By Linda Andersen
Lyndon Johnson is excited about Frost Fire Summer Theatre’s play, “Smoke on the Mountain,” in which he plays the part of Uncle Syrus. He’s so excited about it, in fact, that he persuaded this writer and her husband to drive a fair distance to attend, in lieu of a telephone interview. And, they’re not the only ones to receive invitations. How many people has he enticed to attend the performance? He gave a big smile and replied, “By this time I think it’s fifty – no exaggeration.”
So, what did a trip to Frost Fire Theatre entail? Frost Fire is located in a beautiful, hilly area of Northeastern North Dakota (the Pembina Gorge) and a Sunday afternoon outing there included seeing pretty, tree covered hills, experiencing theater by quality musicians and actors, and getting to know more about Lyndon and his passion for music and theater.
Visitors to Frost Fire are greeted by friendly staff, many of them actors in the play. One greeter happened to be David Paukert who co-directs “Smoke on the Mountain” with his wife, Amy Jo Paukert. (Both David and Amy Jo also have significant parts in the play).
Paukert, who said that Lyndon stepped in, just one and one-half week before performances started, because a performer had to quit, explained a bit more of how Lyndon became a part of the cast. “We’ve know Lyndon and Laurel (Lyndon’s sister) for many years,” said Paukert, adding that Lyndon and Laurel sang at his wedding. He said that the play is “Right up Lyndon’s alley because it’s country gospel bluegrass…He was familiar with a lot of the songs.” Paukert added that cast members for the play needed to have several qualifications – the abilities to act, play musical instruments, and sing.
Visitors receive a program at the entrance to the theater, which includes information about ownership of the Frost Fire property, the history of theater there, and details about this summer’s play. The Pembina Gorge Foundation, a nonprofit corporation, recently purchased the property and, along with North Dakota Parks and Recreation, intends to increase recreational and programming opportunities there.
Theater has been a part of Frost Fire since 1985 and such popular plays as “Sound of Music,” “West Side Story,” and “Oklahoma!” have been performed.
“Smoke on the Mountain,” according to the program, “takes place in the sanctuary of the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Mount Pleasant, North Carolina…It is Saturday night in June 1938. The United States is in the last years of the Great Depression. Organized religion is at its peak…Saturday Night Sings by families of gospel singers have become the much needed and highly appreciated entertainment of the time…The Sanders are appearing tonight after a five-year hiatus from the gospel-singing circuit. They travel in an ancient bus with ‘The Sanders Family’ hand-painted on the side.”
The play is a comedy and has the flavor of Pa and Ma Kettle. The characters display the foibles of Christians, while the songs (mostly popular old hymns) declare the gospel message.
Although Lyndon has no speaking parts, he plays the mandolin and banjo and sings. Three songs, “Church in the Wildwood,” “Whispering Hope,” and “Life’s Railway to Heaven” feature his voice.
During a conversation with Lyndon after the play, he shared something of his life and what he enjoys about acting and music and what he enjoyed about this play. Though he’s a farmer of around 2000 acres of land in the Hallock area, he’s definitely known life off the farm. He secured a Bachelor of Arts Degree in biology and business from Concordia College in Moorhead. While at the college, he participated in choir, band, orchestra, and was part of a Christian outreach team. He later attended an agricultural university in Sweden where he received a degree (which he said is “something like a master’s degree”) in agronomy. While in Sweden, he sang with student choirs and with the Uppsala (Sweden) Cathedral Choir, even traveling to Austria with them.
He has participated in plays since high school when he was part of the junior and senior class plays. He later acted in Hallock Community Theater plays, a play in Drayton based on a Lauraine Snelling book, and most recently, the Heritage Christian School Easter play.
What does he enjoy about involvement in theater? “I like the challenge – telling a worthwhile story and people are learning something about other characters and maybe even themselves.”
He said “Smoke on the Mountain’ is “My kind of play” and feels it even teaches some important lessons – one being “Know your Bible,” and the other, the importance of praise and celebration.
He especially enjoyed “jam sessions” after the Saturday night performances when the cast would sing and play a variety of songs together, including folk songs, gospel songs, and “golden oldies.”
“I’ve been teaching them some Swedish songs,” he added.
There’s still time to see Lyndon Johnson and other superb musicians and actors in “Smoke on the Mountain.” Performances are scheduled for Wednesday and Sunday afternoons and Saturday evenings through August 6th. For more information or to secure tickets, call 701-549-3602 or visit www.frostfiretheatre.com
(Abovc Left) Lyndon Johnson, Hallock, Minn., is one of the cast members in the Frost Fire Theatre’s summer production of “Smoke on the Mountain.”
(Above Right) Lyndon Johnson, second from right, plays and sings in the Frost Fire Theatre’s summer production of “Smoke on the Mountain.” (Photos courtesy of Frost Fire Theatre)