From pirates to famous movie directors, author highlights island characters
Jan Johnson hemmed the last stitch in Galveston Little Theater’s stage curtains just moments before the 1965 opening of a summer melodrama.
The then 13-year-old girl was working backstage as a prompter and also had painted muslin backdrops in the Isle Theater, 2110 Market St. in a building that no longer exists.
Johnson developed an appreciation that year for drama, old buildings and Galveston characters, she said. Her mother, Dorris Stechmann Johnson, who acted in that summer play, would soon become an assistant to John Garner, a historical architect who worked on the Galveston Historic American Buildings Survey beginning in 1966. Her researching mother would share discoveries at the dinner table that grabbed Johnson’s imagination.
“I was soaking up everything,” Johnson said.
Her love of island history and storytelling led her to a life of writing. As an adult, she worked as a tour guide in the 1980s, then later rolled that experience into published books, including “Walking Historic Galveston: A Guide to its Neighborhoods” (2009, Eakin Press) and “Beyond the Beaten Paths: Driving Historic Galveston” (2012, Wild Horse Press).
Johnson’s latest book, “Unforgettable Galveston Characters” (2018, The History Press), came out in September, marking the start of Johnson’s season of book signings and speaking engagements.
The book divulges insights about legendary figures from privateer Jean Laffite to movie director King Vidor, who was born in Galveston. It also describes the city’s founders Samuel May Williams, Thomas McKinney and Michel Menard. It covers sinners and saints, prostitutes and preachers, real-life characters who were born on the island and those who chose to move to Galveston.
Johnson hunted for photos of her key characters, then tracked down their relatives to get permission to publish the images she purchased. Thumbing through albums of photos and postcards, she rattles off names of her subjects: silent film star Charlotte Walker and her daughter, actress Sara Haden; concert pianist Olga Samaroff; prominent businessman Jan Reymerhoffer; and the Goggan brothers, who created a music store franchise.
Johnson is fond of oleanders and the story of how the flowering bush arrived in Galveston from Jamaica and thrived under the care of Magnolia Willis Sealy.
“Oleanders soak up the sea air,” Johnson said.
Johnson wrote her master’s thesis on the history of the Galveston Little Theater, combining her passions for drama, writing and the island where she was born. Besides her books, she has written for newspapers and magazines in the Galveston area. She did not reveal what her next project will be, but she has plenty of material to share.
“I love words,” Johnson said. “I’m thinking, this is my calling.”