Rolling Stone – Bambi Johnson and A Community Pissed
Soooo, have you guys been following this crazy shit going down at Milburn Stone Theatre? Milburn Stone, being all the fuck the way out in Cecil County, is not usually in our purview, but we’ve heard some things that have gotten our wind up, especially since there’s some folks shining pretty bright on the Baltimore stage involved. On April 5th, Bambi Johnson, the Producing Artistic Director of Milburn Stone (which is associated with Cecil College) was fired. And, on April 6th, all hell broke loose. People. are. pissed.
See, the thing is, unlike certain obnoxious blogging personalities, Johnson is NOT a divisive figure. She’s universally loved out there, so much so that her sudden, unexplained termination was met with a immediate and collective backlash. Hashtags like #imwithbambi and #thanksbambi starting popping up all over Facebook along with comments like:
“I’m with art. I’m with a theatre community that was grown over many years through hard work and appreciation and kindness. I’m with decent treatment for volunteers, fairness, and responsibility. I’m with intelligent and sustainable strategies for arts organizations. So, #imwithbambi”
“Bambi Johnson you gave me some of the best experiences of my life. Musical theatre would never have meant so much without you. Thank you for the fun and the love and for making me do all the lifts. #teambambi #imwithbambi”
So, what gives? Well, the whole thing stinks like rotten fish, according to those in the know. There is, apparently, some unresolved tension between Johnson and Daniel Combs, the General Manager of Milburn Stone. The community is far from on Combs’ side, with a “Remove Dann Combs from MST” petition springing up almost immediately on Change.org (the petition has since been removed, you can view the cached page here). Combs was all smiles talking to Cecil Whig back in late 2016, when he had this to say about Johnson’s then-new appointment to her role: “It’s been a seamless transition,” said [then] production manager Dann Combs. “There’s a better sense of what the theater’s goals are now with Bambi.” I’m going to go out on a limb here and conjecture that the relationship has since soured, especially given Comb’s chilly response when we reached out to him for this piece:
“As this is a personnel matter we cannot make a statement other than Bambi Johnson is no longer with the college. If you have any more questions you can reach out to Cecil College’s Human Resource Department. Thank you.”
Combs has been more warm with other publications, saying this to Cecil Whig on April 14th:
“I spoke to the ‘Mary Poppins’ cast about this the other night,” Combs said in a phone call Friday. “Community theater is built with volunteers and the people who want to be a part of these productions. That’s something that we do cherish at the theater. I’m not sure where the disconnect came from, that people think we don’t care about our volunteers or the people who dedicate their time to this theater. We can’t survive without volunteers.”
Uh, maybe the “disconnect” is coming from the fact that no one at the college is officially talking, and they’re kind of acting like prospective students don’t Google before they apply (that’s CECIL COLLEGE by the way, CECIL COLLEGE with a “C”). If there was a good reason for Johnson’s termination, you’d have thunk they’d smugly been out with it by now, given this really super bad PR. Not to mention the dark cloud that has resulted from their manner of making this announcement to the shocked volunteers of Mary Poppins, slated to go up on April 22nd, which Johnson was choreographing. Here’s a quote from Matthew Peterson, who, along with his fiancée, was one of the performers in the show (they have both since quit the production) in a Facebook message to The Bad Oracle:
“Dann Combs came into our rehearsal the day that she was fired, said: “So, Bambi Johnson is no longer with the college” and tried to move on to other matters. I asked him why she was no longer with the college, attempting him to give us more than a cold “She’s gone, so anyway…”. He reiterated that she was no longer with the college and offered nothing more. Then Chris Ann Szep, one of the VPs at Cecil College [Szep is Vice President of Institutional Advancement and Government Relations at Cecil College] who had come to this rehearsal along with Colleen Cashill, Executive Director of Human Resources, spoke up and reiterated what Dann had said and asked what my name was. I told her, and explained to her that the group of people in this rehearsal were all very close to Bambi, and deserved a little bit more of an explanation. She brushed me off and insisted that she was no longer with the college and she could offer me no more information. Rehearsal began, and I was approached by the VP and the woman from HR, and we had about a 10 minute conversation where I tried to explain to them that this was a community of people who cared about Bambi, and they deserved to know exactly what had happened. I also stressed that they were losing a wonderful asset, because theater is all about connections and friends, and they were left with no one there who knew anyone, and they would lose actors. I was told by the woman from HR that “there are always actors looking for work”. At the end of the conversation, she offered her hand for me to shake, to which I said “thank you” and walked away without shaking it. She left the rehearsal and came back in after a few minutes, called me over and told me I needed to leave, think about whether i wanted to be professional and positive, and come back tomorrow with a new attitude. I told her I couldn’t leave because my fiancee was there and we drove together, and she said that I needed to or else she would call security, so I left.”
Woof, so, just in case you missed it: an eyewitness says that representatives from Cecil College threatened to call security after a group of wounded volunteers wanted to know why an adored member of the community had been brutally fired. Not a cute look. Cashill and Szep were both contacted by The Bad Oracle for their comments, neither has responded, nor has Mary Way Bolt, the President of Cecil College. We don’t feel bad, though, apparently they’re not talking to anybody. As you can imagine, this isn’t exactly band-aiding the issue, in fact, it’s oozing worse than ever. On April 13th, a group of over fifty individuals sent a letter drafted by Art Bookout, lawyer and Milburn Stone volunteer, to The Board of Trustees of Cecil College that read, in part:
“The undersigned have pledged not to volunteer at Milburn Stone Theatre unless the termination of Bambi Johnson is resolved. We understand that the current general manager of the theatre, Dann Combs, believes that we are “replaceable.” Understand that the signatures below account for tens of thousands of hours volunteered for MST, and represent a huge portion of the people that have driven the reputation and success of MST, along with the Johnson family and former employee Bill Price [Bill Price, resident lighting designer at Milburn Stone, has resigned in solidarity with Johnson]. We continue to ask that you see reason and investigate the termination of Bambi Johnson, and to open an investigation into current management.”
Not only that, but playwright Rance Denton, whose adaptation of Frankenstein was slated to be a part of Milburn Stone’s 2017 season, has pulled his show from the lineup, publishing a statement with his reasons for doing so:
“1) In recent days, MST has demonstrated what I believe to be a distinct lack of support for local artists, and I cannot stand by silently and allow my work to be produced in an establishment purports “fostering and supporting excellence, education and appreciation of the arts” and yet has made it evident that the artistic community is not one of its main priorities;
2) recent shifts in management at the theatre have sullied the theatre’s reputation in the eyes of many of its volunteers – specifically the actors, musicians, and wonderful talents whose time and energy have supported MST for years – and I am not interested in being further associated with this sudden alteration of purpose at the venue;
3) the application of what appear to be questionable business choices by the new management: the removal of Bambi Johnson as Artistic Director and the modification of its social media presence to limit users’ feedback, among others.”
You may be wondering just where in the hell Johnson herself is in all of this, I sure as shit am. We reached out to her for comment, of course, but haven’t heard anything. According to this article in Cecil Whig, she may be buttoned up due to legal issues surrounding an appeal and an attempt to reclaim her position. Though, given the nest of vipers that seems to have twisted around her, why she would want it is a mystery to me, except not really. I mean, her people love her, you know? They give a shit.
And so do we. If the situation is as it’s rapidly appearing to be, that a prominent educational institution is nastily devaluing and ignoring the members of its artistic community, one that it has made thousands of dollars off of without paying a cent back to for their labor, then, yeah. #werewithbambi, too.
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