Far from his humble beginnings in Minnesota’s North Woods, at various times in his life Father Michael Johnson worked as a ranch hand and bartender, sold high-end men’s suits, taught college courses, operated a summer theater, and studied mime in Paris under the celebrated Marcel Marceau, who referred to his acting as “the art of silence.”
Deadwood’s own renaissance man, Johnson’s bespectacled appearance belies a gentleman who once smuggled Bibles into the Soviet Union, and he is unapologetic about his enduring love for the Episcopal religion and the colorful history of the Wild West.
Born 70 years ago in Halstad, Minnesota, “pretty much a Scandinavian-Norwegian community with a few Swedes mixed in,” Johnson was the son of Ralph, a rural electric cooperative lineman, and Pearl, who waitressed at local restaurants for many years. He left Halstad after high school and attended nearby Moorhead State College, where he earned a degree in speech and theater.
At Moorhead State, Johnson set the lights for numerous acts, including Kenny Rogers and John Denver. But it was while working on lighting for a tour by Marceau in 1970 that Johnson made a connection that would broaden his horizons and lead to world travel.
Hoping to get Marceau to sign a photo after his performance, Johnson got something much more gratifying instead. Marceau was so impressed with the young man’s work that days later he telephoned Johnson, explained his stage master in Paris was severely ill, and asked if he would come to Paris to assist at his theater. Johnson could not decline.
Though French union laws eventually meant Johnson didn’t get the job, Marceau opted to offer his protégé a scholarship to his school of mime instead. So how does a student of mime become the rector at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Deadwood, the oldest continuously operated church in the Black Hills? We sat down with Father Johnson and asked about that, and learned so much more.
Q: You studied under Marcel Marceau, the world’s greatest mime who performed throughout the world for massive audiences, including kings and queens. What was that like?
A: A day at Marcel’s school was a minimum of six hours of exercise, including gymnastics, acrobatics, modern dance, ballet, fencing and the techniques of mime. Just the honor of having studied with Marcel — he shaped the creative portion of your inner being and the way you viewed the world. He was a great man. As an aside, in one of his classes a student asked, “Mr. Marceau, do you feel you have a big ego?” He was looking at himself in a mirror at the time and he responded, “I am Marcel Marceau. I am the greatest.”
Q: You’ve had many jobs in your seven decades of life. Tell us about them.
A: After I had studied in Paris, I connected with some old colleagues and friends and we decided to start a summer theater in Deadwood. I arrived in Rapid City the night of the flood, June 9, 1972. Our Centennial Theater was located below one of the bordellos down on Main Street in the Badlands District. We were doing, “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” and I played Snoopy. It went pretty well, but it was always hard to get tourists to come down to that area of town below a bordello. From 1972 to 1974, I served as the mime in residence for the state Arts Council, and I think I was in 80 percent of the schools in South Dakota in those days. In ’73, myself and several actors started the Company of Fine Arts in Deadwood, which included a gallery with monthly showings of South Dakota artists, invitation-only champagne openings, artist studios, and a publication called “Sunday Clothes” was housed there. I returned to Paris and studied for a time, but I missed the Black Hills and returned. I started handling three artists like their agent and visited a ranch one day. I ended up living there for seven years as a ranch hand, baling hay, working cattle, riding a horse, all while bartending at the Rancher Bar & Lounge in St. Onge. I was married at the time and had a son, Luke. I also taught in the theater department at Black Hills State College for two years.
Q: How did you transform from a mime, ranch-hand and bartender to a preacher?
A: I really didn’t make much money being a ranch hand and teaching part-time. My wife and I had gone to college together, and we got married eight years after we graduated. I sold high-end men’s clothing in Fargo for eight years. During that time, we went through a divorce, which brought me to my knees. Ever since I was about 12 years old, I knew I needed to be in the ministry, but I had ignored it. So that’s where it started. A crisis clarified it in my heart. I was associated with a worldwide ministry in Georgia, was ordained in 1988, and with that ministry, I have been 18 times to Ireland, smuggled Bibles into the Soviet Union, and ministered in Israel and Jamaica. At the same time, I was affiliated with the Episcopal Church in Fargo, and with them I went to Rwanda, Africa, in 1999 and 2000, and taught pastors the Scripture. The first year, I had 12 pastors, and the second year I had 148. I was ordained a deacon in the Episcopal Church and then a priest, and in Morehead, I had a congregation of 250 Sudanese refugees. In 2012, there was an opening at the church in Deadwood where I had been married in 1978, so that’s how I got back to Deadwood. Someone told me recently, “You don’t seem like a normal pastor.” I said, “I thank you very much for that,” because people don’t view me as religious. I just want to tell them about god and just be a good Christian man.
Q: You currently serve as chairman of the Deadwood Historic Preservation Commission. What’s that like, what’s most challenging and what have you thoroughly enjoyed?
A: I had been in Deadwood a year when Mayor Chuck Turbiville appointed me to Historic Preservation. I’ve always been a history buff and loved Deadwood, so there was no question I would be honored to serve on HPC. One of the more challenging things is helping the community understand what Historic Preservation does and what is available in terms of assistance in preserving and protecting historic structures. I just enjoy letting people know and talking about the history of the city and working with local people. As chair, I have a wonderful commission, people who are dedicated to watching over and preserving this town.