Austin theater veteran Kenneth O. “Ken” Johnson died at home Friday of a heart attack. He was 82.
“Ken died here on Gault Street sitting in a red swivel chair in front of his computer and TV,” said longtime friend and housemate Maggie Cox. “Two of his dogs were in his office with him.”
According to his friends, Johnson came to Austin from Port Arthur in 1965. He transformed the community theater troupe known as Austin Civic Theatre into Zachary Scott Theatre, which is now Zach Theatre. Johnson named it after an Austin-reared stage and movie star who died in 1965 and whose family had been prominent in the city through several generations.
Johnson had long runs as the director of at least two other groups, Center Stage and Hyde Park Theatre, and he participated in the revival of the Paramount Theatre. Johnson wrote many plays and screenplays, most notably “Jesse’s Closet,” his stage drama that he adapted and directed for the screen.
Tempestuous and sometimes controversial, Johnson kept close a coterie of theater friends. Cox worked with him in various capacities for decades and invited him to share her home during his later years. She said that Johnson raised the general level of quality in Austin theater, including at what would become Zach.
“His abrasive nature was like a grain of sand in an oyster shell before he left,” she said. “Strong management practices after that helped propel Zach Theatre toward the grand theater it is today.”
Dock Jackson, a Bastrop public servant who worked with Johnson mainly in the 1970s, praised his skills as director, producer, writer, theater owner, actor, singer, set designer, costume coordinator and master carpenter.
Jackson: “There wasn’t anything he didn’t or couldn’t do in the theater.”
Johnson worked energetically until the end. He eagerly took to YouTube and created many short films for that format.
Memorial services are pending.