Peter Elson speaks to Peter Johnson about helping fund the new Everyman Theatre
THEATRE fan, art lover, dilettante, cultural aficionado. Not words you usually – if ever – hear publicly applied to Peter Johnson.
And this is a man who has been called a rich range of names, especially during his time as owner of Everton FC and Tranmere Rovers football clubs.
But forget the character assassination associated with being a soccer boss.
Instead, stand by for Peter Johnson, tough, gruff multi-millionaire Birkenhead Christmas hamper baron and former tax exile, reinvented as local philanthropist and saviour of the arts.
His charitable trust, the Johnson Foundation, (which he chairs) has given the first major private donation towards the cost of rebuilding Liverpool’s celebrated Everyman Theatre.
This £200,000 donation will kick-start the appeal encouraging local bodies and individuals to give towards the £28m total reconstruction of the Everyman, due for completion in autumn 2013.
The Johnson Foundation was formed in 1989 and has donated £2.5m so far to a multiplicity of Merseyside causes.
Its main concerns are giving towards health, education, sport, youth and the alleviation of poverty.
The economic powerhouse behind this is Peter Johnson’s Christmas hampers-to- finance company, Park Group, of Valley Road, Birkenhead.
“I was approached by Michael Brown, chairman of the Everyman Appeal and thought it was a very useful charity to support,” said Mr Johnson.
“To a large extent this theatre encompasses youth and education, so it fits into what I want to help.
“We’re the first local charity to donate and I’m very pleased to be the vanguard.
“I’ve been impressed by the shows I’ve seen, including the last one, Macbeth.
“I met the cast and David Morrissey, who played Macbeth. He was very enthusiastic and told me how he’d started out in the Everyman Youth Theatre.
“I’m excited to play a part in keeping this theatre going to give other youngsters the chance to follow David and many other actors’ success.
“There’s been such talent from Liverpool, not forgetting Wirral with the likes of Patricia Routledge and Glenda Jackson, much to the chagrin of Manchester!
“Liverpool has always had big benefactors from the 19th century on, who built it up to be what we enjoy now. I’m following that tradition. It’s about people as well as bricks and mortar.
“I’m 72 now and time is limited, so the Foundation is to put something back into the community. Not that I’m leaving my business as I don’t play golf.”
Coming from a family of butchers who can trace their business back to 1843 in Birkenhead, his father’s shop was in Myrtle Street, Liverpool.
He left Park High Grammar School aged 16 and was apprenticed into the family business, eventually running 12 shops and one meat factory.
Fate offered his big break in 1966. He said: “A sausage skins salesman, Ray Williams, visited me. His stuff was too expensive, but I invited him to tea.
“I asked him what was new and he replied Christmas hampers. I’d never heard of them, but when he explained, I thought, ‘my factory can do all that’.”