GARDINER — Johnson Hall Performing Arts Center will recognize one of its departing founders by celebrating with the medium she helped bring to the city decades ago.
The venue is holding a vaudeville and variety show Sunday afternoon honoring the organization’s longtime artistic director, Denise Reehl, who retired at the end of last year.
Reehl and her late husband, Benny Reehl, were part of the group that founded the Johnson Hall organization in the late 1980s to provide a place for vaudeville and variety arts.
The show is marking the end of an era, partly, for the nonprofit. Johnson Hall plans to hire a new executive and artistic director in March to replace Reehl and Judy Lloyd, who was executive director for eight years before retiring at the end of September.
“It’s an institution,” Reehl, 62, said of Johnson Hall. “It’s really not dependent on one person, which is a nice safety net. This is one chapter of Johnson Hall that’s closing, and there are many more to come.”
Reehl said part of the reason she retired from Johnson Hall is to be able to spend more time with her family, including soon-to-be-born twin grandchildren.
“It just seemed like it was time,” said Reehl, who lives in Gardiner and does consulting for her communications company.
After Lloyd stepped down, Johnson Hall’s board of directors hired David Greenham, a former director of the Theater at Monmouth, as a consultant to aid in the search for a new director and to take over some of Lloyd’s duties.
“It’s a very exciting time for Johnson Hall,” Greenham said. “At the same time, we are so grateful for Denise for all the work she’s done.”
Reehl said the organization started as a private partnership in the late 1980s, looking to purchase the Johnson Hall Opera House and the two connecting buildings for the purpose of opening up a center for vaudeville arts.
The partnership fell apart, so instead they solicited donations to help buy just the opera house and become a nonprofit organization.
Denise and her husband both served as artistic directors for Johnson Hall through 1995. Benny Reehl died in 2005.
Greenham, who is hosting Sunday’s show, said Reehl and others helped make Maine the center of a vaudeville revival in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s by developing art organizations such as Johnson Hall, which brought in those types of performers.
“This marks the real hand-off to the next generation,” he said.
Denise and Benny Reehl founded the New England Vaudeville Festival in 1980. It featured vaudeville performances at the different venues each year until finding a home in Gardiner in 1986, she said. Reehl said they held the last one in 1992.
She said Sunday’s show will be a collection of some of the best individual vaudeville performers in the state, with one pair coming from Massachusetts.
“It’s just going to be a fun celebration of the vaudeville arts, which is near and dear to my heart,” Reehl said.
Reehl plans to close the show with a performance of her own. She does original monologues, theater, juggling and comedy skits.
“Its been a wonderful 25 years for me. I feel privileged to live in a town where such a facility exists,” Reehl said. “If you can’t tell, I’m a big advocate for the arts. I’ve seen it turn people’s lives around, especially young people, and afford people an outlet for expression more than any other medium.”
This story has been corrected to accurately state the year of Benny Reehl’s death and to update the time of the show, which was postponed due to weather.
Paul Koenig — 621-5663