GARDINER — For just a moment, Denise Reehl stood in silent delight on the newly rebuilt stage in Johnson Hall’s upper theater.

Hands crossed over her heart, Reehl revealed a smile as she looked up at the balcony, then down at the unfinished wood on the stage.

The shrill whine of power tools, the scaffolding that still stands near the front of the unfinished theater space and the scores of tasks yet to be completed did not matter.

The renovation of Maine’s oldest opera house, at 280 Water St., is closer to being finished.

The project is up against a hard deadline. To meet the requirements of the tax credit program funding part of the work, the building must have a certificate of occupancy by Dec. 31. While everything need not be completed, the building must be safe for occupancy.

Michael Miclon, Johnson Hall’s executive artistic director, said he has been working with Gardiner’s code enforcement officer to make sure the deadline can be hit.


And while it has taken longer than the Reehls envisioned when they put together a group of people, including Logan Johnston and Phyllis Gardiner, to buy the building in a private sale in 1985, Denise Reehl said she feels the project is coming at the right time.

“When I come in here, I get giddy, and then I get emotional,” Reehl said last week. “I never worry, though.”

Reehl pointed to Miclon sitting across the table from her in the theater’s green room, which is now serving as the construction office.

“That’s his job,” she said.


When Denise and Benny Reehl, who were married and world-class Vaudeville artists, found Johnson Hall, they had already restored a truck and toured the country with it for the Buckfield Leather ‘n’ Lather Traveling Variety Show. Benny had been a professor of theater and English in Albany, New York, and Denise was a drama coach.


The Reehls and their truck were featured on the “Today” show in January 1983, when they performed at the Mount Vernon Town Hall.

At the time, Benny Reehl was entertaining visions of building a showboat to play Maine’s coastal towns, even going so far as to build a model, complete with working lights. But Denise put her foot down. They had started their family, and the idea of the showboat project was too much.

The theater was a different matter. Although Benny, who died in 2005, was the one who wanted to take on the project, Denise said it was not long before she embraced it, too.

The years that followed shaped the vision in different ways.

An exterior view of Johnson Hall, right, which is being renovated in downtown Gardiner. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Initially, the group had bought not only the theater on Water Street, but the pool hall next to it and the single-story building next to that, with visions of bringing in a rooftop restaurant and having studio space.

The historic flood of 1987 changed all of that, when the Kennebec River and Cobbosseecontee Stream escaped their banks and filled downtown Gardiner with water.


Because of that, the partners — by then minus the investor with the money — sold the two other buildings and formed the nonprofit that owns the building that still exists today.

They raised money to carve out the theater space on the ground floor, which included adding steel beams to support the upper floors. And while it was a lot of money at the time, it did not come close to the nearly $9 million raised to complete the current project.

The theater, formerly known as the Studio Theater, has now been renamed for the late Robert Logan Johnston.

Extensive renovations to that area had not been anticipated. Once the project began, however, it became clear the ramp providing access to the space did not meet requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act. And when Gardiner flooded again earlier this year, following the May 1 storm, the stage had be removed briefly to address water issues.

The upper theater, now called the Reehl Stage, boasts a full balcony accessible by stairs and an elevator that overlooks a rebuilt, deeper stage. As the project progresses, carpeting in tones of deep red is to be laid and seats in complementing red installed.

The second floor has been given over to a bar, restrooms, gathering space and green room, with blue carpeting to complement the deep blues of the Reehl Stage.


“I can tell you this: This is way beyond our expectation of how the hall would be restored,” Denise Reehl said following a recent tour of the renovation’s progress.


Reehl and Miclon share a relationship that reaches farther back than the Reehls’ purchase of the building.

In 1981, Reehl, while teaching a theater workshop in Buckfield, was planning to hold auditions to let students experience the auditioning process, even though she expected to take them all.  A teacher had flagged down Reehl to warn her about two particularly troublesome boys whom Reehl might want to avoid.

“She was so serious about it,” Reehl said. “I just said: ‘You know, really, I’ve taught a lot of workshops. Those are the kinds of kids that really take to it. I think I’ll be fine.”

She was not wrong.


Denise Reehl, left, and Michael Miclon, executive artistic director at Johnson Hall in downtown Gardiner, tour the stage last Thursday. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Those two students were Miclon and Patrick Dempsey, who has gone on to act in movies, including “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Disenchanted,” and the long-running television series “Gray’s Anatomy.”

“And we’re the only two people of the group to make arts their lifelong ambition,” Miclon said.

Reehl said she could see a spark in Miclon and, to a lesser extent, Dempsey.

“Michael (Miclon) came to me and said, ‘You know, when I first started, I used to make for a lot problems in the classroom.’ He knew what he was doing,” Reehl said. “He said: ‘This is my stage, but it isn’t. Now I know that I can go up on stage and people will clap for me.'”

“It was life-changing,” said Miclon, who described himself as a poor student who was in detention two or three times a week.

Bad grades and bad behavior would keep him out of the workshop, so he made sure he could continue.


Miclon, who came to the theater a decade ago, said when he applied for the job of executive director at Johnson Hall, it was because of the Reehls, with whom he apprenticed following that first workshop. Although he could not have predicted it would take as long has it has, he was committed to carrying out the vision the Reehls brought to downtown Gardiner.

Denise Reehl, who at the time was stepping down as the artistic director, said she knew Miclon was the person for the job, because having built his own theater in Buckfield, he understood what taking on a project like the theater renovation in a small community would mean.

“I knew it was right. It was the right fit, and now everyone knows,” she said.


Getting to this point has taken years of building trust in the enterprise, putting together a plan to raise the money, raising more money, finding grants and doing the work. Along the way, there have been consultations with restoration experts on colors and materials and preserving original details, including the proscenium arch that frames the stage.

Michael Miclon, left, executive artistic director at Johnson Hall in downtown Gardiner, and Denise Reehl tour the under-renovation performing arts venue last Thursday. Miclon says the “opera house” sign used in the counter is not original to the building, which is Maine’s oldest opera house. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Following the completion of construction, Miclon said the sound and lighting systems are to be tested, and Johnson Hall staff members will learn to manage the flow of hundreds of people in the space.


While all of that is months away, Miclon said he is putting out offers to book shows for the space because tours are already being planned. And while many of those shows are musicians, Johnson Hall will continue as a place for live theater and to host shows for area students, giving them experience with live theater and a chance for something life-changing.

“There’s a vulnerability to a stage performer who comes in to an audience of strangers,” Reehl said. “That kind of vulnerability that’s safe is important to our lives and to our children to learn — it’s OK to be vulnerable if you are in a safe space. That’s what we do in a theater event. There’s no replacement for that.”

And that extends to all the arts, when performers take chances and learn to take a critique, Reehl said, adding it is a skill that  serves everyone well in life.

Nearly four decades after Denise Reehl first saw the theater, which started in the 19th century as a livery stable, was transformed into an opera house and became home to department stores, a roller skating rink and a movie theater, she said she is pleased with its ongoing transformation.

“With hindsight, I realize there were a lot of years when it was very disappointing and we made no progress” she said. “But now I think about it, and it was right to do it now because of everything we have in the world and ways to solve problems and materials. It’s just the right time now, and I am sorry (Benny) didn’t get to see it.”

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