Miclon pitches importance of performing arts

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Michael Miclon, executive/artistic director of the Johnson Hall Performing Arts Center, gives a talk titled “Vaudeville in Maine” at Thursday’s Great Falls Forum at the Lewiston Public Library. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

LEWISTON — When Michael Miclon began his career in the performing arts, he managed to become an apprentice at the world-renowned Celebration Barn Theater in South Paris.

Without that theater, which became a magnet for performers around the globe, Miclon argued, the arts landscape in Maine would look “100 percent” different from today’s. 

Miclon, the executive/artistic director of the Johnson Hall Performing Arts Center in Gardiner, gave a talk at Thursday’s Great Falls Forum called “Vaudeville in Maine,” which connected the history of vaudeville performers in Maine to the state’s rich performing arts culture. 

Vaudeville is a form of entertainment made popular in the early 20th century, and is described as an often comic theatrical performance made up of separate acts, frequently combining musicians, dancers, comedians, magicians, jugglers, acrobats, mimes and more. 

Miclon said many people think of burlesque when vaudeville is mentioned, but he said vaudeville was “really the beginning of variety acts.” Burlesque generally occurred as late-night performances in vaudeville theaters. 

In his presentation, Miclon brought the audience through the history of vaudeville in Maine, through the work of Benny and Denise Reehl — with whom Miclon apprenticed starting at age 14 — to Miclon’s own Oddfellow Theater. 

He said vaudeville’s modern influence on Maine arts began in the 1970s, with Tony Montanaro, a renowned mime who turned an old farm in South Paris into the Celebration Barn. Montanaro used his contacts to bring in performance artists from around the world, sparking the tradition in Maine. 

“There are so many people around the world who have come to study at this incredible space,” Miclon said. “It was the reason they came.” 

He said many of those people decided to make Maine their home base. 

Montanaro also created a traveling vaudeville show and the New England Vaudeville Festival. 

Miclon eventually began the Oddfellow Theater in Buckfield, where he produced and performed on the well-known “Early Evening Show.” He said he never would have been able to start that theater if it weren’t for the vaudeville tradition. 

As an entertainer, Miclon has since built an international reputation that has brought him to theaters and special events across the U.S. and Europe, including the Kennedy Center and the White House in Washington, D.C., the Keller Theatre in Germany, the Victoria Jungfrau Grand Hotel in Switzerland and the Fiesta Americana in Italy.

Miclon scrolled through a long list of performers either from Maine or with ties to Maine who studied at the Celebration Barn. Some have gone on to perform in Cirque du Soleil and other national performance groups. 

Miclon said even local star Patrick Dempsey has roots in vaudeville and has performed a duet with Miclon. 

Miclon used Thursday’s discussion to advocate for the arts. At one point he said arts programs are often the first to be cut by public schools, but he argued that more people end up as professionals in the arts than they do in athletics. 

“It’s one of our greatest exports in the state of Maine: the performing arts,” he said. 

He said performance art is a “folk art form,” in which those involved either become apprentices or take on apprentices to learn or teach their craft. 

“It’s built into you that part of your responsibility is to pass them on to somebody else,” he said. 

Miclon is in the middle of a large fundraising effort to complete a renovation of the Johnson Hall Opera House in Gardiner. Built in 1864, it ran as a vaudeville house until the mid-1920s when it was converted into a movie theater. 

With some $2.7 million already raised, he has at least $1 million left to raise, but Miclon is hopeful the renovation will be complete in 2020. Miclon already produces more than 50 performances a year there.

When it came time for questions, someone recognized that Leland Faulkner, a local comedy magician, was in the audience. Miclon had included Faulkner in his list of performers in Maine.

Faulkner was asked how he avoids injury during some of his more physical comedic acts, such as sitting on a broken chair. 

In response, Faulkner slammed his head off the table in front of him — but it was just an act. 

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Michael Miclon, executive/artistic director for Johnson Hall, gives a talk entitled “Vaudeville in Maine.” at Thursday’s Great Falls Forum at the Lewiston Public Library. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

Michael Miclon, executive/artistic director for Johnson Hall, gives a talk entitled “Vaudeville in Maine.” at Thursday’s Great Falls Forum at the Lewiston Public Library. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

Michael Miclon, executive/artistic director for Johnson Hall, gives a talk entitled “Vaudeville in Maine.” at Thursday’s Great Falls Forum at the Lewiston Public Library. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

Michael Miclon, executive/artistic director for Johnson Hall, gives a talk entitled “Vaudeville in Maine.” at Thursday’s Great Falls Forum at the Lewiston Public Library. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

Michael Miclon, executive/artistic director for Johnson Hall, gives a talk entitled “Vaudeville in Maine.” at Thursday’s Great Falls Forum at the Lewiston Public Library. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

Michael Miclon, executive/artistic director for Johnson Hall, gives a talk entitled “Vaudeville in Maine.” at Thursday’s Great Falls Forum at the Lewiston Public Library. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

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