Reflections on Peter Johl

While feeling eminently unqualified for the task before me, I must take pen in hand and reflect on a sweet soul who went out of his way to make me at home as a newborn Lamb when I was first honored with club membership in 2004. I refer to our dearly departed Peter Johl, actor, singer, and first-class gentleman from head to toe. With more than a half century of experience in the theater, Peter was a respected veteran of the stage, including Broadway, off-Broadway, stock and dinner theaters. Perhaps we had been ships passing in the night. In my role as critic I had done reviews in such beautiful theaters as Poughkeepsie’s Bardavon (where Peter had played Daddy Warbucks in “Annie”) and Virginia’s Barter Theatre (where Peter had originated the role of Behrman in the World Premier of “The Last Leaf.”) But the first time I saw Peter perform was in the early part of this new millennium, and at the time, the footlights separated us. He was on the Broadway stage as Poole, the butler, in the musical, “Jekyll and Hyde.” I was a member of the audience. It would be several years before I had the honor of meeting this talented performer at The Lambs.

From my first “Low Jinks” encounter with Peter, his welcoming spirit, his radiant enthusiasm, and his love of The Lambs was ever in evidence. Whenever I brought guests to the club, Peter would be sure to visit the table with a cheerful greeting and interesting conversation. But beyond that was Peter’s truly poetic talent for sharing treasured selections from the American Songbook. He was a frequent vocalist at our Friday night club gatherings, and I recall his performing such familiar songs as “Let’s Get Away From It All,” “A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody,” and “Mama.” But he also relished treating us to a musical education with less well-known tunes like, “One Kind Word,” “The Sky’s the Limit,” “I Can’t Forget You After All,” and “I Still Feel Elisa.” On one special evening he performed “C’est Comme Ca,” from Duke Ellington’s musical, “Pousse Café.” Peter had been Theodore Bikel’s standby in the ill-fated production that lasted only three performances at the Richard Rodgers Theater.

The last time I saw Peter perform was this past October on the Lambs Club terrace. It was a delicious autumn evening for the Lambs Barbeque, and Peter honored me when he asked, “Dow, do you think I should do a song or a reading tonight?” I suggested we would all enjoy hearing Peter recite, and he rewarded us with a powerful passage from “Luther.” (Peter had played the pope when the production toured Chicago.) The only regret of my short and cherished friendship with Peter Johl, is that I had not yet had the opportunity to accept his several invitations to join him at meetings of poetry groups, the Ziegfeld Club, and his beloved New York Sheet Music Society. It is fitting that the Society’s website maintains a wonderful summary of Peter’s outstanding career. Reflecting on this very special life, why not pay that site a visit? The link is http://www.nysms.org/PeterJohl.htm

Farewell dear friend! You will be greatly missed!

(The Lambs Script    3.1.06)

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About The People's Critic

David Dow Bentley III, writes columns about the performing arts which are featured in newspapers from the East Coast to the Gulf Coast. A member of the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA), The International Theatre Critics Association, and America's oldest theatrical club, The Lambs, he also had long service as the editor of The Lambs' Script magazine. Mr. Bentley may be contacted via e-mail at ThePeoplesCritic3@gmail.com.
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