre Foundation, they’re always looking ahead to what could be done next.

“A case could be made for only doing shows that are popular on Broadway, but we like to explore new material and revisit traditional shows,” Burns said. “We have acquired a reputation of being rebels, but we don’t mind that. We know we can sell out every time with Steel Magnolias and Chicago, but we don’t want to keep
doing that.

“I’ve lived in Vicksburg for about 15 years, but I’ve lived in big cities for most of my life and I’ve had the opportunity to enjoy a whole spectrum of cultural opportunities,” Burns said. “I found myself living in a small town, and I didn’t want to give that up. Instead of giving it up, I’m doing my part to create the kinds of opportunities in a small way that people could find when they travel to a city.”

At VTG, upcoming shows will include Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, On Golden Pond and, of course, Gold in the Hills.

“Vicksburg just has amazing talent,” Calnan said. “It’s not by accident, I think the talent is cultivated.”

And every summer, VTG does its part to harvest that talent through Fairy Tale Theatre, a monthlong event for ages 7-18.

“The idea is to give the kids hands-on experience for the full theater experience,” Calnan said, noting that the youth handle everything from acting to set construction and lighting. “Children who start in Fairy Tales usually continue to be involved as adults.”

And through the years, though the location, talent and sometimes subject matter of community theater have changed, the main idea remains the same.

“Every audience is different, but it’s always fun,” Johnston said. “Everybody who does it enjoys doing it … I’m looking forward to the fourth generation of my family participating.”

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About the author

Mary Margaret Halford

Mary Margaret Halford is a Vicksburg native and graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi. While at Southern Miss, she served two terms as the executive editor of The Student Printz campus newspaper, where she won awards for breaking news coverage, feature writing and general excellence. She spent three years as a news intern at The Vicksburg Post before working at The Sun Herald in Biloxi as an education and weather reporter. Mary Margaret now lives in Vicksburg, where she is an editor at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Engineer Research and Development Center.

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