Two weeks before the opening of Howard County Summer Theater’s production of “The Pajama Game,” the backstage of Mt. Hebron High School was bustling with activity. The smell of fresh cut wood and paint filled the air and the sound of hammering echoed through the halls.
It was build day.
“This is the time we put in a lot of effort to make it look effortless,” said Chuck Bagley, producer of the show, as cast and crew members worked to create a factory, an office and other scenes from the 1954 musical with a book by George Abbott and Richard Bissell with music and lyrics by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross.
“When the curtain opens, it looks like it all came together by magic.”
For 26 seasons, Pete Johnson has overseen the construction of the summer theater’s sets as well as Mt. Hebron’s drama club’s. A machinist by trade, Johnson admits he has always enjoyed building things.
“I enjoy the challenge. I like to tinker,” Johnson said. “I have become rather creative and have a unique skill set.”
For each production, he sits with Tom Sankey, the director, to discuss what Sankey wants to do with the show, from cutting scenes to expanding on them.
“After a couple of meetings I tell him, ‘You direct; I’ll take care of the rest,” Johnson said.
Johnson recalls making a cowboy hat “fly “off a head after being shot in “Annie Get Your Gun.” Cast members talk about the intricate set Johnson created tor a scene in “Mary Poppins.”
“The most fun was all the tricks done in the kitchen scene when [the characters] are trying to finish a cake,” said Eleanor Hade, who has worked backstage with the summer theater since 2015. “There were so many strings we were pulling to make it work. Pete Johnson engineered all of that. It was amazing.”
While Johnson goes to great lengths to create unique sets, he always has one goal in mind.
“My first priority is safety,” he said. “Safety is very important when designing and building my sets. They may be overbuilt, but I’m still batting low. When there is an issue or a need, they come see me.”
Johnson joined the summer theater with his daughter, Natalie Joy Johnson. The two worked together for five summers before Natalie went off to college and then on to a career on Broadway. She most recently performed in “Kinky Boots” for over five years before it closed in April.
“It’s been a thrill to watch Nat do her thing,” Johnson said. “I have followed her all around the country.”
Sitting backstage, Natalie, who was home from New York City for Father’s Day, was busy painting an image of the show’s original Broadway poster.
“”One of the beautiful things of theater productions is the community of people that come together,” Natalie said. “You make your friends. It’s such a cool thing.”
Laural Seivold Clark has been in charge of the group’s costumes for “35 something” years after admitting “I can sew” to members.
“I do it all. I do research. I figure out what I have. I recruit people,” said Clark, who has a building full of costumes at her home. “I enjoy the design aspect the most.”
Clark not only does all the costumes, she is part of the “Pajama Game” ensemble, too.
“This is my summer job,” Clark said, who first joined when she was in 10th grade. “I feel dedicated to the group.”
Though he does not have a role in this season’s production, Ed Bishop was at build day to help out.
“It’s a community thing,” Bishop said. “We have all done these shows when our schedules allow. It’s a bonding experience.”
Megan Duffy, 17, discovered a new talent at her first build day.
“I love working with tools,” Duffy said. “I didn’t know how to use a drill before.”
She also enjoyed working with everyone — both actors and backstage crew — from the show.
“It’s a great way to get both groups to come together,” she said.
While Johnson still has a desire to perform and work on the sets, he admits there are some projects he has lined up and that he’s “getting close” to stepping back.
“I think I have a couple more seasons,” Johnson said. “Working and the kids keeps me young.”
Latest Howard County
Howard County Summer Theatre presents “The Pajama Game” at 7 p.m. June 27-29; 2 p.m. June 30; 7 p.m. July 3 and 5; and at 2 and 7 p.m. July 6. Tickets are $20 or $17 for children younger than 12 at Mt. Hebron High School, 9440 Old Frederick Road, Ellicott City. Visit howardcountysummertheatre.org.