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Bringing life into the present tense

Kelly Johnson composed and performed the music on his new CD.


In the sunset years of my life, I sometimes realize that many of my friends don’t see me as I see myself. They see just an old guy on the corner outside Peet’s. But inside my head, I know I’ve had an interesting life — even if the interesting parts all seem to be in the past.

Recently I took on a new project that involved writing original music for ballet class, publishing a CD and developing a website. It was life changing.

And it turned out to be the glue that holds together all of the disparate parts of my life: as a child performer in vaudeville, later at the S.F. Dance Theater, which started on Fillmore Street; then as executive director of the Berkeley Symphony, followed by my years as a concert pianist and now my newest work as a composer.

Many of us have a time in our life we consider the most exciting, exhilarating, even defining. For me, that was when I was part of the dance world. Dancers were my family. They were in the studio all day: class in the morning, rehearsals in the afternoon, performances at night. We propped each other up through absolute exhaustion, injuries and long hours. We were disappointed or exhilarated together with performances.

Because of my childhood career on the vaudeville circuit, when my mother pushed my sister and me to perform as acrobats and contortionists, I got involved in the SF dance community after moving here in the early 60s. I really went for it and blossomed in a big way. As I sometimes say: “I did everything and everybody and lived to tell about it.” The timing was perfect in San Francisco’s late ’60s into the ’80s.There was a real dance boom.

Looking back, it was my years while founding and running the S.F. Dance Theater that gave me my real identity and brought all else into focus. I was a bit naïve, but bold. I jumped in and helped transform the dance communities of the Bay Area and the state of California through new priorities and funding policies. I helped bring the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts into being.

A couple of years after the S.F. Dance Theater closed, I was recruited to help revive the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra. I loved the Berkeley Symphony and left my mark. But it was different. The musicians showed up five to 10 minutes before rehearsal and were gone almost immediately after. The deep sense of family was not there. Supporting a full orchestra is expensive, so I spent long hours fund-raising in the community. I felt it was worth it because it was an important orchestra that presented groundbreaking performances. It was, however, extremely stressful to raise so much money in Berkeley, and after 13 years my health was in tatters. So I left, without really knowing what was next.

Then it dawned: I knew when I was 6 years old that I really wanted to play the piano — the only thing I hadn’t gotten to in my life. This was my chance. I devoted myself to the piano and gave concerts at a circuit of upscale retirement communities from Napa down to San Jose. I did 120 performances a year until I started losing the use of my left arm. I had neck surgery to get my left arm back and got one more year of performing before the arm gave out again. It could not be revived.

In 1999, I started writing some pieces for ballet class, mostly for fun. I didn’t get very far and, frustrated by technical problems, I gave up on them.

Then last year I came across a book with some of my compositions. I played them and liked them. I got serious about finishing the project and managed to complete all 21 pieces. I wanted not only to compose them, but also to be the one who recorded them. My partially paralyzed left arm was a real problem. It turned out to be a nightmare to get a clean recording of all 21 pieces. They are not perfect, but I’ve done it.

As I was completing these 21 short pieces for ballet class, my end goal was to publish a CD for teachers. And to do this the way I wanted, I needed to have a website, complete with pictures. I started digging through old photo albums and boxes and uncovering who I was in the 1940s and ’50s. It was the vaudeville circuit, big theaters, big bands — things that young people only know from old movies. Memories flooded in: the smell of the grease paint (gone), lots of men working the ropes in theaters (mostly gone), having a band or orchestra in the pit (very rare).

In the process of doing these compositions, recording them and creating my website, I’ve brought all the pieces of my life back into focus. I no longer feel my life is past tense. I now feel once again I am the glorious sum of all my crazy parts.

EARLIER: “Kelly’s Corner