Moment in Kodiak: Bob Johnson

Photo of the Orpheum theater, Bob Johnson third from left. (Photo courtesy of the Baranov Museum)

Kayla Desroches/KMXT

Kodiak’s rich history is recorded in historical documents, firsthand accounts, and photographs. They contain more than just facts and dates.

They’re also evidence of everyday life: the restaurants people went to, the entertainment that filled their days, and the people they spent their time with.

In this three part series, we look at historic photos on the island and sit down with the people captured in those moments in time.

In this first installment, KMXT’s Kayla Desroches talked with a community member who’s been in town since the 1930s.

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I sit down at the table with Dr. Bob Johnson and his wife, Marian, in their home. I pull out a copy of an old photograph and slide it over to them.

The black and white photo shows a group of boys waiting in front of a movie theater along a dirt street. Some of the boys wear caps and baggy pants and hang out with their hands in their pockets. One stands on his scooter. Another holds onto his bike.

There are two posters on the side of the building, one for the 1939 film Café Society.

Dr. Bob Johnson, in his early teens, stands by the poster. And like his wife says, he’s on the tall side.

He wears a checkered jacket and his haircut is a popular style: side swept and trimmed at the ears.

Johnson says he was an usher at that theater for several summers in his teens, and the photo was taken about a year after his family moved to Kodiak.

His father was a surgeon.

He says the first time his father dropped by Kodiak was on his way back to Portland by ship. He’d been working a summer in the Bristol Bay area.

“He came around the point, through the bay, and he saw this beautiful little town in the fall, in a sunny day, one cannery in operation and fell in love with the place.”

Johnson says he, his parents, and their dog moved to Kodiak in 1938. Back then, Alaska was still a territory and Kodiak a small community in it.

“It was a little village, cottages scattered around town up against Pillar Mountain and out along the shore on both ends.”

Johnson says WWII and the naval base in Kodiak changed things in town and in his own life.

“From then on it was a story of the war, and my parents were host and hostess to the military, and my dad was in practice in medicine, of course, and I was a kid in school.”

He says blackout drills started as soon as the war did.

“All the lights in town were blacked out. All the windows had to have cardboard blackout sheets, and those would go up before light went on, and lights were lit in another village out beyond Kodiak that would fool the Japanese.”

But life continued. Johnson says as a young man, he went exploring with his friends and his dog.

“He would keep us informed about bears when they were around the camp when we were staying overnight, which was fairly common.”

He says they hiked all around, over to Monashka Bay and up the mountains.

He pulls the photo over and points at Pillar Mountain in the background, covered in bushes.

“If you will look, there’s not a tree on the hill. Not one. Now it’s loaded with Spruce trees. Take a look up there.”

The photo also shows a few stores next to the theater. Like Dad’s Liquor Store and the Mecca Bar.

“That’s still here. Actually, bars and churches developed almost in tandem. Same number of each over the years.”

He says there was also a pool hall, a hotel, barber shop, a bank, and a couple of stores. And, of course, the movie theater.

If not exploring, Johnson often went to the movies.

“It was something we’d just like to do all the time if we could. Working there made it really marvelous because I could see all the movies for nothing.”

He especially liked Gary Cooper.

“I remember him because he was in quite a few movies with Jane Arthur, and I remember her too because she had a husky voice, and Gary Cooper was really something. Tall, quiet, man of few words, very effective as a person.”

The current local theater has the same name as the one Johnson frequented – “the Orpheum” – but a different location. Marian Johnson, the Baranov Museum’s first executive director, says the Orpheum’s former building was wrecked in the 1964 earthquake and tsunami.

As for Johnson, he ended up practicing medicine with his father, and is now retired with his wife in the City of Kodiak.

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