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Saturday, November 7, 2009
Here's Johnny O! TV's Golden-Voiced Go-To Guy—Who Made "Come on Down!" Forever Famous—Finally Sees His Life Story Realized in Randy West's "Johnny Olson: A Voice in Time"
By Chris Mann
He was the legendary persona behind the immortal phrase “come on down!” But Johnny Olson, who died Oct. 12, 1985 from a cerebral hemorrhage, was so much more than a golden-voiced TV sidekick. Just ask fellow announcer, warm-up personality and Olson mentor/friend Randy West, author of the fantastic, brand-new book Johnny Olson: A Voice in Time (BearManor Media).
Hard to believe Johnny would be 100 next May—and that next October marks the 25th anniversary of his sad, shocking death. Thanks to your book, Johnny's voice is still transmitting loud and clear. What inspired your love and admiration for the man and his many talents—and your pursuit to write his biography?
Randy West: Chris, I dislike the expression, “You had to be there” because it rudely excludes everyone who wasn’t at a particular place and time. But those who were “there” to see Johnny, know. Like so many of the millions of audience members he entertained over the decades, I was transformed by Johnny’s presence. Within seconds of stepping on stage on what was likely just another rainy day to him, Johnny had me and 300 grouchy, wet New Yorkers who were tired from standing in line energized, enthused, laughing and bonding with the strangers they were sitting near. Johnny had a magical ability, and as a kid, I was compelled to watch him do it again and again.
Eventually Johnny included me in his warm-up act as a seemingly random audience member who volunteered when he asked who would be willing to get him a cup of water. Each time he sent me off-stage with convoluted and confusing directions to the nearest water fountain, I developed more confidence to mug facial reactions and ad-lib questions, and the routine got longer and funnier. He taught me how to get a laugh upon my return with an empty cup that I seemed to have spilled as I tripped and stumbled over the camera cables. He gave me the laugh, instead of making me the brunt of a joke, and the audience’s response invoked a feeling I had never before experienced.
What ultimately inspired this book was Johnny’s generosity. He was willing to invest his time and encouragement with a stranger who admired him. He mentored me from enthusiastic fan to working broadcaster by sharing the tricks of his trade, and he enriched the entire experience with his passion for people and his unique behind-the-scenes historical perspective of the business. That wealth of knowledge had to be chronicled, Johnny’s extensive career had to be catalogued, and his incredible character had to be celebrated. As you say, it’s now almost 25 years since he passed. It’s obvious that the time was right to be certain that his memory didn’t permanently fade.
Most of America, of course, recalls Johnny as the announcer who made "Come on down!" one of TV's most famous catch phrases. What did this radio and TV pioneer make of his burgeoning game-show celebrity in his "retirement years"? What drove him to keep working into his seventies?
Johnny told me that he first felt the thrill of audience approval as a kid, when he sang at his local movie theater. I think he simply loved that feeling – the warm adrenalin rush that accompanied his making emotional connections with strangers. What Johnny called “making merry” was a selfless gift, but I know he also derived a very personal reward from the admiration that he saw on the faces of smiling audience members.
The greatest lesson to be learned from Johnny was in the grace and dignity with which he transitioned from work as a host, emcee and top-billed attraction to the supporting role for which he is now best remembered. While others who have faced the realities of a youth-obsessed media passing them by as they aged haven’t reacted well to the challenge, Johnny not only made the most of the opportunities still before him, he also elevated the entire job of announcer and warm-up performer to new heights that earned him continuing recognition and respect. Talk about being handed lemons and making lemonade, Johnny added his unique ingredients and concocted a recipe that few have come close to replicating.
At the age of 62, Johnny and his wife Penny were planning retirement when the call came from Goodson-Todman with an offer to move to Los Angeles for a new version of Price. He and Penny assumed, like most shows, it would run its course in a year or two and the couple would be well out of the limelight and enjoying a quiet life together in rural West Virginia by the time Johnny reached age 65. As the show continued, season after season, Johnny loved the work too much to walk away, and Penny understood his passion for the work too much to make it an issue. If Johnny were alive and able today, he’d likely still be doing the job and America’s TV fans would be richer for it!
We also lovingly recall his anything-for-a-laugh Showcase skits. How did Johnny's "one-man operation" as KGDA radio's station manager—a $25-a-week gig he landed at 18—shape his knack for creating characters and performing comedy sketches?
Radio was played in the theater-of-the-mind of the listener, and using only his voice Johnny created fully developed comedic characters. He acted the roles of sidekicks, guests and even serious interview subjects to fill the forty and fifty hours some weeks that he was alone, behind a radio microphone in the 1930s. Only through years of ad-libbing in accents and dialects did he master the gift for fabricating over-the-top, fun characterizations.
I can’t imagine putting all that experience to better use than those wacky Price showcase skits first penned by Jay Wolpert. And knowing how little rehearsal time they had to collaborate on those sketches can only heighten our appreciation of the skill it took to play those insanely funny skits for maximum laughs, live to tape, without any chance for second takes.
How much did Johnny enjoy hamming it up with Barker's Beauties Janice Pennington, Anitra Ford, Dian Parkinson and Holly Hallstrom during Price is Right's golden years on CBS?
Johnny absolutely loved those opportunities! As Holly tells it, Johnny and the girls would huddle before their one shot at a quick rehearsal to collaborate and devise the shtick and bits of “business” that would make the most of the skit. I know he enjoyed the creative challenge, but more than anything he loved the camaraderie with Barker’s Beauties and the on-camera opportunities that were so few and far between in the second half of his TV career. He saved dozens of the scripts from those showcase sketches. It’s clear those were his favorite moments!
Few knew Johnny was also a singer. How did his passion for crooning propel his pursuit of a career in radio?
Singing afforded John an opportunity to participate in show business long before he had developed the hosting, announcing and interview skills that made him an in-demand broadcaster. From school productions and local theater, Johnny’s first work on radio was as “The Buttermilk Kid,” crooning on a tiny station in Minnesota. From there, singing was Johnny’s ticket to recording studios and hundreds of gigs across the country as he fronted a number of musical groups.
In fact, it was while performing as a singer at a Hollywood radio station in the 1940s that John had the epiphany to refocus his goals from vocalist to radio host. He left the musical group, and stayed in Hollywood to seriously pursue a career in broadcasting. It was a risky move, but Johnny followed his heart. There’s a lesson there for all of us.
How did you come to know Johnny and his wife, Penny? What became of his long-ago plans to write a memoir? Was this book the chief reason he saved so many clippings and other relics of his career?
My friendship with Johnny grew from those in-studio moments we first shared when I was in my early teens. I only came into contact with Penny after Johnny’s death. Among Johnny’s personal effects she saved and I now have is a long paper trail concerning a planned autobiography. He wrote outlines and sample chapters about his life and career which one friend suggested be adapted to be more of a history of broadcasting as he experienced it. It was exciting to pour over the carbon-paper copies and handwritten chicken-scratched notes to see how the idea was refined. Johnny ultimately abandoned the project, but I was careful to include all of the subject matter he was working on and the stories he wanted to tell.
The idea for a book seems to have only materialized in the 1960s. As Johnny began saving clippings, tapes and kinescopes decades earlier, I believe the scripts and other ephemera were collected simply to commemorate the high points of his career. Remember, Johnny loved his work!
Johnny and Penny were show biz partners, too. Often serving as his associate producer and, in the case of the popular radio-turned-TV show Ladies Be Seated, his on-screen supporting player, what role did Penny play behind the scenes in her husband's long and varied career?
Penny was in the trenches with Johnny, and she was very capable in a wide variety of jobs. From playing character roles in sketches, singing and dancing, to selecting contestants and procuring prizes, to arranging the logistics at hundreds of personal appearances, Johnny described her as “masterful” in bringing all of the pieces together for many of his programs.
By all indications Penny loved being part of the work her husband enjoyed so much, and there is much to suggest that she had been bitten by the show biz bug herself. Penny continued to give interviews long after she retired from the public eye, and reflected on her career with great enthusiasm. Her partnership with Johnny likely gave her far more opportunities and fame than she would have enjoyed on her own.
I think the greatest and most selfless gift she gave Johnny was the freedom to pursue his passion for more than a decade after she had hoped the couple would have retired. As loving a partner as Penny was, she also supported Johnny’s pursuit of the love he so treasured from the audiences.
Many don't realize the extent to which Johnny was a camera-ready personality and showman—and star of the American Bandstand-esque Johnny Olson's Rumpus Room on ABC in 1946. Tell us how he ultimately became Jackie Gleason's go-to announcer and Mark Goodson's golden game show voice?
Mark Goodson and Johnny actually crossed paths many times, years before they formed their successful alliance. As early as 1947 Johnny hosted a pilot for Goodson-Todman’s radio game show Time’s A-Wastin.’ But it took almost a decade before Goodson hired him again. The producer ultimately came to rely on Johnny as his “voice of choice,” and he was the first and only announcer Goodson considered for the 1972 return of Price.
Other producers were first to exploit John’s versatility. Before his 25-plus-year teaming with Goodson, John hosted everything from talent competitions, variety shows, interview programs and quizzers. As an announcer and sidekick he was paired with some of the biggest radio and TV stars, from Kate Smith to Glenn Miller, Merv Griffin and Jackie Gleason.
Johnny worked with Gleason on the comedian’s very first variety show for DuMont television, and they were next together in 1963 for a flop of mythical proportions called You’re In The Picture. Although that CBS show was cancelled after only one airing, Gleason became a huge fan of Johnny’s work that night. Gleason flew John across the country, between New York, Atlantic City and Hollywood, hundreds of times over the years to be part of every subsequent Gleason TV show that was staged before a studio audience.
Johnny hosted TV series up through 1964's On Broadway Tonight for CBS. Did he ever express regret that his career didn't ultimately go the TV emcee route a la fellow audience-participation radio show vet Bob Barker?
This is a very telling moment in Johnny’s life, and it gives us great insight to his character. While he enjoyed on-camera moments on that short-lived series, Johnny’s swan song as a TV host was the 1963 Mrs. America pageant. Judging by the wealth of materials he kept from the broadcast, it was one he wanted to remember.
There’s no doubt that he missed his work as an emcee, and for decades Johnny proudly reminded studio audiences that he had been the host of television’s very first daytime network entertainment program. But in the true tradition of a showman, Johnny never expressed any disappointment. The only public peek behind his seamless veneer was in comments he made to a Time magazine reporter in which he admitted it was a comedown to now be warming-up other hosts’ audiences, but he laughed it off by pointing out that the many shows he was able to announce simultaneously yielded a higher income.
After hosting opportunities faded, Johnny made the best of a situation that would have made performers of lesser character bitter. Despite being relegated to a supporting role, Johnny continued to approach his work with a level of enthusiasm that ultimately earned him greater respect than if he had continued as an aging on-camera personality on lesser assignments, such as local shows or commercials. In retrospect, it’s clear that he gained far more fame from those years as an announcer than from all of his earlier hosting work.
From your dual perspective as a successful announcer/studio audience warm-up personality and friend of Johnny's, what made him and Barker click professionally as host-star/announcer-sidekick as well as personally off camera?
That’s easy. Johnny was the best at discerning when he could support a host with a quick line or a simple laugh, and knew when to sublimate his own creative instincts to be certain to never upstage or outshine an emcee. Having spent hundreds and hundreds of hours as a host, Johnny had incredible sensitivity to when it might be helpful to contribute a straight line or a laugh in order to smooth an awkward moment or to help an emcee with a transition, but he never lost sight of his role as a second banana.
Gene Rayburn who had been a host as well as sidekick to Steve Allen knew the trick of maintaining that delicate balance, and was always outspoken in his praise of Johnny’s ability to walk that tightrope. In discussing the importance of having a trusted on-air partner, Bob Barker said, “When you’re in ad-lib situations with people, you want to know that they have the good taste and good judgment not to embarrass you.” Johnny filled that bill; he never even approached the line between G-rated good taste and questionable content.
I had a discussion with Barker about that very issue when I was announcing The Price is Right in 2003. During a commercial break, a couple in the audience told Bob that they were newlyweds, married only 2 days. He offered only the most wholesome congratulations on their recent nuptials, and the audience applauded to help celebrate their good fortune. I later confided that I would have been tempted to respond with something more like, “Married two days; what are you doing out of bed?” While Barker is no prude off-stage, he taught me that such a response could be offensive to some, and would steal the moment from the proud couple. Those were the kind of values and instincts he and Johnny shared.
Speaking of kindred spirits, some of Barker’s and Johnny’s mutual respect stemmed from their parallel careers separated by 3,000 miles. While both originally hailed from America’s heartland, Johnny was pioneering in New York’s early television community while Barker was hosting many of the same kinds of programs in Los Angeles. There was an added bond between the two in that Barker’s mother had been a fan of Johnny’s dating back to a time decades earlier when she first saw him at a personal appearance in the Midwest.
Describe Johnny's repertoire of high-energy, anything-for-a-laugh audience warm-up skills—including his famous "peacock dance." Why were these pre-show talents critical in particular for an audience participation show such as Price?
From the earliest days of broadcasting it became well known that an engaged and receptive audience was vital to the success of a program. Johnny knew firsthand that when even the best prepared material falls flat on its face in the studio, the lack of an enthusiastic response from a live audience would simultaneously dampen the home audience’s perception of a show’s entertainment value.
The unique staging that has the audience not only audible but prominently on-camera at Price made it vital that those 330 folks all be involved, engaged and enthused throughout the show—the more manic, the better. Johnny would dance, run, bump, grind, kiss, cajole and joke with incredible vim, vigor and vitality in order to infuse the audience with a level of energy that could pour right through the TV screen and into living rooms. Johnny had a special innate charm and likeability that made his antics especially endearing. He was part of what made Price feel-good television for all those years.
It’s tempting to say, “you had to be there,” but for those who weren’t, a great deal of Johnny’s act and the details of his well developed philosophy about audience warm-up are explored in Johnny Olson: A Voice in Time.
Johnny's death in 1985 was shocking. For young viewers growing up on Price during summer reruns and sick days, it was as if a voice from heaven was suddenly silenced. How did his death affect your life?
Like everyone, viewers, co-workers and friends alike, I was shocked. With Johnny’s ubiquitous presence on television for so many years, it seemed like he would always be with us. Although Johnny was 75 years old, he was in good shape and there was no indication that a health crisis was imminent. We hadn’t spoken for a while, and I felt sad that I hadn’t been in closer contact. I would have liked to say “thanks” again for all that he gave me.
You were friends with Johnny's Price successor, the late Rod Roddy. Did Rod ever share with you the pressures of filling Johnny's huge shoes as the godly voice behind "Come on down!"
Dear Rod. What a wonderful guy; kind and complex, simultaneously silly and so serious. Rod was a very private person, and I think he would appreciate my choice to respect that privacy.
The Match Game certainly pushed the envelope in the '70s and early '80s—and Johnny always seemed game for its double entendre humor. Was he comfortable with the increasingly risque TV landscape? What do you think he'd say about the provocative humor on your current show, GSN's hit remake of The Newlywed Game?
Johnny would likely not believe that so much of what is on television today clearly crosses a line he rarely approached, even in private. While I never considered him a prude, Johnny’s sense of good taste kept him focused far more on the living room than on the bedroom or bathroom where so much of the content of today’s TV seems to be rooted.
He made it a point during his Match Game warm-ups to tell audience members “don’t think too much about the answers… just go along with the ‘booze, boobs and broads’… it’s all in fun.”
Little offends me, and I have a very colorful vocabulary. I love the fun, but I experience a little culture shock at some Newlywed Game tapings knowing that the discussion is meant for television. Husbands disclose all kinds of intimate details including whether, during sex, their wives are more likely to be facing the ceiling, the wall, or a pillow. On one recent episode I introduced a husband repeating his wife’s pet name for him, “Sir Farts-a-lot.” No, I can’t imagine Johnny ever saying that for public consumption, but I don’t think he would have been judgmental. After all, entertainment has always been based upon giving an audience what it wants.
Any final thoughts you'd like to share about Johnny, his legacy and—thanks to you—his finally-realized life story?
Just that I’m so pleased that more people will now have the chance to learn about the man behind one of American television’s most popular voices. Johnny Olson lived an amazing life, and brought such positive energy and optimism to every undertaking. From the youngest of ten children in a family of a dozen members who all shared a one bedroom / one bathroom farmhouse to a nationally-known entertainer, John’s story is quite a tale.
I derive constant inspiration from Johnny’s work ethic, as well as the absence of cynicism and sarcasm in his approach to life. It’s a beacon that helps me stay on course when times are challenging. John said he hadn’t missed a single day of work since 1948. While that’s an impressive record, more inspiring is the upbeat attitude, professionalism and good cheer that Johnny brought to each and every one of those days.
Thanks Chris, for helping to whet the appetite for those who want to know more about this amazing, generous and kind-hearted friend to all he met! I encourage those who are interested in learning more about Johnny Olson’s life and career to preview the new biography at www.tvrandywest.com