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Donna Johnson did not play role of Dolly – she became Dolly

Hello, Donna, this is God, Donna, it’s so nice to have you back where you belong.

Cue the theme song from the iconic Broadway hit musical “Hello Dolly” and alter the opening lyrics — and they could look like this.

In her 68 years on earth, Donna Johnson touched many as a daughter, sister, friend, musician and actress. But it was her performance as Dolly Gallagher Levy in the Fort Dodge Senior High School production of “Hello Dolly” that was her defining moment and set the stage for a life that took her to show business work in New York City, London and Minneapolis.

It was the spring of 1970, her senior year in high school, and everyone knew why the musical was picked for that year, said her longtime friend and classmate, Dayle Olson. It was for Donna.

“Donna didn’t play the role of Dolly — Donna became Dolly,” he said. “It was then that I realized, along with the hundreds of people who saw the show, Donna is the diamond in the Fort Dodge rough — and she had just found her first sparkle! People were so excited that Donna was playing the role of Dolly, the show’s performances quickly sold out and an additional performance was added. Donna cherished her time as Dolly the rest of her life.”

Donna Kay Johnson died at UnityPoint Health — Trinity Regional Medical Center on Nov. 13 of complications following surgery. Her sister Martha, of Fort Dodge, was by her side and another sister, Joan, was on a video chatline from her home in West Babylon, N.Y. When Donna was removed from the respirator, she was fittingly sent heaven-bound by hospital chaplain Nicole Dick, who sang “Homeward Bound” by Marta Keen.

“It was light and beautiful,” Martha said.

“I talked to Donna a couple times a month for the past 20 years or so,” said Olson, who lives in Merritt Island, Florida. “The last time I talked to Donna was about two weeks before she died. Donna and I laughed for about an hour — that was a usual phone call with Donna. But she also talked about Dolly. One of the last things she said was, ‘I would love to put on Dolly’s red dress one more time while people sang, ‘Hello, Dolly.’ That won’t happen, but the final words to that song will make me smile the rest of my life — ‘Dolly will never go away again.’ In my mind — Donna will never go away!”

Ah, that dress she wore to portray Dolly. Larry Mitchell, who was FDSH choral director for 31 years and selected Donna for the lead role, said the costumes for “Hello Dolly” were rented from Brooks-Van Horn Costume Co. in New York City and everyone was in for a surprise when they arrived. The rented shoes that Donna wore were tagged “Miss Martin” and the dress was tagged “Miss Channing.” They were the very same shoes and dress worn on Broadway by two of the most famous actresses to portray Dolly — legends Mary Martin and Carol Channing.

“It was one of the best shows we did here,” Mitchell said. “Donna was a wonderful actress, a fine singer, she moved well, she was the complete package. She had a positive, great smile. In all my years I don’t think I could find her equal for Dolly.”

The normally three-night performance was so successful that Mitchell added a fourth performance — which took place on Donna’s 18th birthday, April 13, 1970. And when the final bows were taken, Donna’s dad, Dick Johnson, wheeled a birthday cake onto the stage and the entire cast sang to her and the audience joined in — “Happy Birthday, Dear Dolly.”

Mark Mittelstadt of suburban Tucson, Arizona, recalled Donna as “full of fun, creativity, excitement, as she brought to life a character described as a matchmaker, meddler, opportunist and life-loving woman. When it was time for one of her scenes, our high school production simply lit up. All performers were lifted.

“That was no surprise to those who knew her. Beyond learning lines and memorizing her songs, Donna joined others working hard to design, paint and create the sets. She was a friend who had a smile and warm thought for everyone.

“Yet she was sharp as a gaffer’s knife. The FDSH production of ‘Dolly’ in 1970 was the first time an Iowa high school attempted to stage the hit Broadway musical, no small feat. It was a big production with challenging songs, choreography, elaborate costumes and sets, and numerous set changes.

“In one scene Dolly is at a restaurant with the other lead — Horace Vandergelder, a supposedly well-to-do businessman and a widower who is one of her matchmaking clients. During a quick set change one night a stagehand forgot to place Dolly’s chair. Horace, played by Dana Messerly, motioned for a performer-waiter to bring one. Without skipping a beat, Donna ad-libbed with a wave of her hand “Oh, Horace, don’t leave a tip. The service here is terrible.”

“The off-script line produced scattered audience laughs. It was everything those of us in the pit orchestra could do to keep from cracking up. Donna WAS Dolly. Carol Channing would be proud.”

Messerly, of Olathe, Kansas, who like Mittelstadt was in the class behind Johnson, said he was “always in awe of playing opposite Donna. I always told her even up to a couple months ago that my best scenes were when we were on stage together, because people would be paying attention to her, not me. She definitely was a bright star.”

Donna and her three sisters — Karen, Joan and Martha — grew up in a musical family. Their father, Dick Johnson, was an avid barbershopper and played Uncle Dick on KQTV and their mother, Gladys, was also an accomplished musician and singer. Dick Johnson is 91 and lives in Great Falls, Montana, and Gladys Johnson, 93, lives at Friendship Haven. Karen died of pancreatic cancer in 2015 at age 64. Joan Drewes lives in West Babylon, N.Y., and Martha McColley Kersbergen lives in Fort Dodge.

Karen was a legal secretary who worked in New York City. Joan retired last year as an elementary school music teacher and lately has been composing for choruses on Long Island. Martha owns Clean All, Inc., in Fort Dodge, a company that does residential and commercial cleaning.

“On family vacations, the six of us would be in dad’s station wagon singing pieces in four-part harmony,” Joan recalled. “Donna and I sang alto, mom and Martha soprano, Karen tenor and dad would sing bass.

“When we were kids, we used to sing at our church, Grace Lutheran. Martha is still a member there. We were billed as The Johnson Girls and dad would write arrangements for us.”

Martha is a member of the Grace Lutheran choir and bell choir.

Over the years, Mitchell directed productions involving all four Johnson girls.

“They were four talented young ladies and it’s so tragic that two of them have died,” he said.

Donna was a member of Mitchell’s Comedia Musica Players and traveled with them to Leadville, Colorado, as part of a Summer Troupe and acted in many Hawkeye Community Theater productions. She auditioned for The American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City and was accepted. While studying at the academy, she joined The Open Road, a travel band, as lead vocalist and conga player and performed up and down the East Coast from Maine to Rhode Island.

In the late 1970s Donna was hired as musical director for the Broadway show, “Beatlemania,” a musical review focused on the music of the Beatles as it related to the events and changing attitudes of the tumultuous 1960s. In addition to hiring and rehearsing musicians for the pit orchestra, Donna conducted and accompanied the orchestra during performances. In 1980, Donna traveled to London to work as the musical director for the opening production of “Beatlemania.” While in England, Donna traveled with her sister, Joan, to Sweden to meet with their maternal grandparents’ cousins.

“Donna and I were kind of like travel buddies,” Joan said. “When she was doing “Beatlemania” in London, I was living in Germany. We connected, took a train through East Germany and a ferry to Sweden where we met with our cousins. When we finally got to our destination, went into their house, it had an old rug loom exactly like my Aunt Ruth had. The house smelled like we were in Iowa, in grandma’s house.”

They also traveled to India together in 1996.

In the late 1980s Donna became involved with a group of doctors and dentists who traveled each year to Honduras, providing free medical and dental treatments for Hondurans who were in need. This organization was called “Mission of Mercy”. Making yearly trips to Honduras, Donna fell in love with the culture and the people. After long hours working with the doctors, Donna would sing and play her keyboard for the doctors, nurses and Honduran community providing the evening entertainment.

When “Beatlemania” closed, Donna left England and returned to Fort Dodge where she lived two years, serving as music director of St. Olaf Lutheran Church. She then moved to Minneapolis where she continued acting in local theater productions and also worked for the Datacard Group. While at Datacard, she expanded her creative talents by being in charge of the video production department. Donna retired from Datacard in 2010.

Months after her sister Karen died, Donna moved back to Fort Dodge in late 2015 with her beloved dog Rosa — which she rescued in Minneapolis from an abusive owner — to be closer to her family. Rosa was 16 years old and was cremated the day after Donna died, Martha said, so that their ashes could be together.

“I can still hear Donna whistle for Rosa,” Martha said.

Martha’s son, Scott, took in Donna’s tabby cat Hansel and Martha adopted Donna’s other dog, Benny.

“What I will always remember about my sister — her humor, creativity, she had such a huge heart,” Martha said. “She was loved so much.”

The family plans a celebration of life at a later date when her ashes will be interred at North Lawn Cemetery. Memorials in Donna’s name may be made to the Almost Home Humane Society of North Central Iowa in Fort Dodge.

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