TNW bringing Johnny Cash show to stage

Sixty years ago this week, during the last week of February 1959, one of the world's biggest music acts performed in Prince George.

Johnny Cash did a couple of back-to-back performances at the Prince George Civic Centre to throngs of wildly cheering fans.

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The Exploration Place posted photos this week of that momentous visit. It was the second time that the city's main museum commemorated the anniversary of the Johnny Cash visit with a posting of pictures from the archives. To this day, it has a special meaning for local residents and Exploration Place curator Alyssa Tobin-Leier felt it.

"Johnny Cash is a musical icon that has remained a relevant figure in popular culture," she said.

"Synonymous with country music, he continues to resonate with younger generations and many do not realize he actually performed here. The Exploration Place loves sharing Johnny Cash's connection to Prince George because of the impact the photos have on the community. Many folks remember watching him perform here and it brings back fond memories for them. Others love reminiscing over his music and sharing memories associated with it."

That celebrity visit also has meaning for the future of the local performing arts scene.

It is coming full-circle with Ring of Fire: The Johnny Cash Story, a play coming next fall to Theatre Northwest.

TNW's artistic director Jack Grinhaus did not know it was the 60th year of the Cash concert. He didn't know, when he let it slip that his theatre company had secured the rights to this popular play, that he was doing so precisely in the anniversary period of that rare brush with stardom.

In many ways, Ring of Fire will be a re-living of that Cash show or a way to get a glimpse of what The Man In Black might have been like in those prime days.

"It's much more of a musical than it is a play. The music plays a big part in the experience," said Grinhaus. "It's a five-actor performance and I can tell you now that we have already booked Curtis Abriel and Amy Blanding to be two of the actors, so Prince George is already well represented within the cast. Curtis and Amy are amazing performers, Prince George loves them, and we are so excited that they can be part of this professional experience."

Abriel was also a cast member (he portrayed the bass-playing brother of Carl Perkins) in last year's record breaking play The Million Dollar Quartet that also depicted Johnny Cash along with Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley.

It was that play that got Grinhaus thinking about that style of music and that period of western culture. He has a guitar down in his basement, and all those golden-age rock 'n' roll tunes started rattling off the walls in his own home, even though country music was never his go-to genre.

"Country hit much later in life, I wasn't there in my teen years," he said.

"I'm finding myself caught up now in the older sounds where country blurs with rockabilly and early rock 'n' roll, even Merle Haggard and Neil Young, and I got a big boost from Million Dollar Quartet. Now I see the subtleties of that music, and Johnny Cash is definitely all of those other forms of music as much as he is country. I remember when I was 16, Johnny did a cover of a Nine Inch Nails song (Hurt) and that really caught my attention, but he died so soon after that."

It was Cash's birthday that put the icing on the Prince George visit. His birthday is Feb. 26 and since the concerts were on the 23rd and some fan interactions on the 24th, about 50 local members of his fan club arranged for a giant cake to be presented. Cash cut it himself and enjoyed the party.

The two days in P.G. were in between his wrap of the movie Don't Take Your Guns To Town Son on Feb. 22 that year, and a visit to Alaska for performances there.

"Johnny Cash, often proclaimed teenagers' biggest idol since rock 'n' roll star Elvis Presley was drafted, packed the crowds to Civic Centre capacity last night for two shows of only B.C. performance," said The Citizen on the front page of the Feb. 24, 1959 edition. "More than 2,500 mainly teenagers came to see the recording star and his Tennessee Two.

"One of the most popular numbers of the 90-minute show was Cash's imitation of Elvis Presley style hip-swinging. Reactions range from pure ecstasy to a simple 'that's music.'"

To see a theatrical tribute to that music, and the man who made it, book your Theatre Northwest season's pass for 2019-2020 now at the Theatre Northwest website. There are also tickets still available for the final play of this current season, Meet My Sister, opening on March 28.

To see the city's biggest photo album of local history, go to the Exploration Place website and look through their Online Exhibits section found under the Collections banner on their homepage.

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