American television’s most celebrated personality, Bob Barker, reflects nostalgically from time to time on the years he worked with Johnny Olson; there is palpable admiration and sincere respect. Seventeen time Emmy© winner Barker first learned of Johnny’s ability to make broadcasting magic from his mother. By coincidence, Matilda “Tillie” Barker remembered having been in the audience at an Olson personal appearance years before. When her son Bob first mentioned to her that Johnny had been cast as his announcer on the 1972 return of “The Price Is Right" she gave her immediate endorsement. Bob remembers being surprised that his mother was more familiar with John's work than he was.
But audience members always responded favorably to Johnny's enthusiasm and charm. The same is true for the hosts, producers and crew members who worked with John. Most echo similar sentiments of his likeability and engaging manner, and all remember him as the consummate professional. Gene Rayburn recalled fondly and succinctly at his final birthday party in 1999, “Johnny was simply the best”.
Loved for his energetic studio audience warm-up, exciting vocal delivery, and his unfailing ability to read even the toughest tongue-twisting copy, Johnny Olson was a mentor to me. He nurtured a fascination with television when I was a teenager in New York, and was always generous with his time when continuing to encourage my pursuit of a career in the field during visits years later in Los Angeles. Unexpectedly, our lives intersected again in 1999 when John’s family looked to find a respectful home for the souvenirs and memorabilia he had collected and saved during his decades in broadcasting.
John Olson was thoroughly unassuming and actually a bit shy off-stage. He loved the business, took great pride in his work, and placed great value on the friendship and respect of his co-workers. He was a devoted husband, flying weekly to West Virginia from New York or Los Angeles in his later years to spend days off with the love of his life, his wife of 46 years, Penny. Penelope Olson had been his on-air co-host, vocalist and occasionally Associate Producer on a number of radio programs, as well as some of television’s earliest talk, variety and game shows.
But this story starts decades earlier with a skinny kid, the youngest of six boys and five girls born in the modest farmhouse of his Norwegian parents’ 85 acre dairy farm on the outskirts of tiny Windom, Minnesota. It was a humble beginning for a broadcast pioneer who would later be celebrated by the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, who would interview three sitting American Presidents, who would share stages with Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Jack Benny and Jackie Gleason, and whose career milestones would parallel those of the very development of the broadcasting industry itself.
On Sunday evening, May 22, 1910, upon delivering a twelve and one-half pound infant, Hannah cried to her husband Sivert Olson, “Oh, Yonny!” Johnny was born.
That cry of “Oh Yonny!” combined with the fact that the blessed event caused sister Ella Olson to miss her date with beau Leonard Wick, is said to have been the inspiration for the newborn to be named Yonny... uh, rather Johnny Leonard Olson. Apparently naming children becomes a less creative undertaking by the time of an eleventh birth.
John’s broadcasting career had a humble beginning in 1924 when Windom electrician Oscar Estenson wired a crude radio transmitter in his electrical repair shop. Fourteen year old Johnny sang “No, No, Nora” into the microphone during a break from his part time job at a local jewelry store. Encouraged by his brother Curt who worked at the electrical shop, John took to the air for three more Sunday afternoon pirate broadcasts. The thrill of the experience lingered even after a man from the Federal Radio Commission, precursor of the FCC, paid a visit to suggest the boys add frequency control to their crude apparatus to avoid blotting out all the stations up and down the dial for a 50 mile radius. The visitor also suggested they obtain a radio station license. It was apparently an easy task in those days as they were told a Catholic priest in Appleton, Wisconsin had just gotten one by simply writing to the then Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover.
Despite father Olson’s lack of enthusiasm for his son’s prospects as a singer, John’s fascination with wireless continued. The allure was further nurtured after he and his brothers built their first homemade crystal set. Ultimately, the family erected a 60-foot antenna that enabled John to listen to the pioneering stations of the 1920s. He recalled evenings monitoring KDKA, WGY and WWJ, stations with signals strong enough that the headphones from the crude receiver could be placed in a bowl to reflect the sound so that several family members could listen simultaneously.
Years later, John would site those early experiences as contributing to his growing passion for broadcasting. For his success, John credits his mother. Because of her hearing impairment and her difficulty understanding English, John recalled, “She just demanded I ‘speak up’ when I began to talk and read. She wanted to hear me, and I ‘spoke up’ when I acted in high school plays and began to sing and talk before audiences before I was fourteen years old. Because of her interest and demands, I amplified an average baritone voice into one that is loud and clear”.
Following his high school graduation Johnny joined “The Friendly Farmer Station”, WIBU in Poynette, Wisconsin. John worked as an unpaid vocalist in the makeshift farmhouse studio, billing himself as “The Buttermilk Kid”. Still in his teens, John’s ambition brought him from tiny WIBU to WIBA in Madison, Wisconsin for his first paid broadcasting employment. He adopted the personae “Don Parker” in order to give singer Johnny Olson a proper introduction. He also became “Uncle Johnny” for a WIBA kids’ show.
But pay was meager. John was contemplating the offer of a job repairing watches at his now brother-in-law Leonard’s jewelry store in Mitchell, South Dakota, when, on a visit he learned that a new station had just signed-on in town. A letter to the owner netted a $25-a-week offer to manage the new KGDA. Johnny recalled that at the age of eighteen he became the youngest station manager in the country. The responsibility further fueled Johnny’s serious dedication to broadcasting. Simultaneously, the station's owner certainly got his money's worth.
KGDA’s broadcast day began at 5:30 AM with an hour of piano, song and farm reports from Johnny. Then, a two-hour show of John’s patter and platters was followed at 8:30 when Johnny cracked the mike again as “Farmer Bill”. The one-man operation demanded creativity. Still in his teens, Johnny wrote, sang, and acted in skits as a number of characters including his popular “Cousin Olaf” and “Bumpy, the bus boy”.
John did it all in small market radio: news, comedy, variety, audience participation shows, band remotes, and children’s programs. He accompanied himself on ukulele and banjo, sold time, wrote scripts and commercials, composed and read poetry, preached religion, and covered every manner of sporting event. For live coverage of a 23 day bicycle race, enterprising Olson hitched an amplifier to a telephone line, had the operator connect him to the station, and then connected a microphone with 150 feet of outstretched mike cable. Each time the cyclists peddled by Johnny snatched an interview by jogging alongside the riders for 300 feet. He then continued the live coverage while recoiling the cable on his return to his starting point, preparing for another interview on the bikers’ next lap. When the stock market crash of 1929 resulted in a cut in salary to $18-a-week, John simply supplemented his income by working in plugs for local stores and restaurants that paid off in new clothes and free meals.
Young Johnny Olson began to develop a philosophy about announcing that he carried with him for many years. He wrote, “It takes a good voice to grab [the audience’s] lethargic, wandering attention and hold it long enough to tell them what you and your sponsor want them to hear. A good voice involves more than a high decibel level… A voice without undue inflection may charm, soothe, calm or arouse. A voice can also repel, infuriate or actually make a listener ill”.
John would laughingly cite a 1968 article in the Medical World News that a friend had brought to him from a doctor’s office. The headline read “Sound of Announcer’s Voice Jars Listener into Seizure”. It was the story of a woman treated by a Dr. Francis M. Forster at the University of Wisconsin Epilepsy Center who was literally thrown into fits by the sound of three specific radio announcers. In the article Dr. Forster is quoted as saying that she believed it wasn’t the broadcasters words, but their “prosody-variation in pitch, rhythm, and stress of pronunciation” that were responsible for the seizures.
Johnny lived the vagabond life of a radio journeyman, advancing from the KGDA experience, through pharmacy classes at the University of Minnesota, back to WIBA in Madison, through part time work as a soda jerk, court reporter, short-order cook, and through a series of flings in the world of music. Before “talkies”, John sang at the local movie house between the silent pictures. While performing at The Wonderland Theater he always remembered his mother’s admonition to “speak up”. Later, John carried that advice to new opportunities as vocalist with “The Rainbow Revelers”, as founder of “The Rhythm Rascals”, as singer for Heinie’s Grenadiers, and as vocalist and manager for Hip Haynes’ “The Hips Commanders”. Perhaps somewhere, 78-rpm records of “The Hips Commanders” on the Broadway Record label still exist, with a young John Olson crooning “Wabash Moon” and “Walking My Baby Back Home”.
In the 1930s, all twelve of Hip’s “Commanders” crammed into a customized Buick bus and drove to Chicago to seek their fame and fortune on the big band circuit. There they auditioned for bandleaders Wayne King, Lawrence Welk, and Jan Garber, but it was Jules Stein, the head of MCA, who signed the group. This was in the days before MCA’s acquisition of Universal Studios, when the company was a powerful talent agency. Despite the Commanders’ budding success, John soon left the group; he missed radio.
It was for WTMJ, Milwaukee that Johnny interviewed President Franklin Roosevelt. John recalled that FDR was seated on the back of a train that had stopped in downtown Milwaukee on a hot and humid day. Johnny was perspiring profusely. While holding the microphone with one hand, he reached for the handkerchief in his hip pocket with the other hand. He was stopped by a Secret Service agent who said, “I wouldn’t do that if I were you”. Johnny whispered off-mike that he was simply reaching for his handkerchief, but the agent was unimpressed with this clarification. Fearful of being forced to stop the interview with the President, Johnny said, “I just kept talking… and sweating”.
Still singing on and off the air, John organized “The Rhythm Rascals” as a program for WTMJ, and as a five piece jazz band for regional appearances. It was during a 1938 performance as a Rhythm Rascal in Iola, Wisconsin that John first met Penelope Powers, his future wife. Young Penny was working as a schoolteacher, but had appeared in school and community productions as a singer and dancer; she had even sung a few times on local radio. She was at the July 4th dance with her parents, but when Penny accepted Johnny’s offer to drive her home, her family left. Certainly that fine young gentleman could be trusted to return their daughter safely to home; after all, he was a broadcaster on WTMJ! Unbeknownst to Johnny, it turned out that “home” for Penny was 60 miles away in Stevens Point. By the end of the long drive a relationship had sparked; a year later the couple was married. Penny soon became an important partner in John’s success.
Work with “The Rhythm Rascals” ultimately took the newlyweds to Hollywood for national radio appearances. Johnny augmented those bookings by hosting three shows, “Missing Persons”, “Man on the Street” and “Chef Milani” locally on the Warner Brothers’ owned KFWB.
Although Johnny found early success in California, he was hesitant to abandon the popularity he had nurtured in earning The Milwaukee Journal’s crown as the city’s most popular broadcaster. John continued the Rascals’ radio shows by transcribing the daily, one-hour program on disc, complete with commercials, for the loyal Milwaukee audience. “The Rhythm Rascals” was produced in Los Angeles for WTMJ, and later in New York for WMLO.
Of this early experiment in radio syndication, the trade publication “Variety” reported, “The return of Johnny Olson to Milwaukee, if only by way of a soundtrack, as is the case here, ranks as a shrewd bit of business action by a broadcaster... Several years ago Olson developed into Milwaukee’s top local mike personality with a reputation and popularity, competitor broadcasters here admit, which hasn’t been matched since... The program is Olson at his smoothest as a personality, and adroitest (sic) as a showman. It didn’t take long to get the hour pretty well sold to local merchants. Olson knows his Milwaukee audience and his Milwaukee merchandisers, and the three-way wedding looks like solid going for all concerned”.
Dennis Morgan was another Wisconsin-born radio singer whose path had crossed with Johnny’s. They became friends, destined to meet again years later as neighbors in Van Nuys. Dennis had migrated west for film work and, as a contract player at MGM and Paramount, went on to a 35 year film acting career. While at a particularly lively Christmas party at Dennis’ San Fernando Valley home, Johnny had the inspiration for his “Rumpus Room” program. This early “houseparty” idea debuted in Los Angeles on KMPC, and later originated back at WTMJ.
The “Rumpus Room” was an energetic, nightly, 10:30 to midnight, informal music and variety show that had upwards of 300 teen-aged studio audience members dancing and crowding around the mike for live, ad-lib fun with Johnny. Involving the audience to the extent that TV’s “American Bandstand” did years later generated a six-week wait for tickets to visit the “Rumpus Room”. The show’s popularity ultimately proved to be the Olsons’ ticket to New York when the program was picked-up by NBC’s Blue Network. Years later it brought Johnny his first season of network television when “Johnny Olson’s Rumpus Room” was added to the ABC-TV lineup in 1946.
Following the FCC’s ruling that NBC’s operation of both the Red and Blue Networks was an anti-competitive practice, Edward J. Noble, the Lifesaver candy millionaire, purchased the Blue Network in 1943 for $8 million. Overnight, Edward Noble had become a media mogul, and John wrote him a letter. The young host of Milwaukee’s “Rumpus Room” felt that the new owner of the Blue Network should certainly be made aware of the Midwest success of his program. There was no reply to John’s letter, a triviality that didn’t deter his determination.
The Olsons arrived in New York by train on a cold January day in 1944 and soon settled in a $50 a month basement apartment in Forest Hills, Queens. The morning after their arrival, Johnny unpacked his best suit and promptly paid a visit to Mr. Edward Noble’s palatial office in Radio City. He told Noble’s two secretaries that he was John Olson; they might remember him as the broadcaster who wrote Mr. Noble from Milwaukee a year earlier.
To the surprise of his secretaries, Noble was anxious to see the guy from WTMJ. It seems that John was mistaken for Jack Bundy a.k.a. Heinie of Heinie’s Grenadiers, the friend and former co-worker of John’s who affected a German accent to host the WTMJ midday show. A show on which John had often sung. Unbeknownst to John, Bundy had apparently also sent a letter to Noble. In a case of mistaken identity, Johnny was hired to start immediately. John said, “While I may have been given the job partly by mistake, I made good at it”.
His first assignment for the Blue Network was to fill-in for the vacationing host of a late night show called “Swing Shift Frolics”. It was a wartime morale-building program featuring amateur talent discovered among the ranks of the second shift workers at the General Electric plant in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Penny had the radio set to 770 AM, and listened excitedly to John’s first New York broadcast over WJZ from the couple’s apartment in Queens; the network brass was listening as well.
When Garry Moore left “Anything Goes” to team with Jimmy Durante, John was quickly tapped as the show’s new host. Although “Anything Goes” was gone in only thirteen weeks, Johnny immediately went on to front “On Stage Everybody”. Later came a string of shows that included “Whiz Quiz” and “Break The Bank”. New Yorkers were also introduced to the venerable “Rumpus Room” when it was reincarnated for middays as “Johnny Olson’s Pantry Party”.
When former hosts Ed East and Polly departed their ABC daytime radio show “Ladies Be Seated” in 1944, Johnny and Penny inherited the popular audience participation program. John recalled, “I was master of ceremonies on the show, often working in a glittering minstrel costume. Penny was Associate Producer... she did a masterful job of obtaining prizes, choosing interesting participants from the studio audience and seeing that everything happened on time”.
John became one of the city’s busiest radio performers. By 1949 he was presiding over 20 half-hour shows each week. They included “Johnny Olson’s Get Together” from the WJZ Playhouse on West 48th Street, “Johnny Olson’s Prince Charming” from the Mutual Guild Theater on West 52nd Street, and a pairing with Arlene Francis at the network’s prestigious Radio City Studios for “What’s My Name?”
“Ladies Be Seated” aired afternoons at 2:30 over the Blue Network’s flagship WJZ in New York. Locally, the competition was “Young Doctor Malone” on WABC, “Women in White” on NBC’s WEAF, and local news broadcasts on both WNEW and Mutual’s WOR. Johnny and Penny often topped the ratings, and the show ran for five years. Press kits from the program describe the show as “audience participation at its best… where good sportsmanship and a sense of fun for the participants and spectators are the ingredients that pay off handsomely in attractive prizes”.
Supporting players on “Ladies Be Seated” included Penny who joined John for what the press releases referred to as the program’s “hi-jinx”. She authored the humorous “Penny Mystery” skits - sequences featuring detective clues that audience members puzzled over as they vied for prizes by trying to solve Penny’s fun mysteries. The show’s writer-director, Billy Redford, played the character “Professor Schnaaps”, while Al Greiner was billed as Musical Director, accompanying the action and providing transition music on the studio organ. The announcer was “good-looking and smooth talking” Bob Maurer, “the most eligible bachelor ever to leave Freeport, Illinois”.
“Ladies Be Seated” segments also included “Johnny One-Note” games in which audience members won prizes by guessing the names of popular tunes on the basis of notes played. Audience members were also invited to try to stump Johnny and Penny in their attempts to name songs by singing, humming or whistling tunes. The “Kindly Heart” segment gave awards to people who had performed good deeds, and the “Johnny Crooner” spot featured John selecting a young girl, usually under the age of six, to whom he sang ballads. The interview that followed had a flavor similar to that of Art Linkletter’s conversations with children on the “House Party” program that debuted in January of the following year on CBS.
Johnny Crooners’ youngsters publicly washed their family linen when they answered John’s questions such as “What does daddy do?”. One girl responded with “Daddy is a laundryman. It’s good. We don’t buy anything. He brings all our towels and clothes home free”. Another answered “he cuts piggies”. It reportedly took Johnny ten fun-filled minutes to figure out that the girl’s father was a podiatrist.
“Ladies Be Seated” would prove to be an important addition to the Olson resume, and another example of the value of being at the right place at the right time. John was honing his ad-lib skills and further developing his energetic, fun and friendly style during the birth of a new entertainment medium. In its infancy, television was hungry for new talent. John had the ability, ambition and passion; his success with “Ladies Be Seated” on radio made John an obvious choice for a landmark test of the new medium.
John remembered the Sunday morning when the entire cast and crew of “Ladies Be Seated” headed to one of only six television stations in existence in the United States at the time, General Electric’s experimental W2XB, recently re-christened WRGB. It was to be a broadcast that would garner press coverage, so to add to the visual appeal of the event the newly crowned “Miss WJZ”, a young Bess Myerson, was included in the entourage.
John recalled, “I rode into the dawning world of television in 1944 on a train. It was New York Central’s old Empire State Express, once the world’s fastest... [it] transported us swiftly along the lordly Hudson River to Albany and then a few miles west to Schenectady... it was a serious trip. Television was a new and unknown quantity... We were apprehensive about what it might do to our jobs”. Johnny remembered being excited about the opportunity, and wide-eyed about the budding technology. “We did what rehearsing we could... we studied the lighting arrangements and visited the control room where engineers had the choice of images from three live cameras and from three reels of film. I was very impressed with it all”.
Here’s how John recounted his very first television appearance:
“I hopped out of a Valentine-like cardboard entrance in a minstrel costume and we had our usual opening:
‘Ladies be seated, the party has only begun.
Ladies be seated, so let’s all join in the fun.
Ladies be seated, a laugh doesn’t cost you a dime.
Ladies be seated, and let’s have a wonderful time!’
“Our audience was lively and responsive... there was only one incident. Lights became so hot they melted mascara on women’s faces in early television. GE tried to lick the problem with a type cooled by water. In the course of our program, one of these exploded and sprinkled part of the studio audience with warm water. ‘My God, my time has come’, shouted a pregnant woman caught in the downpour. When she found it hadn’t, she laughed. Penny and some others wiped up the water. We finished the program with everybody convinced that television had great possibilities”.
The ratings for the “Ladies Be Seated” experimental TV broadcast? Still eleven years before A. C. Nielsen’s debut, there was only the most crude ratings estimate methodology. GE reported that there were 300 TV sets in the entire Albany-Schenectady-Troy area. Their WRGB press release boasted that 297 of those 300 sets were tuned to Johnny and Penny that Sunday evening. The Olsons looked to parlay this initial experience with the promising new medium into greater success.
DuMont was another pioneering company in the new business of television broadcasting. Allen Balcom DuMont’s WABD had been on the air in New York since 1939 with experimental broadcasts designed primarily to help sell the firm’s TV receiving sets. John Olson’s was a frequently seen face and an important part of the fledgling network’s programming until its demise in 1955. John was proud to say he hosted the first daytime network television show to originate from New York, “Johnny Olson’s Rumpus Room” which aired daily on DuMont from 1949 through 1952. “We aired in New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington and Pittsburgh. That’s as far as the cable went. Milton Berle was the force that brought the cable coast to coast.”
Concurrent with “Rumpus Room” on DuMont, Johnny fronted WJZ-TV’s daily “Homemakers’ Jamboree”. He also continued on radio with the “Johnny Olson Luncheon Club” which aired from Radio City in 1950 and 1951, and the similar “Johnny Olson Get Together” that was broadcast on ABC Radio Saturday mornings from 10 to 11. “Get Together” featured community sings, phone interviews, “How I met my spouse” and “Why my kid has talent” features, as well as audience members singing from their seats for prizes. The show business bible “Variety” favorably reviewed the premiere episode, adding in their usual style, “Olson himself sang well and should use more than the one vocal he did on the preem”
His glib, friendly manner and his ability to soothe the jittery nerves of mike-frightened guests continued to earn Johnny Olson a reputation as a personable and reliable broadcast professional with a natural affinity for people which made him especially proficient working in the audience participation genre. But Johnny described the first time he was required to ad-lib as “terrifying”.
”Back at WIBA there was a trio called “The Doctors” – Rudolph, Pratt and Sherman. They were in the studio doing their piano bit. The show had no audience, just the three of them, and I would introduce the trio. They called me over to the piano, and one by one they each walked out of the studio. It gets down to the last one, and he walks out. This is all live and I’m alone with three minutes to fill. It scared the bejeezus out of me. Now what are you gonna do? So I started talking about the piano. The piano has three legs and 88 keys. I describe the piano and then I start talking about the walls in the studio!”
Another war story of ad-libbing evoked more laughter than terror. ”Back at the Shraeder Hotel in Milwaukee we had a man-on-the-street broadcast. Well, it was 20 below zero and nobody showed up; I had about two people. So I started doing voices and interviewed myself.”
From his work on the Blue Network and DuMont TV, John went on to host “Second Chance” for NBC radio, and “Break The Bank”, taking that show from radio to television for both NBC-TV and ABC-TV. While continuing on “Rumpus Room” and “Ladies Be Seated”, Johnny commuted weekly to Chicago during 1949 to emcee ABC-TV’s “Fun For The Money”. His children’s talent competition program “Kids and Company” originated from New York for the DuMont network in 1951 and 1952.
In 1953 and 1954 Johnny Olson utilized his early experience as a vocalist when he danced and sang on a local DuMont summer variety show called “The Strawhatters”, which was broadcast from New Jersey’s Palisades Amusement Park. Later, he put those skills to good use again performing in skits designed to showcase Merv Griffin’s musical talents on Merv’s NBC daytime show “Play Your Hunch”.
Johnny formed two important alliances in these early halcyon days that would subsequently define his career as well as provide his most lucrative employment. In 1955 John was teamed with Jackie Gleason for work on “The Honeymooners” for DuMont. And John was chosen to host “Time’s A-Wastin’”, a radio pilot for ABC from the new producing team of Goodson and Todman. This chance employment with New York advertising executive Bill Todman and former San Francisco radio announcer Mark Goodson would ultimately lead to Johnny’s greatest fame.
Television was maturing, and Johnny was making a successful transition to a new niche. While he continued to host programs as late as 1964’s “On Broadway Tonight” for CBS, and while he would continue to appear as a sidekick for the remainder of his career, slowly but surely Johnny Olson was being heard far more often than he was being seen. Ultimately, John’s greatest recognition would come as the most prolific announcer in the world of television game shows.
Starting with “Masquerade Party” in 1952, Johnny's was the signature voice for over 30 audience participation programs, including some of TV’s most successful game show hits of the black and white era. He announced Goodson-Todman’s “What’s My Line?”, “I’ve Got A Secret”, “To Tell the Truth” and “The Match Game”. Concurrent with his ubiquitous presence on game shows, John found time to work on occasions with TV legends Bob Hope and Johnny Carson. He also announced series and specials hosted by Sammy Davis Jr., Kate Smith, Victor Borge, Dom DeLuise, and Peggy Fleming. John even appeared in a feature film, “The Sins of Mona Kent”.
On January 20, 1961, Johnny reprised his work with “The Great One” for Jackie Gleason’s new CBS game show “You’re in the Picture”. Following a disastrous premiere Gleason scrapped the game format and most of the show’s production staff after a single episode. Johnny was among the few to remain for the new and hugely successful, big budget one-hour variety format that rose from those ashes. Subsequently, Gleason would hire Johnny for all of his television shows and specials that utilized a live audience, including his “Honeymooners” retrospectives, flying John to New York, Atlantic City and Florida. For nine years Johnny’s was the voice that opened the Saturday night show with “From the sun and fun capital of the world, Miami Beach”.
John joked, “From 300 or so New York - Miami flights for Jackie Gleason I know a lot of Eastern and National Airlines stewardesses”. Discussing his fifteen-year relationship with Gleason and his longevity working with other high profile celebrity hosts John advised keeping a respectful distance from their personal lives. “They’ll invite you to all the parties, but that doesn’t mean you have to go all the time”.
With their continuing success, Johnny and Penny Olson soon moved from their small apartment in Forest Hills. Encouraged by the growing confidence that came with John’s achievements, the couple settled in for the long haul in New York, adopting three poodles, Lena, Sheba and Gretel.
Success agreed with John. “I do have an apartment which doesn’t face the park on Central Park South in New York, a house in Greenwich, Connecticut, and a Cadillac with “JOTV” license plates”. Johnny continued with typical modestly, “I also have at least a nodding acquaintance with a great many executives, producers, cameramen, elevator operators, pages and receptionists at all the networks”. Truth be told, by 1960 John had been employed by all four television networks, had been a regular cast member on some of their biggest hits, and was earning over $100,000 a year. As for the “nodding acquaintances”, Johnny was one of the most respected and beloved workers in the New York television community. He said at the time, “I have come up the hard way. It took 35 years, but the time was well spent and I think I have established a good stake in the future. From where I sit now, I like the looks of tomorrow.” Johnny had far exceeded what he’d set out to do when first starting in radio, yet he maintained every ounce of his original passion and humility.
Today, Johnny Olson is best remembered as the second banana on the longest running game show in network television history, the 1972 return of Goodson-Todman’s “The Price Is Right” starring Bob Barker. It was for this reinvention of “The Price Is Right” that Johnny returned to Los Angeles after 28 years in New York City. He put his own spin on a line being used on local commercials in the New York area, “Come On Down”, making those three words a national catch phrase that has endured into the 21st century. The high profile berth would bring Johnny a new level of popularity, and it gave him the opportunity to work with another respected and polished professional; one whose work he knew, but had never met. It was a wonderfully successful on-air pairing that endured for the remainder of John’s career.
Bob Barker generously conferred Johnny a level of involvement few announcers or sidekicks had ever enjoyed. Their complementary chemistry and ongoing interplay added an element that enhanced this new incarnation of the Goodson classic. John took great delight in his regular appearances in the program’s creative prize showcases. His enjoyment of those skits is evident in the fact that Johnny saved dozens of his original scripts from the “flaky flick” parodies in which he appeared as a wide variety of characters… Captain Quirk in a “Star Trek” spoof, Quasi-Murphey in “The Halfback of Notre Dame”, Sam Spaced in “The Maltese Mustang”, and swashbuckler Errol Olson in “The Sea Gawk”. “The Price Is Right” brought John popularity among a whole new generation of television viewers.
Johnny Olson’s unique vocal delivery was loose and fluid in style, with an ever-present subtle hint of infectious laughter in his voice. And Johnny could achieve great impact with his reach into the tenor range. His was a voice perfectly suited to the technology of early television as its pitch and strength cut through the music and applause, projecting from the small speakers with enough energy to fill living rooms.
But John’s gifts go beyond his voice quality, tonality and flair. Bob Barker is among the emcees who have publicly marveled at the announcer’s impeccable reading skills and his ability to “cover” what few errors he made. None of it was accidental or left to chance. Nor was it simply the result of his mother’s repeated requests for him to “speak up”. John meticulously pre-read and extensively marked each piece of his copy for phrasing, intonation, pronunciation, pace and style.
Even close to 20 years after John’s passing, Barker still reflects back on what are obviously warm memories of their time together when answering questions from studio audiences. Performers preferred working with Johnny not only for his professional delivery, but also for his intuitive skills when it came to supporting their efforts. From his years as a host John understood when he could best add a comment, deliver a straight line or simply lay back to help the star shine.
Johnny’s simple tools remained unchanged through the decades: a microphone (usually an RCA 77DX in the 1950s and early 1960s, then an Electrovoice 635A in the late 1960s and early 1970s). There was a music stand for his copy, one paper cup for water and another to hold his throat lozenge while on-mike. And John preferred a single Brush clevite earphone that he would hold to his ear for the director’s cues, and then rest on the music stand as he began to read.
Johnny was also highly respected for his ability to work any studio audience into a frenzy of anticipation in the moments just before airtime. Buddy Piper, the creator of TV’s venerable “Concentration”, remembers that John’s warm-up skills were well-crafted as early as the late 1940s when he would run through the audience with an umbrella that he used to shield guests from the periodic leaks that emanated from GE’s early water-cooled studio lights.
Audience warm-ups were a part of broadcasting from the earliest days of radio, beginning when members of the public were first invited to view a broadcast from the studio. Early on, warm-ups consisted simply of a word of welcome from the producer, an introduction of the cast, an occasional question and answer session hosted by a staff member, and/or a rousing musical number if the program featured a live band. Johnny Olson helped raise this pre-show mood setting session to an art form. The importance of this unique skill to the success of a program, and John’s pride in his proficiency are reflected in the design of his business card from the 1970s. On it, he enumerates three talents: TV Announcer, Warm-up Specialist, and Audience Host.
John had learned from experience the importance of working to an attentive, receptive and reactive audience; one that could even be cajoled into laughing and applauding on cue. He developed a warm-up act that could reduce the inhibitions of even the most staid audience members, and create a wild, party-like atmosphere. He was the subject of many newspaper write-ups and broadcast interviews for his excellence in this job that is a strange hybrid of entertainer, party host, psychotherapist, cheerleader and den mother. Being the youngest of eleven children apparently helped. John said, “In a family that size you’ve got to learn how to give and take, how to appreciate the tastes and peculiarities of others, and that’s really the basis of understanding people.” In another serious reflection on the science of making merry Johnny wrote, “I am not a jokester, I leave that to the star. I don’t want to step on his toes. I just try to get the audience in a receptive mood… if the studio audience reacts well, it can help a star in his timing”.
John also wrote of his observations of people from having interacted with well over a million audience members through the years. He noted that people from New York and Los Angeles are more receptive. “They’re hep to show business… folks in California are real friendly. I think L.A. audiences see it all and may even get it all. But the L.A. audience is more reserved, where New Yorkers react with gusto”. John continued, ”Midwesterners “are slow starters… and they like broad humor. Southerners get the gags a little sooner, and yet, somehow their reactions come a little more slowly… but they’re great for interviews”.
Despite these observations of regional peculiarities, Johnny’s warm-up spoke the universal language of fun. His familiar (NBC) “peacock dance”, complete with bumps, grinds and faux striptease was a fun and effective icebreaker. During warm-ups he would explain the game and the audience’s role in the show while dancing wildly up and down the aisles. Johnny would tell mildly suggestive jokes that dated back to his days as a club singer while landing on people’s laps, planting kisses on the cheeks of older ladies, and peeling-off dollar bills in an engaging and frenetic frenzy of energizing pre-show excitement. It was all calculated and crafted to relax inhibitions, to create an environment in which audience members could bond with the strangers around them and thus feel more comfortable reacting audibly to the program.
Unlike other warm-up acts, Johnny’s would continue throughout the show. During commercials he’d be back pumping-up the audience. Even during the program, on shows with a light announce load, John would roam up and down the aisles. He’d whisper comments about the game to random audience members as well as cue applause and laughter from among their midst. Sometimes John would run to the microphone from the rear of the house seemingly just in time to pick up his cue to speak. It was all part of keeping audience members alert, involved and reacting to the action.
Crew members in television production are rarely shy when talking among themselves about audience warm-up acts; they’ve heard them all, and they’ve heard them repeated, day after day. While all warm-up personalities have a collection of well-crafted routines that get repeated in the course of their work, Johnny developed a number of tricks that kept each day in the studio fresh.
Ray Angona, six-time Emmy© winning Technical Director for “The Price Is Right” and “Match Game” says, "Johnny would involve the production personnel and the crew members who were on stage just before tape rolled. He would interact with them during the warm-up, often setting them up to deliver the punch lines that we had come to know.” Ray also reflected on one measure of Johnny’s generosity that helped to endear him to his co-workers. “During the course of his warm-up, in addition to welcoming the audience on behalf of the executive producers, Johnny would also work into his act the names and titles of 3 or 4 crew members. It was a small touch, but gratifying when he mentioned your name. You knew that he cared about you and your contribution to the show.”
Gene Rayburn enjoyed working with Johnny Olson on a number of shows, including an astounding 21 seasons of “The Match Game”. In 1974 he said simply, “I did a show without Johnny once, and I never realized how good he was until I tried to do a show without him”.
John Daly, the host of “What’s My Line?” worked with Johnny during the eighteen year run of that prime-time hit. Daly complemented John on the air in 1965 with this concise comment: “He talks to our audience in the theater before the program begins, and I don’t think anybody in television has a better running start than we do. He’s such a friendly, engaging, sincere, nice guy that audiences respond to him, and it makes it much easier for us when our time comes”.
Successful warm-ups, John said, create the illusion among the audience members that “everyone’s a part of the family”. His advice to me as a newcomer best explained his overall attitude and philosophy: “The audience members are your guests, and you’re their ambassador to show business. You are the liaison between the audience and the performers. Be gracious and generous. Never leave the studio until you’ve spoken with everyone who has a question or simply wants to say ‘hello’”.
When asked about maintaining his boundless energy Johnny would say, “Every night is opening night”. It appeared to all that his enthusiasm was derived from his love of the work. Indeed, John only rarely missed a performance despite the fact that he was working as many as five shows simultaneously. His workload far surpassed any announcer’s who was not serving on staff for a station or network. In 1974 Johnny was heard on 21 half-hour television programs each week; the following year John’s airtime increased when CBS expanded “The Price Is Right” to a daily hour.
The classics, plus “Body Language”, “Tattletales”, “Mindreaders”, “Now You See It”, “Snap Judgment”, “He Said, She Said”, “Split Personality”, “Call My Bluff”, “Missing Links”… In total, John announced more than two dozen series as a Goodson-Todman employee for over 30 years. Yet one senior executive with the company recalled that in all that time John never negotiated for money. If true, apparently Johnny’s richest reward was being in and around the business that he loved. He told one author, “I’m never more alive than when the lights are up, the audience is hot, the music starts and I say ‘here’s the star of our show…’”.
His enjoyment of people and the talent that he called “making good talk” was obvious in the time John took to chat with tourists and audience members. The late Jay Stewart, long-time announcer on “Let’s Make a Deal”, first met Johnny on a cold winter day when they were both working at NBC-TV in New York’s Rockefeller Center. Jay recounted with amazement that as he was darting from a cab into the RCA building, he paused long enough to see Johnny, wrapped in scarf and gloves, doing something John would often do. He was walking and talking along the line of people on 50th Street who were waiting to come in from the cold and see a taping. Jay said he was astounded, “It’s freezing cold, and Johnny’s outside doing warm-up before they’re even in the studio”.
Years later, Jay would see John again. This time they passed in the lobby of the building at 1155 North La Cienega Boulevard in Hollywood where, coincidentally, each maintained an apartment for a time. “Jay remembered, “John was almost jogging. He had one of his polyester pairs of pants and a jacket over his arm, and said he was running to CBS”.
In 1968, while writing for his unfinished autobiography, John recalled that his sole source of encouragement in the earliest years of his radio work came from the only other performer in his family, his sister Pearl. She was a pianist who toured in vaudeville, and John noted that her premature passing was most likely the result of her work schedule. He said, “she toured on the Chautauqua circuit where I think she more or less worked herself to death”.
It’s an ironic comment considering that many friends and colleagues conjectured that John’s own hectic schedule of taping weekdays, flying cross-country each Friday to Miami for the Gleason show and/or to West Virginia for precious hours with Penny, and then returning to Los Angeles each Sunday contributed to his demise. Such was his schedule during his final week of work.
Following his last taping of “The Price is Right” on Wednesday, October 2nd, 1985, Johnny drove directly to the airport and flew to West Virginia for the weekend. Upon returning to Los Angeles International Airport on Sunday evening, October 6th, he suffered what he thought to be a mild heart attack. From one account, John drove himself to Santa Monica Hospital and reportedly was found in the hospital parking lot, unconscious, behind the wheel of his car. Johnny Olson died six days later, on Saturday, October 12th, of a cerebral hemorrhage. He was 75 years old.
On Monday, October 7th, fifteen minutes into readying Studio 33 for another week of taping, a shocked crew was given the news of John’s condition. “The Price Is Right” did not tape that week. Director Marc Breslow told UPI, “There isn’t a single person at CBS... who didn’t love Johnny Olson”. Long time Goodson-Todman Executive Producer Frank Wayne said the company was shocked by John’s death. He recalled having to review previous episodes of “The Price Is Right” to transcribe the transitional phrases Johnny had been ad-libbing for the past thirteen years. Bob Barker recorded a touching tribute to his friend that aired with a subsequent episode. The timing was ironic as The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences had only recently saluted Johnny Olson at the daytime Emmy© awards banquet for his more than five decades in broadcasting.
Of course, most distressed by Johnny’s passing was his wife and partner, Penny Olson. Penny continued to live for the next fourteen years in the childless couple’s spacious home at Buckingham Acres in Lewisburg, West Virginia. It’s a sleepy community of 3,000 located approximately 50 miles Northwest of Roanoke along the Seneca Trail. The town comes alive each August to host the West Virginia State Fair, an event John attended annually. In 1999, due to her failing health, Penny called upon Bob Carpenter, her closest family member, to help by permanently closing the Olson home. Penelope Kathleen Olson died a year later on August 17, 2000 at the Brier Nursing Home in nearby Ronceverte.
Johnny’s large collection of tapes and kinescopes were donated to the Wisconsin Historical Society. With the help of Bob Carpenter’s friend Lou Waldock, John and Penny’s estate was sold at auction by the DuMouchelles fine arts gallery of Detroit during the second weekend of June, 1999. The large collection of Meissen and Dresden porcelain, Chinese ivory and jade carvings, antique furniture, crystal, furs and artwork fetched over $100,000 in three days of brisk bidding. Notable among the items sold at auction were Penny’s early musical recordings. The liner notes from her album “Hymns of Hope and Inspiration” indicate that Johnny was a spiritual man, having written as many as 70 religious hymns.
As Johnny’s career was the inspiration for my life’s work, I am proud to have given a new home to an attaché case filled with his personal effects, as well as a collection of his most prized personal momentos. The attaché was a gift from Mark Goodson and was a dusty home to some of John’s treasured trinkets, from jewelry and old photographs to his union cards and his CBS ID badge.
The most interesting items Johnny saved include newspaper and magazine clippings dating back to 1931, a collection of scripts from favorite shows on which he performed, and the manuscripts and notes from his long planned autobiography. There is the award from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences honoring his contribution to “The Price Is Right” during what would be his final season on the show, and the microphone that he used during his many years announcing “What’s My Line?”. That RCA 77DX had been mounted with a gold plaque indicating that it was awarded to John by the CBS studio staff at the end of the long run.
The notes from Johnny’s unpublished memoirs include a history of the broadcasting industry from the birth of wireless to the social and political impact of television in the 1950s and 1960s. Among the milestones John describes are the events of Christmas Eve, 1906 when a human voice first leapt through the air from Professor Fessenden’s lab in Brant Rock, Massachusetts. John wrote about the first televised play that was broadcast in 1928 utilizing the experimental mechanical disc system of transmission. He recounts the historic short wave broadcasts to Admiral Richard Byrd and his men at the South Pole, as well as General Electric’s formation of the Radio Corporation of America, the subsequent creation of the Red and Blue radio networks, and the birth of the NBC television network.
Johnny wrote of his most colorful career recollections. They include broadcasts from ships, prisons, hospitals and zoos, as well as appearances at over 2,000 country fairs. His anecdotes run the gamut from babies being born and the terminally ill in audiences dying during his broadcasts, to the FBI’s arrest of a wanted criminal who appeared live on “What’s My Line?”. He was recognized by authorities during the broadcast and was taken into custody minutes later in the wings as he bid host John Daly adieu.
Behind his perpetually upbeat, friendly and professional demeanor most never sensed that John Leonard Olson was apparently not immune from frustrations in his career. Some friends have reported that John harbored his fair share of concerns about respect, money and camera time, even at the height of his success. Still, he approached his work each day with great grace, dignity and enthusiasm. He took tremendous pride in his performance and his reputation, and John retained a passion for the business that remained untainted by cynicism and sarcasm. His oft-voiced adage: “Let not trifles ruffle your temper”.
I carry much of what Johnny Olson taught me to every taping. Yet, as I attempt to emulate his professionalism, I am continually challenged by the high standards he set.
The tribute that Johnny might be proudest of comes from those he worked with through the years, the directors, stage managers, stylists, stagehands, lighting, camera and sound people. Since 1998 I have had a number of opportunities to work at John’s podium in Studio 33 at CBS Television City, the recently christened “Bob Barker Studio”. His many friends and co-workers from the thousands of episodes he taped there still remember him fondly, some with great affection. They are unanimous in their admiration for John and in their high regard for him as an always warm, pleasant, up-beat colleague and friend. The most frequently repeated comment about Johnny Olson leaves a legacy he would undoubtedly be proud of: “He was always the consummate professional”.