SOUTH JORDAN — Toni Butler remembers her high school theater teacher, Russell Johnson, as one of the first people to recognize her gift for teaching.
"He could spot talent in different ways," she said in an interview with the Deseret News. "He encouraged me to help coach other kids on their monologues and things. … I really loved it." This early introduction ignited a passion that pushed her to become a theater teacher herself.
Johnson retired in 2002 after 30 years of teaching theater at Taylorsville High School and Kearns High School. To celebrate and honor all Johnson has done for Butler and his hundreds of other students, Butler is dedicating the musical "The Fantasticks" to her old teacher. The production will run at South Jordan's Kensington Theatre, which Butler founded, from March 16-23.
Butler had the idea to dedicate a show to Johnson when he came to see "West Side Story" at the Kensington Theatre in June 2018. "He sang along with all the songs," she recalled. "Even though he's getting Alzheimer's, he remembered all the songs and I just thought it was so sweet."
When Johnson came back in December to see the theater's production of "Tuck Everlasting," Butler had some exciting news for him.
"I told him I had a Christmas present for him, that I was assembling a cast and that we were going to do 'The Fantasticks,'" she said.
"The Fantasticks" has always been one of Johnson's favorite musicals. The show is an allegorical tale about a boy and girl and their two meddling fathers. Debuting Off-Broadway in 1960, "The Fantasticks" ran for 42 years, making it the longest-running musical in the world, according to Broadwaymusicalhome.com.
Johnson directed the musical many times throughout his career, and two of his past students will be taking up their high school roles again for this production. Ned Searle and John Holmgren were both in the show while they were in high school and met each other while doing the show again at the Murray Theater.
In fact, this is the fourth time Holmgren has played the role of Hucklebee, the Boy's father. Butler offered the role to him again, and when he heard she needed someone to play the Girl's father, Bellomy, Holmgren recommended his friend, Searle.
"I think kind it's kind of serendipitous we’re back in the same roles. … Russ has been involved in every production that I've done of this," Holmgren said.
Searle said it's fun to play Bellomy again now that he's really the age of the character. "John and I really are … like the old dads," he said. "We don’t have to lighten our hair or anything — it's already gray."
During their years of working with Johnson, all three of his former students said they've come to see him as a friend.
"It's funny, other teachers we called Mr. So-and-So, (or) Mrs. So-and-So but he was just Russ," Holmgren said.
They also have a deep respect for Johnson's knowledge of his craft, his commitment to his students and his kindness to everyone he came in contact with.
Searle met Johnson when the teacher worked at Kearns High School in the '70s. "I always knew that Russ cared about me. I could just feel it," he said. "I think when you're a young person and you have a teacher like that, you kind of have a bond that they really do want you to be successful."
Searle has many fond and fun memories of Johnson. One of them was when he would let them take his car to go get doughnuts.
Doughnuts were a recurring theme throughout Johnson's career. He later taught at Taylorsville High School, where Holmgren said Johnson could be found in the hallway in the morning and during lunch selling doughnuts. Johnson used the proceeds to help with the theater program's expenses.
Being out in the hallway also gave Johnson the chance to meet students who weren't in the theater program. "All the students knew him. So he knew the kids that were sloughing, he knew the kids that were athletes, he knew the art kids," Holmgren said.
Because of Johnson's connection with so many students, Butler, Homgren and Searle have received a lot of excited feedback and anticipation for their upcoming show. Those who were previously in "The Fantasticks" or just knew Johnson have been buying tickets or sending messages of encouragement.
"I think it'll be an interesting mix of people who don't know Russ, who will get to learn more about what he's done for us, and also a lot of his former students and some of the faculty," Holmgren said.
"Every time we see him he's so excited and a little embarrassed that he's getting all this attention," Butler said.Comment on this story
But according to his past students and the many others whose lives he touched, the attention is well-deserved.
"I call it an honor to be able to do this for him," Searle said
If you go …
What: "The Fantasticks"
When: March 16, 20, 22, 23, 7:30 p.m.; Saturday matinées, 2 p.m.
Where: Kensington Theatre, 11709 Vadania Drive, South Jordan
How much: $12
Note: There will be a reception with Russ Johnson on March 16 and 23 from 4:30-5:30 p.m.