Tap Johnson is “a goofy eccentric.”
Just ask him, he’ll tell ya. He will also go on about his two loves — music and the city of Key West.
Like a mad scientist about to unveil his greatest creation, Johnson is on the verge of unleashing a maniacal beast on the people of the Southernmost City.
He recently bought the former First Baptist Church (most recently the vacant Theater and Professional Center) at 524 Eaton St. His intention is to give the entire property a complete overhaul, making a portion his private residence, while using his nonprofit to resurrect the theater into a state-of-the-art venue with the ability to host mainstream bands, aspiring artists and community events.
For those who simply know Johnson as the guy who bought Kenny Chesney’s former Key West home, his self-appointed appellation is seemingly accurate. The former North Carolina native maintains a charming Southern drawl, coupled by an amiable smile that compliments his laid back demeanor. However, for a man who made his fortune as one of the nation’s largest insurance moguls, self-indulgence is not Johnson’s notion of happiness…and he has a plan in the works to back it up.
The design for the theater, which was recently approved by the Key West Planning Board, includes demolition – lots of it. The commercial offices will be replaced with a lobby, lower level dining area and a state-of-the-art recording studio.
“The downstairs will be opened to the existing theater with an emphasis on sound,” Johnson said. Guests will enjoy a 60-foot-long food counter with a view of the show without any noises bleeding from room to room.
“The city was worried about sound escaping from the building,” Johnson said while showing off the cavernous building’s features. “But I’m more concerned with the outside noises traveling in. My designs are catered to the artists and events that will be utilizing the amenities, while providing a charming, intimate experience for guests. No one wants to hear a truck drive by in the middle of a show.”
The main theater’s balcony will extend along both sides to create egress and ingress around the entire second floor. A modern chef’s kitchen will handle grub for 200 guests, with plush dressing rooms behind the stage.
“This building was for the Baptist ministry,” Johnson said with a playful smile. “While this is great for my voice, it doesn’t equate well for the talent we will be bringing in, which is why acoustics are so vital.”
Johnson created Key West Theater and Community Stage, Inc. (KWTCS) as a 501c-3 (non-profit) allowing split usage for the theater as well as ticketed events and local happenings. But the eccentric insists there is no motive of profit behind his endeavor. He’s made his money. He would just like to take part in a long-term, sustainable plan that encourages the younger generation to stay and raise families in his adopted hometown of Key West.
“My personal mission is to be a worthy contributor to an improved quality of life in Key West,” said Johnson. “I see the theater as an incubator for fresh perspectives and place that can nurture rising talent. And while I’m proud of the business I built and sold, making money never leads to true happiness unless you create an opportunity to give back.”
Johnson will offer the usage of the building for a flat fee, calculated on a price that will cover reoccurring costs such as steel sheets and other construction costs – not the $3.5 million purchase or the $1.5 million renovation tab.
“I am embarking on this mission based on pure passion and desire,” he said. “I am doing it for the future of my children and as an example to the next generation.”
Johnson envisions the theater as a place for both aspiring artists and renowned names to call home while performing in Key West. However, he is placing a strong emphasis on ambitious artists on the cusp of success, which he believes will complement the incredible work performed by his neighbors at The Studios of Key West.
“This street could be one of the coolest, beatnik avenues in the world,” said Johnson, referring to the small stretch of road that hosts both the theater and the Studios. “We really have a chance to start something huge here.”
Jedd Dodds, executive director of The Studios, echoes the sentiments shared by his neighbor.
“Walking around with Tap Johnson in his new space, you can’t help but get caught up in his enthusiasm and ambition,” Dodds said. “His desire to help out younger artists and make creative things happen is a perfect example of how the magic of Key West just keeps regenerating with new people and new energy.”
Johnson is hoping for construction to begin on the theater in April of this year, with a grand opening in March of 2015.