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Jeff Manes: Contractor builds up the arts in NWI

Rip Johns57 Dyer is general contractor who founded RJ Construction. He his wife Bonnie also own Beatniks Conkey theater 418

Rip Johnson, 57, of Dyer is a general contractor who founded RJ Construction. He and his wife, Bonnie, also own Beatniks on Conkey, a theater at 418 Conkey St. in Hammond. | Photo provided

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Updated: March 11, 2013 6:03AM



“An old fisherman lives here with the catch of his life.”

— Author unknown,
a plaque hanging from
Rip Johnson’s office wall

Rip Johnson has been married to Bonnie for 40 years. They live in Dyer and have raised four adult sons.

Johnson, 57, is a general contractor and founder of RJ Construction. Rip and Bonnie also own and operate Beatniks on Conkey, a coffeehouse-black box theater at 418 Conkey St. in Hammond.

***

Lived in Dyer all your life?

“No, I was born on the South Side of Chicago; the family moved to a suburb called Chicago Ridge when I was in the fourth grade.

“When we lived at 83rd (Street) and Burnham (Avenue), it was neat as a pin. It was mostly Polish people back then; everybody edged the sidewalk and swept them. The South Side was a neat, orderly place throughout the ’50s until about 1964. It was ethnic neighborhoods; we moved around a lot.”

Your father?

“He was a hard-workin’ guy. He worked as a material handler for a roofing company. My dad was gone for work before first light and came home about sundown. That’s the way I grew up — workin’-class people.”

Is Johnson English?

“No, my Johnson ancestors were Swedish and Norwegian. My ma was Hungarian and Russian.

My grandfather on Ma’s side was a New York Jew. Like many people’s grandfathers from the South Side, he supposedly ran a speak-easy.”

What high school did you attend?

“Richards in Oak Lawn.”

Are you a White Sox fan?

“Oh, yeah. Anyone from the South Side who isn’t a Sox fan is confused. We were at a party, talking about Cubs-Sox stuff, and I made that same statement.”

And?

“A 6-foot, 6-inch transvestite I know said: ‘Hey, wait a minute. I’m a Cubs fan and I’m from the South Side.’ ”

Your reply?

“ ‘I rest my case.’ ”

Rip, you’re killin’ me. Life after high school?

“I got married and became a carpenter. And, I’m glad I did; it’s a good living. You won’t get rich, but it’s good, honest work.”

When did you and Bonnie move to Indiana?

“In 1975.”

Did you build this house?

“Not this part of the house; it was built in 1887. The rest of the house was built by my sons and me.”

Total square footage?

“About 3,100. I have a nice wood shop out back.”

Tell me about the early days of your career.

“I started out laboring for my godfather. I learned to be a carpenter by building garages for outfits like Danley Brothers. I did that for 10 years. My wife was carpentering with me for about seven years.

“Then, we started our contracting business in ’81, although we were already established as a company since about ’73.”

Explain, please.

“I stopped being a subcontractor and became a general contractor.”

How has business been in these troubling economic times?

“My youngest son and I have been partners the last 10 years or so. We have eliminated all the crew, but things are starting to pick up again. The years 2008 and 2009 were a lot better for me than the last two years.

“We have a specific niche in the market; we sell top-end carpentry. Our main gig is remodeling and repairing things like baths, kitchens, hardwood floors, stairways — things like that.”

You and Bonnie are empty-nesters.

“All of a sudden, one afternoon, the last two boys were moving out. We did mourn the loss of our children as they moved out — the whole weekend, I bet.

“But seriously, life changed. There was no one else around. We started looking for other things to do, rather than spending our lives making money for the kids. First, we got into ballroom dancing. Then, after volleyball one night, Bonnie stopped in at Hammond Community Theater and auditioned for ‘Annie Get Your Gun.’ ”

How did Bonnie fare?

“She came home and said, ‘We got the parts.’ I said, ‘What do you mean, we?’ She replied, ‘The guy said they needed men.’ ”

A star was born.

“That was about 2001. And now we’ve own Beatniks on Conkey the last five years. We never thought we’d be theater owners 10 or 12 years ago.”

I was there for Beatniks’ grand opening.

“Yeah, you read one of your poems.”

Rip, we’ve bumped into each other a few times through the years. I haven’t acted lately, but you have to admit it, 10 years ago, a rod-burner from the steel mill like me and a nail-pounder like you weren’t commonly seen treading the boards in Northwest Indiana.

“But, I’ll tell you what, you get to a certain age, and you need more in life than just goin’ to work. The arts are a good place to be.”

At Beatniks on Conkey, is it straight plays some nights and open-mike nights on others?

“We don’t do so many open-mike nights anymore. We have a play every other month.”

Your favorite role?

“The one I’m playin’ now; I’m Leonard in ‘Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them.’ It’s a Christopher Durang play. I enjoy Christopher Durang; he’s an odd sort of a playwright. There’s a lot of social commentary in his plays.

“I enjoy the company of the other actors and the process of rehearsing, acting and learning. So, my favorite role will always be the one I’m doing now.”

Let’s switch gears; you like to fish.

“Yeah, I used to go on fishing trips with the guys. Bonnie’s my fishing buddy these days. As far as locally, we fish the Kankakee River and Cedar Lake quite a bit.”

Rip, is there anything I didn’t ask that you wish I had? Final thoughts?

“Yeah, about my family. My family is the center of everything — the hub — of course. I’m fortunate enough to have been married to the love of my life for 40 years. I have four beautiful, healthy sons of whom I’m very proud and 15 talented grandkids.”

***

Today at 2 p.m. is the final presentation of “The Vagina Monologues” at Beatniks on Conkey. Beatniks will donate the proceeds to Haven House, a woman’s shelter in Hammond.

Beatniks on Conkey is a hep joint; it’s where Art meets Joe.



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