Photo by Randell Norton

Steve Johnson

Steve Johnson’s pictures are likely to be found in the family albums of countless Capitol Hill families, possibly balancing two or three children on his shoulders at once during his more than 40 years teaching Chinese gymnastics at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop (CHAW).

But this would be only one snapshot of his long and varied career in the world of movement and dance. Born into a musical family, he grew from a child who was “always dancing” into a beloved teacher and performer of all kinds of dance at CHAW, the Lab School, DC public schools, Howard University, University of Maryland, Kennedy Center, Wolf Trap, Spoleto, Glen Echo, cabarets and clubs along the East Coast, and his alma mater, American University. In this interview, Johnson traces his steps from the Flying Nesbits Acrobatic Troupe as a high school student to his routines with “machetes offire” to liturgical dance with the Erika Thimey dance company and choreography for back up dancers for the local television show Ebony Affair. He managed to master costume design in the process and, as if he needed more activity, he did most of his inner-city commuting by bike!

Read Transcript
Interview Date
August 22, 2023
Randy Norton
David MacKinnon
Elizabeth Lewis

Full Directory


NORTON: This is Randy Norton.  I am interviewing Stephen Johnson at his home at 33 Ballantrae Court in Stafford, Virginia. Steve, where are you originally from?

JOHNSON: Originally, I was born in Richmond, Virginia.

NORTON: How did you end up in the DC area?

JOHNSON: Well, when I got to age of six, I realized I was in the wrong place. [Gloria says, “Six months, honey.”]. Six months.

NORTON: The voice that we hear in the background is Steve’s wife Gloria.


NORTON: It’s okay. Just keep in mind, you can raise your hand or come over. One of the things about this is that when they transcribe it, if there’s something that is dead wrong, you get to make corrections and stuff. That’s one of the advantages of having them transcribe it. Why did you realize you were in the wrong place?

JOHNSON: In Richmond, Virginia, it was so racist down there and all my family had never really got past the workmen, got a job in a real professional area, because there were none available for blacks. My grandfather was a farmer. He worked for a lady, a big mansion. He manned the mansion.  But, like I said, that was the height of blacks in Richmond at that time.

NORTON: So, you moved up when you were just a baby, right?

JOHNSON: A baby. Uh huh. My parents moved to Washington, DC.

NORTON: And moved up to Washington, DC? Do you remember what your dad did or your parents did?

JOHNSON: Yes. We were all in the business of bookkeeping, accounting.


JOHNSON: So, I was a baby. When I was in diapers, I was sorting bills out, making sure they were getting in the right place [Norton laughs] and adding up. And also had a vending business where we had all the machines, vending machines, in all the barber shops and all the school areas.

NORTON: They’d put them in and then they had to supply them and stuff?

JOHNSON: That’s what we did. We bought them and we put them [in] and I supplied them by driving around all day. Then, dance-wise, I was always dancing. My mother and father were part of the youth orchestra, the DC Youth Orchestra.

NORTON: Really?

JOHNSON: Yeah, they ran that.

NORTON: When was that, roughly?

JOHNSON: 1954, and I graduated in ’61.

NORTON: This when you graduated from high school?

JOHNSON: From high school, right. So, all that time I was in the arts anyway.

NORTON: Right from the beginning. So where did you go to school?

JOHNSON: At Roosevelt High School in DC.

NORTON: Did you go to school in DC before it was integrated, before Brown vs. the Board of Education? It was right around that time, in the ‘50s, mid-‘50s.

JOHNSON: My brother had to stand in line in front of the schools to get [in], during that time, yeah. When they were integrating the schools, he stood in front of MacFarland Junior High School and they integrated that year. I wasn’t in school that day. I was too young, really.


JOHNSON: Yeah, so he was four years older than I was so he got caught up in that.

NORTON: By the time you went to school there were integrated schools?


NORTON: All right. So you went to Roosevelt High school. Was [there] any part of your education that involved dance or acrobatics or gymnastics or any of that stuff?

JOHNSON: I was the first male cheerleader. I could do all the flips, and the cartwheels and choreography. I used to choreograph it. So I started off as a cheerleader and doing those flips and things. Then I was joined by Russell Nesbit and the Flying Nesbits.

NORTON: I am not familiar with the Flying Nesbits.

JOHNSON: Okay, the Flying Nesbits was the first black acrobatic company that ever traveled around the world.


JOHNSON: He performed all over the world with his kids. He would put them on his feet and throw them up in the air. They’d flip in the air and come back down sitting in a different position.

NORTON: These were his kids?

JOHNSON: No, they were kids from the neighborhood, neighborhood kids. All the neighborhood kids came. He didn’t ever have any.

NORTON: Was he based in DC? Or was he…

JOHNSON: He was based in DC. He had a little teeny apartment. We went in his apartment. You saw all these handprints all over the ceiling.

NORTON: [Laughs.] From where they…

JOHNSON: From where they [laughs] flipped up in the air and pushed off the wall and it was hilarious. But we would go down, we would go to cabarets at night with about 12 kids…

NORTON: Okay, and you were involved. Were you one of the kids to start out with?

JOHNSON: I was one of the lifters. I carried, he taught me how to lift them and how to balance them in my hands, balance them on my head. I balanced them everywhere I could balance them [laughs].

NORTON: This is while you were still in high school?

JOHNSON: I started off in high, junior high.


JOHNSON: And it just carried on. I just stayed with it until he passed.

NORTON: When did Mr. Nesbit pass?


NORTON: Well, it’s all right. Just you know, roughly.

JOHNSON: Roughly he passed about a year, two years after I graduated from high school, which would be ’63. [Mr. Nesbit cut back on performing at that point but he died in 2001.]


JOHNSON: Yeah, ’63.

NORTON: So how did you sort of meet up with Mr. Nesbit, the Flying Nesbits?

JOHNSON: Actually, my dancing partner. I performed by myself for years. Eventually I got a woman dancing partner to travel with me and she became the parent of my children. She joined his group. I went to film her shows. I’d learned how to do gymnastics and he wanted to see me perform, so he said, “Yeah, come join in.” I had a big station wagon so I could carry a bunch of his kids too, so he said, “Yeah, come on travel with us.” I loved it because I learned. Then I learned all those [moves] I could use at CHAW [Capitol Hill Arts Workshop]. So, when I went to CHAW I had so much more to teach than any other gymnastics teacher.

NORTON: Because you knew the fun stuff that Mr. Nesbit…

JOHNSON: And no one in the city could do it. No one but he and I knew Chinese gymnastics. That’s what it was, Chinese gymnastics.

NORTON: That kind of stuff, the flipping them up in the air and doing all that stuff is what’s called Chinese gymnastics?

JOHNSON: Yes, that’s what he learned it from.

NORTON: Do you know where he learned it?

JOHNSON: I can’t even figure.

NORTON: You were working with him while you were still in school?


NORTON: You were a cheerleader. Any other sort of arts or dancing classes or anything that you took while you were in high school?

JOHNSON: Yes. After I got in high school, I got started taking ballet, modern jazz, and pretty soon all weekend I was just running from one studio to the next to learn a new form of dance. Tai Chi, yoga. I took them all. All they want. I just jumped in.

NORTON: This was while you were still in high school?


NORTON: You were doing this on your own, not so much as was part of the school curriculum?

JOHNSON: Nothing. Each place I went to was totally different. Capitol Hill Arts Workshop was one way and then I’d go from Capitol Hill to Glenn Echo and worked out there in [the] Glenn Echo Park dance program. They had a huge dance program out there. Then I’d go Maryland University and I taught there, gymnastics.

NORTON: This would have been after you came out of high school?

JOHNSON: Uh huh.

NORTON: I’ll try to walk you through that if we can. When you graduated high school did you continue your education at that point?

JOHNSON: I went to Hampton Institute for pre-med.

NORTON: That would have been, what, fall of ’61 or ‘62?

JOHNSON: Yeah, uh huh, yeah.

NORTON: What happened down there?

JOHNSON: I did five years of pre-med. While I was there, I made my money by dancing in all the cabarets in that area. Newport News, Hampton, Richmond. I would go up to Richmond and do lodges like those big lodges they have up there. I traveled as a soloist. I had machetes. I danced with machetes of fire.

NORTON: It was not dancing. You were doing sort of acrobatics and stuff, yeah?

JOHNSON: All kinds of…

NORTON: This was after you’d learned from Mr. Nesbit?


NORTON: So, you’d learned a lot of that stuff from Mr. Nesbit.

JOHNSON: Right. At that time when I was in college I was performing as a soloist. I’d just hire a girl to come in and I’d train her.

NORTON: That’s how you supported yourself doing all that.

JOHNSON: That’s right. Made more money. On weekends, I was gone all weekend. I’d go down to Virginia Beach. I’d perform there. One time we went down to Greenville, North Carolina and performed there. Then we went to—no, I was at CHAW when I went to the south, when I went to North Carolina.

NORTON: While you’re still in college at Hampton?

JOHNSON: Yeah. I was performing everywhere. Gone to New York sometimes to perform. When I graduated, when I left Hampton, I came to DC.

NORTON: Why’d you come to DC?

JOHNSON: I’d finished five years of pre-med and I figured, planning on going on to med school next, you need to make another decision about what you’re going to do with your life because I couldn’t be a doctor, I’m telling you ...

NORTON: Why do you say that?

JOHNSON: [Laughs.] Because if someone came in crying and hurting, I’d sit there and hold their hand and cry with them! [Laughter.]

NORTON: So you decided that maybe being a doctor wasn’t where you should be going?

JOHNSON: All the teachers told me that 80 percent of the doctors are alcoholics because they have so much stress on them. I said, “No, no, no, no, that’s not for moi. I cannot be stressed out the rest of my life. Uh uh.”

NORTON: So, you came back to DC after leaving Hampton?

JOHNSON: And went to American University.

NORTON: What did you study there?

JOHNSON: Dance. So I said, “I might as well make the money at dance because that’s what I love to do.” That’s what I raised my family with. I took ballet, modern jazz, tai chi, African. I was an African dancer all through that too. Melvin Deal and the African Heritage Dance Company [African Heritage Dance Center] at DC. Learned drumming.

NORTON: When did you first get involved with the African Dance Company in DC?

JOHNSON: In high school because [of] my little brother. I took him over there and he became a drum soloist and he’s still today. He was here last night, all night long, to one o’clock this morning playing drums.

NORTON: So, you’re just coming up, you’re still in high school, you learn Chinese gymnastics, your acrobatics. You learn African music and dancing and that sort of stuff. And you’re doing all this all on your own, mostly, not formal school.

JOHNSON: And I designed. I designed all my costumes.

NORTON: You’re still doing this when you’re doing these shows at Hampton and all over the place?

JOHNSON: I made all my own costumes.

NORTON: What sort of costumes did you make?

JOHNSON: Oh boy. I got pictures for you for that. I made jump suits. Back then bell bottoms were in. Everybody had those. I had bell bottoms that were so big because I had to perform at cabaret floors which were like a block long. You had to cover a block long. So everyone would see you, you’d have everything bigger. I’ll show you pictures later. I had a big cowl, one of those collars that sticks straight out that connects to a cape at least three feet trailing behind me so when I ran down like this I covered half the floor with my cape.

NORTON: Sort of like Elvis or Tom Jones except bigger because you had the…

JOHNSON: Had to make up for that big room. Eventually I got a dance partner and she took care of the other half while I worked at this end, and then we come together and do some fabulous this and some of that I used. We did that all the way through college. Then I got discovered by a TV show.

NORTON: You got through [laughs]—all right.

JOHNSON: I made a coat. That’s one of my designs. [Showing Norton pictures.]

NORTON: Unfortunately, like I say, this is all oral so the audience suffers. We should have done a video or something, but that’s not the way these [interviews] work. When you say you got through college. When did you get through AU [American University]?

JOHNSON: AU, I finished in sixty…

NORTON: We know it had to be, if you went five years to Hampton, you would have been like ’66, ’67 or something by the time you got done there. And then…

JOHNSON: Between ’66, ’67 because that’s when I got discovered and started working.

NORTON: How did you get discovered?

JOHNSON: I was in a club.

NORTON: Which club?

JOHNSON: That was one of those rinky dink clubs, I forgot the name of it.

NORTON: Where was it?

JOHNSON: In Maryland.

NORTON: It was like a nightclub kind of thing?

JOHNSON:  Just a regular nightclub. I had a reputation of going into clubs and what we called “get[ting] a circle.” That’s where everybody stops dancing and just watches you get off. [Unintelligible.] I could go from club to club all over DC. I got famous for doing that. I’d walk into a club and start dancing and everybody just backed up, “Let him go. We got to see this.” [Laughs.] We got the name “Wild Man Steve.”

NORTON: Wild Man Steve.

JOHNSON: They called, “Wild Man Steve is back!” That’s how they announced me all the time. So when I came in my outfits, my capes and my sword and my fire and performed for people, they sent me to New York.

NORTON: Who sent you to New York?

JOHNSON: Some of the promoters that were here were from New York invited me to come there.

NORTON: This would have been sometime in the late ’60s, right?

JOHNSON: Yup, late ’60s.

NORTON: What happened when you went up to New York?

JOHNSON: Well, they had clubs up there that were so fantastic I just couldn’t believe them. My costumes and my big stuff, my swords, my fire dance, all of that was used up there for those clubs, because it was so huge. I’d go up on Friday night, drive up, and perform Friday night, Saturday night, Sunday night, then drive back and I’d be in Erika Thimey’s Dance [and] Theater [Company] at the church. Oh, I’d come back Sunday. Then Sunday morning I’d be in church dancing with Sally [Crowell]. [See interview with Crowell for the Ruth Ann Overbeck Capitol Hill History Project.]

NORTON: Which church was that?

JOHNSON: Sally did Erika Thimey’s—every Sunday we’d be in a different church all over DC.

NORTON: And you’re doing liturgical dancing, right?

JOHNSON: Uh huh.

NORTON: I know you did some in our church, which is Christ Church, which is right down the street there from the Arts Workshop where they did a lot of rehearsals there too, later on. How did you get hooked up with Sally? Did you get with Erika Thimey first?

JOHNSON: That’s what it is. She was part of Erika Thimey’s company. She took all the dancers that worked with Erika Thimey to Capitol Hill. Raye LeValley was in the company. She was the art teacher for Capitol Hill Workshop, had a part in the art department. Sally, who else. Those two mainly stayed. Those were the main teachers. The others would just come in and dance for her and then go back to the company.

NORTON: Let me back up a little bit because you mentioned the TV show. What was the TV show? How’d you get on a TV show?

JOHNSON: I got on a show called Ebony Affair.

NORTON: Ebony Affair?

JOHNSON: Yeah, that’s what it was called.

NORTON: Was that a DC show or a New York show?

JOHNSON: No, it was a DC show. It was started by a person in DC. He got a grant and he started making films. So, I would start dancing for him. We would go to a studio out in Virginia just outside the city and I’d have to choreograph 20 some dances within a month and then we’d shoot them all within one week.

NORTON: Then they’d all get on the show?

JOHNSON: Uh huh.

NORTON: Was it just you doing the dances or were there other folks, other dancers involved?

JOHNSON: Yes. He hired other dancers to come in. I didn’t even know these other dancers til I met them there.

NORTON: But you choreographed for them too?


NORTON: Roughly when are we talking about? Was this before or after you went up to New York to the clubs?

JOHNSON: This was before, because when I was coming out of high school, so, it was after.

NORTON: Had you finished Hampton or were you back?

JOHNSON: I was back from Hampton.

NORTON: Were you still at AU?

JOHNSON: Yeah, I was still at American University. I went to American University and I danced for that company. I was taking ballet, modern jazz and all the other ..

NORTON: At AU at that point?

JOHNSON: Yeah, at that point. At night I would perform.

NORTON: You were in the clubs and you got on the show?

JOHNSON: Uh huh. I got on the show and they got me to choreograph.

NORTON: Do you remember the guy that had the show?

JOHNSON: His name was John ... Johnson. [John Jackson.] I don’t remember his first name but it was the same as mine so it as easy to remember.

NORTON: Which channel was it on?

JOHNSON: Channel Five. It was on Channel Five for one whole season.

NORTON: That was back in the day when you only had, what, five or six channels [laughs].

JOHNSON: That’s right. How about that.

NORTON: The problem is that you can show it. I’d be happy to look at it. In fact, maybe we could maybe do it afterwards, yeah.

JOHNSON: Because there’s just one shot of me dancing.

NORTON: How long did that show run?

JOHNSON: Oh, it just ran a year, a year and a half. I can still pull it up on You Tube. You can look You Tube up. It’s all over You Tube. He’d have different artists from all over the country come in, fly in, and I would choreograph the back dancers like Tom Jones. Tom Jones dancers there.

NORTON: [Tom Jones-] type dancers, yeah, yeah.

JOHNSON: We would do dancers around the room. Every now and then we got a chance to dance, just dance on TV by ourselves. Eddie Kendricks was there from [the] Temptations.

NORTON: Really?

JOHNSON: Oh, all the top singers.

NORTON: Why’d that end? It sounded like a pretty good gig.

JOHNSON: He had to sell it. He did all that with his money. Then he had to sell it to the network. At that time, Soul Train was out. So he was going against them guys. Soul Train was on Channel Nine. We were on Channel Five. So we had to compete with them and they were nationwide and we were local. So we never broke into the nationwide [market] because he’d monopolized that.

NORTON: Just to get my chronology right here, when you met Erika Thimey and got involved with her company, was that before or after the show?

JOHNSON: That was after, because I couldn’t have done that because I shared rehearsals every Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday [laughs].

NORTON: How did you meet Erika Thimey and get involved with her company?

JOHNSON: When I graduated, when I finished at AU, I was in modern. She was the best modern teacher in the world, so I started taking classes, modern, at her studio.

NORTON: You say modern, that’s modern dance?

JOHNSON: Modern dance, right.

NORTON: You started taking classes with her and then…

JOHNSON: Then I would leave her class and go to ballet at Capitol Ballet. Then I’d leave there and go to some other dance place. I just ran from one dance studio to the next after I got out of AU.

NORTON: When did you start teaching?

JOHNSON: Oh, I taught since I was 12 years old. I always had a dance group [laughs].

NORTON: Were you teaching, for example, at Erika Thimey’s place?

JOHNSON: No, no. I never taught there. She had her own. All of her teachers were older than me and had been with her for a long time.

NORTON: What was the appeal for her? There was the best modern dance company?

JOHNSON: That’s right. I wanted to go with the top ballet. I wanted to go with the top, I wanted to be the best dancer I could be. So, you just go to the best companies so they’ll teach you. When I went to AU I danced under every top company in the country. They would import them to teach for the summer. Like Erick Hawkins, Jose Limon, Twyla Tharp. I studied under all of them. Lucky enough to be in American University when all that was going on.

NORTON: It sounded like it was quite a program.

JOHNSON: Every year they would have a different company. A top modern company. Then we’d go to Wolf Trap and perform at the end of the summer.

NORTON: Really?

JOHNSON: Yup. That was our graduation every summer.

NORTON: Officially our topic is Capitol Hill history. You met Sally at the Erika Thimey company.


NORTON: How did you get involved with the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop?

JOHNSON: Well, she brought all the dancers over there. We were in a little church. We were on Capitol Hill at Fourth Street.

NORTON: The Presbyterian?

JOHNSON: Yeah, the Presbyterian church [Capitol Hill Presbyterian Church, Fourth and Independence Avenue, SE]. That’s where we started.

NORTON: That was what, about ’72?

JOHNSON: Uh huh. I think so.

NORTON: According to your resume [laughs].

JOHNSON: Thank you. I have to read that as I can’t remember all these things.

NORTON: Here you are. You’re doing all this work and everything and shows and everything. Sally must have been pretty convincing to get you to come over for this new arts workshop. How did she talk you into it?

JOHNSON: We all were real tight. All of us––Raye, Sally, Jim.

NORTON: Jim Mayo?

JOHNSON: Jim Mayo. He was doing all big shows. And she always needed dancers. She had these big shows.

NORTON: I know that, but that was a little bit later. She started just doing the classes with people.

JOHNSON: That’s right. Then we got a chance to get that big building. So, all the artists got together and we went in there and started knocking walls down. I was in charge of drilling through the walls all day long, drilling through the walls.

NORTON: You signed up to be a dancer and now be a construction outfit. I was over there helping too banging and stuff.

JOHNSON: I painted, I drilled. We finally got the studio finished and then we started classes. And that was it. It was awesome.

NORTON: It was, but you couldn’t have been making a whole lot of money doing that.

JOHNSON: No. We didn’t make any, it was all donated. We didn’t make any money knocking walls out, but it was fun [laughs].

NORTON: And even teaching the classes you weren’t going to get rich teaching.

JOHNSON: Heck no.

NORTON: How did you support yourself?

JOHNSON: I taught everywhere. I was teaching so many places. Every day I would go to a different studio. I soon as I wake up, I’d say, “Which studio am I supposed to be in now?” [Laughs.] “I’m supposed to be somewhere.” I had to write everything down.

NORTON: You did end up at the Lab School. When did you start there?

JOHNSON: I think I was teaching two or three classes a week. I started there. They were on Dupont Circle at that time. She had a little…

NORTON: At that time before they moved out to MacArthur Boulevard and all that?

JOHNSON: Yeah. She had a little teeny studio.

NORTON: Who’s she?

JOHNSON: Sally Smith. She was head of the Lab School of Washington. She created that. I had one teeny room and I had maybe two classes a day or three classes a week. Then I would do a big show at the end of the year and choreograph everything for everybody. Eventually we got a bigger place. Then we went to MacArthur Boulevard. We got that big castle. Again, here I go back into construction, painting and all night long. Getting up in the morning teaching my dance class and then, ah, it was something. Then I had Glen Echo Park too.

NORTON: You also had to do work out there?

JOHNSON: That’s right. We had to build ...

NORTON: Looking at your resumé here it sounds like you’d been with the Arts Workshop for a fair amount of time before you started with the Lab School. The Lab School started in ’77 and the Arts Workshop was ’72.

JOHNSON: Uh huh.

NORTON: Up to the time you went with the Lab School you were sort of teaching everywhere?

JOHNSON: Everywhere, everywhere there was a space. I would rent a space if I didn’t—sometimes they would just hire me for one class, doing master classes all over the place. Especially ... And I was doing break dance. When break dance came out, I had to get into that. So, I got into break dancing. I would go to New York on Saturday nights and get into the break dance clubs there where all the competitions went. All the break dance competitions. I’d go up there and try to compete with the break dancers up there.

NORTON: Do you remember when that was relative to when you started with the Lab School and when you started with the Arts Workshop?

JOHNSON: Oh boy.

NORTON: It’s not critical. I trying to get the time frame as best I can, but don’t worry about it. You started with Sally [Crowell] and you were in the Presbyterian church. What were you teaching there?

JOHNSON: Chinese gymnastics.

NORTON: As I recall you had broken up into the little kids, like three to five or three to six and then the middle kids went up to…

JOHNSON: Went to adults. I taught adult classes too, but I taught them modern or jazz.

NORTON: Dance. But the kids were early on like dance and acrobatics.

JOHNSON: Yeah. That’s what they called it.

NORTON: Dance and tumbling for the little kids.

JOHNSON: Yes, right.

NORTON: According to some old programs [I found, at least in ’84 you broke it up with three to six, something like that, dance and tumbling, and then seven to nine years old it was dance and acrobatics, and then ten to fifteen was also dance and acrobatics was the older kids. And then you say you also taught…

JOHNSON: Adults classes.

NORTON: What did you teach the adult classes?

JOHNSON: I taught jazz, modern. It was jazz and modern and ballroom, that’s right, ballroom dance.

NORTON: You did everything. Little kids, I remember, I may have a little picture here of me—what did you teach the little kids?

JOHNSON: I taught them the basic balances upside down, balancing on one foot. I taught them all the balance skills, make sure they were able to handle it.

NORTON: What do you mean by balance skills?

JOHNSON: Just standing on one foot without falling over. Giving them sense of that, sense of being able to do that.

NORTON: Of course, that’s what they are trying to teach us old folks. [Laughs.]

JOHNSON: That’s right [laughs]. Learning from the Lab School of Washington, there were so many disabled kids in school and they were not getting addressed because nobody knew anything about learning disability at that time. Sally Smith was the first pioneer in that area. She taught ... Pretty much when I was at the Lab School, I was teaching occupational therapy to children because [those techniques] needed to fix the things that were wrong …

NORTON: Daily life activities, kind of?

JOHNSON: They didn’t have anything for them. I had to design activities to correct or address the disabilities that they had.

NORTON: How did you use all your training, your Chinese acrobatics and gymnastics and stuff, in helping the kids at the Lab School?

JOHNSON: I had to go back to school. That’s why I went back to American University to learn how to teach learning-disabled kids.

NORTON: This would be when you went back after getting your bachelor’s degree?

JOHNSON: Uh huh.

NORTON: Was that about the time you started with the Lab School?

JOHNSON: No. That started me to get my degree, because I started working for her and she gave me free classes at American University working with disabled kids so I could do a better job at her place. That’s how I learned all about all the different systems and how to use the different systems in a kid that you naturally have, like hearing, vestibular systems. All the systems that work for dancing and how you help children and teach children to be normal.

NORTON: So, you would work them into your movements, your acrobatics and dancing.

JOHNSON: Yes, with some kids something like this [showing picture] is about balancing.

NORTON: You’re showing me a picture, which we’re hopefully going to be able to attach, with you standing there, a child standing on the top of your head and balancing.

JOHNSON: That’s right. All these different balances change the brain to function differently. I had to figure out how to do that and help them get over their disability or deal with their disability. They never get over it. They just learn how to adapt to using it to their benefit.

NORTON: As far as you can tell it helped?

JOHNSON: Oh yes. That’s why I had so much business. [Laughs.] Sally worked me to death.

NORTON: This is Sally Smith?

JOHNSON: Sally Smith, right.

NORTON: But you’re also there at the Arts Workshop doing these classes?

JOHNSON: Yeah, at the same time. I did it all on a bicycle.

NORTON: Did you really?

JOHNSON: Uh huh. I rode the bikes over to Georgetown from northwest to teach all day at the Lab School. I got a class early like 2:30 or two o’clock. And I’d ride over to Capitol Hill Arts Workshop on the Hill. Then I taught two or three classes over there, like two classes over there. Then I’d ride out to Maryland University from there and teach the adult classes over there. break dance classes.

NORTON: This is break dance classes?

JOHNSON: Yeah, break dance classes.

NORTON: Over at the University of Maryland?

JOHNSON: Uh huh.

NORTON: And, you’re doing all of this on a bike!

JOHNSON: All on a bike in one day.

NORTON: Where were living at that time?

JOHNSON: I lived on Rhode Island Avenue right off of North Capitol [Street]. I rode from there.

NORTON: No car, no nothing?

JOHNSON: No had no car. I was in shape [laughs].

NORTON: Man, everybody remembers that you were in shape. But yes. Holey moley. So, you did the basic—going back to the Arts Workshop, the basic tumbling kind of stuff and all that sort of stuff. Then you got the little bit older kids. What did you do with them?

JOHNSON: The little ones?

NORTON: The middle age, like nine and ten-year olds. Seven to nine-year olds.

JOHNSON: They would learn pop. They like the hip hop and breaking. That was a big draw from my—everywhere I taught I teach a little break dance, somewhere I had to sneak it in there because I knew they wouldn’t let me go unless I gave a little something.

NORTON: And you’d do there acrobatics too.

JOHNSON: That’s right.

NORTON: We were talking about this before, before we started recording, but I think you maybe even showed me a picture of your son holding you up. You would get the kids to do that, right?

JOHNSON: Yes, yes. Six-year-olds would hold me up in the air all by themselves.

NORTON: That was impressive.

JOHNSON: Uh huh. They couldn’t wait to do that.

NORTON: How about the older kids, the 10–15-year-olds?

JOHNSON: They were breakers, break dancers.

NORTON: Were they doing acrobatics too?

JOHNSON: Yeah, you have to. Some of the break moves you use were just typical dance lifts like spin. I would have a person on my shoulder. They would hold two people out to the side over top of me while I had my hands on their waists. That I called the flag. And then I would spin with the kids in the air. Yup. [Laughter.]

[Gloria whispers “ballet.”] Okay, ballet too. I taught ballet. I had to take ballet all the way through American University. That was standard.

NORTON: Did you teach ballet at the Arts Workshop too?

JOHNSON: Not at the Arts Workshop. We had Raye [LeValley]. Raye was a ballerina there. We didn’t have ballet classes there.

NORTON: Not much.

JOHNSON: Naw. We didn’t have any ballet classes. Modern, because that’s [what] we were. We were modern dancers so, we did more modern than anything else.

NORTON: When you were doing all these classes, as I remember, at the end of every semester or term or something like, you’d have a big show.

JOHNSON: Uh huh.

NORTON: Sometimes you’d go out and go someplace else too. You were out at Market Day out in Eastern Market and all that sort of thing.

JOHNSON: That was [kids], a dance company. We danced at schools. We went to schools around the area. We would meet at 12 o’clock at a school and do a performance there. Then we would go to another school. I combined the Lab School kids with my kids from Capitol Hill Arts Workshop and we’d perform.

NORTON: In this company?

JOHNSON: Right. Then we took the whole company to Spoleto [Festival].

NORTON: That’s down in Charleston, right?

JOHNSON: Yes, and I’ve got a whole tape of that.

NORTON: Which Rachel Abrecht [a former student] told me I had to get a copy or borrow it and make a copy of it.

JOHNSON: That’s what I have been trying to do for her for so long. I got it right over here. I’ll sure do that for you because I haven’t had a chance to get to nowhere.

NORTON: It’s interesting because one of the things she told me when she was [being] instrumental somehow or another in getting me hooked up with you: she says one thing she remembers is that you had put her up, way up, in the air and always said, “Are you ready?”

JOHNSON: “Are you sure?”

NORTON: “Are you sure,” sure. And she said she was never sure! [Johnson laughs.] But you did that with all the kids, right?

JOHNSON: Oh, just something to be funny. Something to remember me by. I said, “Are you sure you want to go up there?” And they go, “Aw Steve, come on!” [Laughter.]

NORTON: That’s great. What did you guys do down to Spoleto? Remember when that was?

JOHNSON: Yes. I took my two schools, put them together and we rehearsed it at Lab School because I had a big studio there. So we had enough room to get everybody in. I had my assistant. Oh, we took the singers too. We took another teacher with us. No, she didn’t come. Her son was there.

NORTON: Cora Lee’s [Khambata ] son?

JOHNSON: Cora Lee’s son.

NORTON: Cyrus Khambata?

JOHNSON: Yeah, Cyrus was performing down there with his company. He had a dance company. He was down there the same time I was.

NORTON: At Spoleto?

JOHNSON: Yeah. He would come out with us and perform a little bit.

NORTON: Do you remember who was in your company, the dance company that you took down to Spoleto, any names that just come to mind?

JOHNSON: Oh, boy.

NORTON: That’s alright. This is always hard. Any pop up, just sing out.

JOHNSON: I can’t remember their names. They were so young.

NORTON: Rachel [Abrecht] says she went.

JOHNSON: Yes, she was there but she was an older dancer. She had to watch out for the little ones.

NORTON: So you had the whole range of kids went down there?

JOHNSON: Yeah, all.

NORTON: This is both from the Lab School and from the Arts Workshop?

JOHNSON: Uh huh. I swear they were awesome. They turned that place out. People never seen that kind of dance work.

NORTON: Really?

JOHNSON: Really, they didn’t. They don’t do that type of gymnastics any more. Chinese gymnastics, uh uh. You see only in the circus, maybe. That’s right. That was a circus act.

NORTON: I remember one of the closing recitals and stuff for one of the Arts Workshop, I think it was called the circus or something like that that you were the headliner for.

JOHNSON: Yeah, so. Then all the musicals we did, oh my goodness.

NORTON: How did you—I went through a lot of the programs and that’s one of the reasons I could find out when you started. [Laughs.] You have your little bio in there. Remember what your first show was at the Arts Workshop?

JOHNSON: No way [laughs].

NORTON: Let me ask you this because you were in the Fantastics at one point.


NORTON: Before we go further, with your dance companies, the one that went to Spoleto. You also went to the Kennedy Center?


NORTON: What did you all at the Kennedy Center?

JOHNSON: We held workshops. We would do workshops modern and workshops with gymnastics.

NORTON: Was this just you or was this with the kids too?

JOHNSON: It was a group of teachers from all over the country and they had kids bussed in. Local kids from all over the area. They had the whole basement of the Kennedy Center open for different classes. [Sound of shuffling papers.] My wife’s got a better memory than I do. She’s a youngster.

NORTON: And that’s okay! The whole idea of an oral history is you do the best you can and then you can fill in a few things when we get the written thing. Let’s see. How long were you at the Kennedy Center?

JOHNSON: We just did workshops for one week, I think. A whole week of workshops we did there and that was it.

NORTON: Do you remember when that was?


NORTON: That was after you’d been at the Arts Workshop and the Lab School.

JOHNSON: Yeah, a long time, yeah. And also, they were honoring most of the teachers in the whole DC area.

NORTON: At the Kennedy Center?

JOHNSON: Yeah. They gave us awards for teaching for so many years.

NORTON: You got nominated for Washingtonian of the Year in Washingtonian Magazine.

JOHNSON: Yes, I did.

NORTON: That’s cool. Was that around that same when you were being honored at…

JOHNSON: I’m not sure the same time, but yeah. [Dancer and actress] Debbie Allen came to the Lab School and brought me a student. He had been in the public schools most of his life and failing because he couldn’t keep up. She gave me him. He could dance. He was older and he could dance.

NORTON: You say he was older, what…

JOHNSON: He was like 16, 17. I don’t even get kids that age. But he could dance. Boy, we choreographed a piece that was so awesome. We took it to Howard University. We used to use Howard University to do our African Heritage. Every year for 20 years the Lab School would rent the space at Cramton Auditorium at Howard and we had performances where we invited two other schools to join us. I made all the costumes. I designed and made the costumes for even the kids who were joining us.

I would go to their schools, measure them and get them ready for dance and teach them all the dances. I did that before eight o’clock in the morning. I would go there at eight o’clock in the morning, early about seven thirty, and they would come in and meet me there in the cafeteria and I would teach them a dance, an African dance because we were doing African Heritage. I’d teach them how to drum, African drum. Then I’d get on my bicycle, ride back from Georgetown [laughs]. I’m bicycling. I’d drive over to Lab School, teach all day and get off at two thirty and get on my bike and ride over to CHAW and teach, then I would stop and go over to Maryland University and finish up. That was a one day.

NORTON: You mentioned the African Heritage Cultural Society. You’re one of the founders of that according to [your biography]. What was that?

JOHNSON: That was the company that we got the grants to do under the African Heritage every year at Howard University.

NORTON: You did it at Howard?

JOHNSON: Yeah. We got enough money that we could, a matter of fact. BET sponsored us at the first.

NORTON: BET, the network?

JOHNSON: Network. They sponsored. They would buy food for the kids for lunch. They would come in and they would go down to the Howard studio dressing room. I had to dress everybody because I made all their costumes, and have them go upstairs and we would perform all dances. Once a year we would do that.

NORTON: How long did you do that?

JOHNSON: About 20 years.

NORTON: Twenty years. Do you remember when that started?

JOHNSON: Yes. We started doing it at an elementary school. What was the name of that school? [Laughs.]  She [Gloria] has better memory than I do.

NORTON: But you’re ahead of her. Just so everyone understands doing the transcript, every now and then Steve’s wife, Gloria, sends him a note to remind him of things, which is helpful, but that’s what we’re talking about. [Laughter.]

JOHNSON: We did that for about 20 years. We started off at elementary school, then we went from school to school and finally BET said, “Hey, why don’t you come and do it over here.”

NORTON: So, you’d bring the kids up to Howard to do it.

JOHNSON: That’s right. We bussed them in from all those places.

NORTON: What kids were involved in that?

JOHNSON: Elementary schools.

NORTON: DC public schools, elementary schools?

JOHNSON: DC public schools, yeah. And it was schools I taught at, because I was teaching in all these schools because I was under the umbrella of the humanities.

NORTON: Oh, the DC Council of the Humanities.

JOHNSON: Yup. They would pay for me to go to a school for a semester and set up a dance program. Then they would hire me. Every year I’d be in a different school in the District.

NORTON: For a semester.

JOHNSON: For a semester or a whole year, rather. The whole year. They would do me for one year and then I’d move to the next school the next year. I did that all the time I was teaching at all these other places too. I was crazy [laughs].

NORTON: You’re wearing me out just .... [Laughter.] I know at the Arts Workshop you wouldn’t have done it as extensive as you did with the Council of the Humanities. They did some workshops and stuff at the local schools too. Were you involved with those?

JOHNSON: Oh yes, all of them. My program, everybody wanted to learn it because nobody was teaching Chinese gymnastics in the whole city. I had no competition.

NORTON: Has anybody learned it since then? Is there somebody? Is it passed on or something?

JOHNSON: No. After Russell died…

NORTON: Who’s Russell?

JOHNSON: Russell Nesbit of the Flying Nesbits.

NORTON: Yeah, which was a long while ago.

JOHNSON: Yes, and I couldn’t do things he did. He would put them on his feet and throw them up in the air on his feet. They flip in the air and come back on his feet. I wasn’t going to try that. [Laughter.] Sally would have had a fit!

NORTON: You were talking about the shows at the Arts Workshop. I know, and I asked you about the Fantastics. You remember that?

JOHNSON: Uh huh.

NORTON: What were you in the Fantastics?

JOHNSON: That was one of the first songs I had to learn.

NORTON: That’s right. You had to sing in these shows.

JOHNSON: Yeah, I had to sing in the show. I had not had to do that. What was his name, the guy who ran all the music? Plays everything.

NORTON: Phil DeSellem? Parker Jayne?


NORTON: Who else plays everything?

JOHNSON: He played for all the musicals and he taught all the songs and arranged everything. I forgot his name.

NORTON: Parker did a lot of them. I know that because I was in ... Were you in Guys and Dolls?

JOHNSON: Yes, uh huh.

NORTON: Okay which was, I think, the first big music she did over at Hine Junior High School. What was your part in Guys and Dolls? Do you remember?

JOHNSON: Guys and Dolls, I was the guy who was his partner. The head man’s partner. Jim Vance was…

NORTON: Jim Vance was Sky.

JOHNSON: Sky and I was his partner. What was his partner’s name? I don’t know.

NORTON: Nathan Detroit.

JOHNSON: That’s who I was.

NORTON: Wow. That’s the Frank Sinatra part ...

JOHNSON: Oh yeah, tell be about it.

NORTON: You had to sing with Alan? too. You had to sing with Al?

JOHNSON: He worked me though. He’d bring me over to his house and had me sing, leaning against the wall making sure everything was correct in my…

NORTON: This was who?

JOHNSON: The teacher. I can’t remember his name though.

NORTON: Okay. Then I know you were in Damn Yankees, because I was in Damn Yankees. That was the first show I ever got involved in. I had to learn how to sing too. [Johnson laughs.] But I didn’t have to do the solos or anything. Do you remember what you did in Damn Yankees? Were you just a ball player or did you have another part too?

JOHNSON: Nah. I was just a ball player.

NORTON: Well, you were dancing too. Of course, we all had…

JOHNSON: Jim would have me paint everything too, you know. Remember? [Laughs.]

NORTON: Ah yes. Jim Mayo was always the set guy.

JOHNSON: He was the set guy and I was his handyman.

NORTON: We all got to be his assistants, every now and then. I remember one time when Jim and I would have to knock down the sets at the end too and take them back over to the Arts Workshop. He would say, “I’m too old for this shit.” [Laughter.] And I agreed with him. I was a lot younger than he was, oh boy.

How did you get sucked in to being in the shows? Did you have any acting experience or anything before that?

JOHNSON: Yeah. Before that I was—I told you my parents were running the DC Youth Orchestra. Sometimes they would do shows which would involve dance. I remember the first show I did for them that they actually sang. They did Peter Pan at Cramton Auditorium at Howard University. I was Peter Pan.

NORTON: How old were you then?

JOHNSON: I was still in, probably junior high school. That was then. That was the first performance I ever did on the big stage.

NORTON: Did you have to sing?


NORTON: You didn’t sing until got to the Arts Workshop.

JOHNSON: How about that. Thank goodness [laughs]. There was no way in the world I could sing before that. I didn’t know anything about it.

NORTON: Sally seemed to sort of hook all her instructors and everybody and all the students, everybody she knew into these shows. Because they were huge shows.

JOHNSON: They were huge. Had a hundred people on the set at sometimes.

NORTON: Yes, they were. Which ones, let’s see. That ones that I remember, The Music Man. You were Marcellus the...

JOHNSON: Yeah, Marcellus.

NORTON: …side kick of Harold Hill.

JOHNSON: I was always the side kick.

NORTON: You had to dance and stuff, but you had a song in that one too as I recall.

JOHNSON: Uh huh. That be my first. Then I had to keep on developing because they put me in a couple others shows. I remember I had to sing—what was the name of that song? It was so many songs I just struggled through.

NORTON: You were the choreographer or assistant choreographer in an awful lot of these shows?

JOHNSON: Yeah, I was.

NORTON: You were involved in the dances and stuff. Sally was sure to have plenty of dances in these shows. I remember that [laughs]. I remember one show, I ended getting put in these shows. You good dancers learn quickly. Put me in the back line so I wasn’t there. She got everybody involved.

JOHNSON: You better believe it! Yes, she did. She was a marvel at that.

NORTON: Oh yeah. You were in, as I say, The Music Man. There were dances, a lot of dances in that. Those were hard songs as I recall.

JOHNSON: Yes, they were.

NORTON: I had to be in the barbershop quartet. I don’t think we ever got it quite right. [Laughter.] It was otherwise a pretty good show. Then you were in Damn Yankees. You were in The King and I. [Then there] was the one you had to play Simon of Legree and do the dance in the little house of Uncle Thomas or whatever. Remember that, Uncle Thomas’ Cabin?

JOHNSON: Yeah, uh huh.

NORTON: That was kind of cool. There was a lot of Taiwanese dancing, I guess, done in that show. You did a lot of that.


NORTON: That was quite—but you had to sort of pantomime the whole story about Simon of Legree. Simon of Legree and all that. What do you remember about that?

JOHNSON: It was just [indecipherable] putting them shows together. All of them were just like—you did everything in there. You did the costuming sometime. I made my own costume. Then I had to do the set and paint the set. Then you had to figure out what part you played and get your lines and memorize them and say them more times. [Laughs.] Oh boy, but we had so much fun.

NORTON: One of the ones that I remember the most because my wife was in it with you, was Annie. You had to play Rooster, you know, the baddy. You and Helen Jackson were the–– she was Miss Hannigan. Or was one of the three Miss Hannigans. You had to do “Easy Street” and a few other things like that.

JOHNSON: Boy, that was a hard song. I was the only one singing it so nobody could cover me [laughs].

NORTON: There was a lot of dancing going on at the same time.

JOHNSON: Yeah, you know, yup.

NORTON: Linda remembered that.

JOHNSON: That was something.

NORTON: I have a picture here someplace where you had to hold her [Linda Norton] up while she’s kicking her legs up and all that kind of stuff. [Johnson laughs.]

JOHNSON: It was fun.

NORTON: Remember how Sally would always get a million kids in the shows? I always said that was how she made sure she got a good audience because you’d get everybody’s grandparents.

JOHNSON: Grandparents and parents and everybody else.

NORTON: Uncles and aunts and that.

JOHNSON: That’s right. They were there, uh huh.

NORTON: In Annie, she triple-casted it. So, there were three different Miss Hannigans and three different orphans and groups of orphans. It seemed like every kid in Capitol Hill.

JOHNSON: The whole Capitol Hill was there.

NORTON: It is amazing how between the shows and your classes, every kid—you’ve gone through Capitol Hill, a lot of them now grown––will remember [you]. They remember your classes and they remember the shows too. What do you remember about Sally and how she somehow managed to put on these huge productions, because she did and she got a lot of people involved?

JOHNSON: Uh huh. She was amazing. She taught most of the adult classes, so she gave all her classes the positions where they could bring in this person, bring in that person and they all worked with her. She was just a magnet for everybody.

NORTON: She was, wasn’t she.

JOHNSON: She was a magnet that would just drag—you just want to be a part of it because she made it so exciting. She was wonderful.

NORTON: You’re right.

JOHNSON: We would have followed her anywhere. “What’re you going to do this time? What’re you going to do this year?” [Laughs.] “Where’re we going to get this?”

NORTON: You’re doing these shows. These are just community theater shows and you’re still riding your bike around trying to make a living and all that stuff and doing your other things.

JOHNSON: Yep, all on a bicycle. Kept me in shape [laughs].

NORTON: That’s true, that’s true. Do you remember South Pacific?


NORTON: What do you remember about that?

JOHNSON: Oh, boy, we had so much fun with that. These short, cut-off jeans up to here. The sailor man. That was Jim Vance. One time he brought a fifth of something and everybody had a sip of it and boy, Sally was so mad because they were missing lines and stuff [laughs].

NORTON: She knew and that was a hard show to do. Are you sure it was Jim Vance because I remembered, I thought it was, oh foo, the guy who played the devil in Dam Yankees too.

JOHNSON: Oh, I know who you’re talking about. No, Jim Vance was in South Pacific.

NORTON: You sure? Because I was in South Pacific.

JOHNSON: Yeah? No, I get all mixed up.

NORTON: No, no, no. It was quite the show and it was long. I remember it took a lot. Practices were long and lots of lines. My wife was the costumer on that one. She was very proud of that one with all the sailor’s suits and the nurses’ suits and all that stuff. And the Pacific Islanders all that stuff. Yeah, that was a lot of fun. Did you do any shows after South Pacific? Looking at my old programs I don’t see other programs.

JOHNSON: I can’t remember the order of them. I remember them but I can’t remember the order we did them in.

NORTON: South Pacific is the last one that could find a program for, but that’s—Sally was still doing some of the shows after that. She did Mame. Were you in Mame? I didn’t see you in the program. Then Kiss Me Kate?

JOHNSON: No, no.

NORTON: You were otherwise busy, right? It wasn’t like you were…

JOHNSON: Oh, no. [Laughter.] I was in somebody’s school somewhere teaching eight hours a day. It was fun.

NORTON: How long did you go with the Arts Workshop?

JOHNSON: Wow. I think I had to stop because I had to work full. Sally Smith gave me a fulltime position. See, I worked part-time for the Lab School up to after we got in the new building. We built the new building. I start teaching for them after that. When did we finish the new building? Let’s see.

NORTON: That would be the one up on MacArthur Boulevard?

JOHNSON: No, I’m talking about Lab School.

NORTON: Lab School, right. But the new building.

JOHNSON: When we built it and when we started actually using it?

NORTON: It doesn’t say when you built the building on this. I know the last show and the last—the class schedule that I saw was for 1990 at the Arts Workshop.

JOHNSON: Right, yeah, uh huh.

NORTON: So, it would have been around then that they finished the building up at Lab School and you then went there full time. So, was sort of it for the…

JOHNSON: I still taught after school. But I didn’t teach full time. I would teach at Lab School during the day then I’d ride over there.

NORTON: So, it wasn’t as much?

JOHNSON: As much, yeah.

NORTON: Were you still teaching kids at the Arts Workshop?

JOHNSON: Yep, uh huh, just after school.

NORTON: Do you remember how long you kept doing that?

JOHNSON: I can’t. It wasn’t long.

NORTON: Sally finally left and went on to sort of be the head of the Erika Thimey Company and then finally she moved back to Connecticut. Jim Mayo passed away.

After you left the Arts Workshop what were you doing? You were working full time at the Lab School?

JOHNSON: Lab School and then I started teaching full time there after school. I just rented space after school and ran my high school program there.

NORTON: You weren’t having to travel all around the city.

JOHNSON: How about that. That was a relief because I was getting old by that time. [Laughter.] 2014, that’s when I stopped [at Capitol Hill, whispered by Gloria].

NORTON: Really, 2014? You would have been working then just part time because that was well after Sally left then.

JOHNSON: Uh huh.

NORTON: Your wife who has better memory than you wrote down 2014 and you think that was around the time you stopped doing it at the Arts Workshop although, as I say, I don’t have you in the schedules before that, so it would have been much more part-time after 1990 and thereabouts. You were working pretty much full time at the Lab School and then teaching courses there afterwards.

JOHNSON: Then I rented space at the school. Yep.

NORTON: How long did that go on?

JOHNSON: Until I retired in 2017.

NORTON: Then you moved down here, huh?

JOHNSON: Pretty much. We’ve only been in this house a year. Down this way about three years, because I retired at 65.

NORTON: What are you doing in your retirement? [Johnson laughs.] Just relaxing?

JOHNSON: Yeah, pretty much. I’m not teaching right now. I started to but I can’t teach just two hours a day. That’s just…

NORTON: Doesn’t seem like it’s worth it?

JOHNSON: No, no. It isn’t worth it doing two hours a day for me. I’d be just warmed up. [Laughter.]

NORTON: You still dancing?

JOHNSON: When I go out to party that’s what I do. Yes indeed.

NORTON: You still get the circle forming around you and stuff?

JOHNSON: No, not like the old days. Back in the old days we used to compete all the time. You always had somebody you had to compete on the floor with.

NORTON: I got one note here that I have that you were in a non-musical with the Arts Workshop. In fact, it was the one-act play contest that you got an award for best supporting actor, something like that.


NORTON: That was for the Sandbox, right?


NORTON: Do you remember when that was?


NORTON: How did you get—Sally even said you were so great in that in her interview. [Johnson laughs.]

JOHNSON: I had one line.

NORTON: What did you say?

JOHNSON: “Yeah.” [Using a deep voice.]

NORTON: [Laughs.] Apparently you were very convincing. [Johnson laughs.]

JOHNSON: I stood up and I had no shirt on. At that time, I actually was built [laughs].

NORTON: People remember that. [Laughs.] People remember that.

JOHNSON: I had to stand up. There was a bed in the middle of the floor. They called it the sandbox. Every now and then I just said, “Yeeesss.” My arms folded like this.

NORTON: You were supposed to be a life guard or something like that.

JOHNSON: Something like that. Sally had so many plays that I was in it was just like, “Who thought of this?” [Laughs.]

NORTON: But you did it.

JOHNSON: Yeah, I did, but it was like so much, it was so different from what we see on TV. Very experimental stuff like. I’d never seen it, “New York stuff” I sort of call it.

NORTON: That avant garde kind of stuff.

JOHNSON: Avant garde is definitely what they were doing.

NORTON: Yes, yes. But Sally was good at that.

JOHNSON: Oh, yes, she was.

NORTON: She put on the old big musicals but she’d also put some of the real serious plays. And she’d talk you into those.

JOHNSON: Yup, she sure did. Got me in that.

NORTON: I am running out of questions here. Anything else that you can think of? Obviously, I don’t have your whole life and I’m concentrating on the Capitol Hill aspects.

JOHNSON: Basically, everything dwelled around Capitol Hill for a long time until after I finally broke from them and went and stayed full time at Lab School. Then we immediately got ready, not even then. When I went to Spoleto, I was still teaching full time at Lab School. At Capitol Hill Arts Workshop. The kids I had at Capitol Hill and the kids, I combined with the kids…

NORTON: Was that after they finished the new building at the Lab School?


NORTON: So, you were still teaching. So maybe you were still teaching up to 2014 at the Arts Workshop. You were teaching, what, the older kids then?

JOHNSON: Yeah. I didn’t have any little…

NORTON: But you said you brought a bunch of young kids down to Spoleto too.

JOHNSON: Yeah. I brought Rachel Abrecht. Rachel was one of the little—she was young. She was about this big.

NORTON: The lawyer in me is saying for the record it shows about four and a half feet [both laugh].

JOHNSON: Yes, she was a little girl. A little teeny thing. I can show you the video right now.

NORTON: Well, Steve, thank you. I really appreciated it. It’s been my pleasure doing this. I’ve learned a whole lot about you and about what you were doing and I think a lot of people will find it fascinating too.


Ruth Ann Overbeck Capitol Hill History Project
Steve Johnson Interview, August 22, 2023

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