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A Long Walk Back to the Footlights : Ex-Broadway Star Is Very Much Alive, If Not Singing

December 01, 1988|PATRICIA MORRIS

SAN MARCOS — For veteran theatergoers with a memory for rising stars on Broadway, the name Susan Johnson should be more than vaguely familiar. She was the energized brunette with the big voice who starred in such 1950s musicals as "Brigadoon," "The Most Happy Fella" and "Donnebrook."

Those same fans, however, can be forgiven for not associating that Susan Johnson with the one on the cast list of Sunday night's ABC-TV movie, "My First Love." It has been 26 years since a near-fatal accident ended her career.

"One man (a Los Angeles theater critic) was stunned when he learned I was still alive," the gregarious and very much alive 61-year-old Johnson said during a recent interview at her San Marcos mobile home. "He told me that people get together and play my records, lamenting my demise. I guess a lot of people think I died after my accident."

The accident occurred in 1962 on Cape Cod, where Johnson was appearing in a summer stock production. The actress was thrown from a motor scooter into busy traffic and suffered a severely fractured skull.

"When I woke up two weeks later, I was completely deaf--which is tricky for a singer," she said.

Johnson's hearing eventually returned, but she was immobilized for 18 months, and used crutches and a neck brace long after that. There would be no more professional singing. When she tried, she said, "It sounded like my voice originated from a box in another room."

Johnson accepted the fact that her stage career was over and moved three years after the accident

to San Diego with her new husband, Chet Kehn, a retired Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher, and their daughter, Corianne, now 23. (Kehn, a San Diego native, often told the story of his signing Dick Williams to his first major league contract. Williams became better known as a manager, and was managing the Padres in 1984 when Kehn, watching the game from the stands, suffered a fatal heart attack.)

NBC's "Today Show" noted Johnson's departure from Broadway with a segment titled "Goodby, Susan." But, even though she's been out of the public eye, Johnson has maintained friendships in the entertainment business. Many of her friends, including actor Robert Webber, have tried to lure her back to the stage, but she has steadily resisted.

"Everyone asks me how I could give it up," she said, shaking her head. "I'm thankful for my career . . . but it wasn't a career of my choosing. . . . It just happened. Anyway, there isn't any work to go back to. There just aren't musicals like there used to be."

It was television star Bea Arthur who finally lured Johnson into accepting a role. Arthur and Johnson met at a mutual friend's house three years ago and became friends. Johnson said she went to Arthur's house a few months ago to surprise her with a gift for her kitchen. Instead, Arthur had a surprise for her; she had arranged an audition with the director of "My First Love" for the next day.

"My First Love" is the story of a widow (Arthur) who attends a class reunion and runs into her first boyfriend (Richard Kiley). Johnson's role, as one of the widow's friends, is a small one--"If you leave the room, you'll miss me," she said--but her presence was felt on the set.

While filming the script's final scene, Johnson started to hum the Wedding March, and suddenly the whole cast joined in.

"I thought the director was going to kill me," she said. "But he left it in. . . . I told him, 'If you don't give me a line, I sing.' "

Johnson, a native of Columbus, Ohio, has been singing almost her entire verbal life. She began professionally at age 3 on a Columbus radio show and was performing with the Columbus Symphony and opera companies by the time she was 20.

Johnson enrolled at Ohio State University, but soon decided to go to New York to study singing with Estelle Liebling, Beverly Sills' coach. Two weeks after she arrived, Johnson was hired for the Radio City Music Hall chorus.

She got her big break with "Brigadoon," starting out in the chorus, becoming Pamela Britton's understudy and eventually assuming the starring role of Meg.

In 1956, Johnson starred in "The Most Happy Fella," a role that prompted Theatre World magazine to hail her as the most promising young actress of the year.

After a year, Johnson moved to "Oh, Captain" with Tony Randall, "Whoop Up," and then starred in "Donnebrook," the musical version of "The Quiet Man," with Eddie Foy Jr.

She also made TV appearances, including one on "The Ed Sullivan Show" the night Elvis Presley made his historic TV debut. A little of the craziness of that event spilled over on her.

"Elvis wasn't a verbal person, so he communicated with women by kissing them," said Johnson, who acknowledges not liking the young Elvis. "We were in an elevator together, and, as the doors opened, he tried to kiss me. His fans ripped off my clothes because he had touched me."

Johnson shows no signs of resentment about the rut in the road that tossed her and her career onto the Cape Cod pavement 26 years ago. She brightens when recalling anecdotes of her brief fling on Broadway, and, if she is nostalgic, it is mostly about the voice that might still be heard on Broadway.

"Jule Styne (who wrote the music for 'Gypsy') said I had a voice like nine cellos in unison," she said with a small sigh. "Songwriters loved me. I sang all the right words, and I interpreted a song well. I really did."

To hear that voice today, you have to find the original-cast albums. Johnson has them all, and listens to them frequently in her three-bedroom mobile home.

Even without the cheering Broadway audiences, she is obviously enjoying her life.

"You have to," she said. "No one said life was going to be fun and games. You have to make your own times. We all write our own scripts."

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