PERFORMERS: OLSEN AND JOHNSON

John Siguard “Ole” Olsen (November 6 1892 to January 26 1965)
Harold Ogden “Chic” Johnson (March 5 1891 to February 28 1962) 

by PETER TATCHELL (copyright 2010)

They were masters of mayhem, a double act who stood in the middle of an eruption of one-liners, sight gags and off-the-wall craziness. And the antics didn’t end at the footlights with stooges planted in the audience often taking part in the action. It was noisy, it was colourful and none of it was subtle … but for over forty years it was a boisterous barrel of fun that kept rolling on stage, radio, the movies and into the early days of television.

Music was the catalyst that brought them together. In 1914, Ole Olson (the tall one) was playing fiddle in a four-piece band when Chic Johnson (the tubby one with the gurgling infectious laugh) joined the group as their new ragtime pianist. The pair quickly found they both had the same wild sense of humour and soon worked up a double act to appear in vaudeville.

Comedy performers were paid more than musicians, so Ole and Chic “gagged up” the routine and by 1918 were earning $2,500 a week on the Keith-Orpheum circuit. Initially using stage crews and the other performers to take part in their crazy bits, by the mid-1920s they had built up their own stock company and toured the country as a self-contained unit. They were particular favourites outside the big cities where their non-stop lunacy struck a chord.

In 1927 Olsen and Johnson crossed the Pacific and were a riot on Australia’s Tivoli circuit, even venturing into the recording studio to produce a couple of 78rpm releases during their stay.

While they were away, America saw a movie called The Jazz Singer revolutionize Hollywood and successful stage performers were eagerly being sought to appear in a mass of new fangled “talkies”.

Back on home turf Olsen and Johnson were signed by Warner Bros. to star in Oh Sailor Behave in 1930 and two others the following year (one filmed in Technicolor). Though moderately successful, none of them managed to capture the uproariousness of the pair, who were wasted as comic supports for the romantic subplots.   

In 1933 the boys took over as comedy leads in the successful Broadway musical Take a Chance (with Ethel Merman) and while in New York had their own weekly radio series Friday nights on CBS.

Then Olsen and Johnson and company (of 75) were back touring the country with their 15-scene revue now called Everything Goes, an hour of unbridled lunacy. While in Phoenix Arizona, the duo encountered a local annual festival called Helzapoppin and were fascinated by the name. With the permission and good wishes of the residents, they added an extra ‘l’ and renamed their revue from that day on.

Hollywood beckoned again in 1937, but this time for minor-league studio Republic who signed the pair for a couple of B pictures. They also starred in another series of radio broadcasts, this time for station KFI in Los Angeles.

A year later impresario Lee Shubert was coaxed into seeing the troupe perform in Philadelphia and was amazed at the audience reaction it was getting. He immediately signed the show for Broadway where (with an extra hour of madness) from opening night in September 1938 it caused a sensation.

Helped by an enthusiastic review by influential columnist Walter Winchell and a sizeable word-of-mouth promotion by excited theatregoers, Hellzapoppin’ was a huge hit, transferring from the 46th Street Theater to the larger Winter Garden after a couple of months and eventually running for three years and over 1400 performances.

Ole and Chic left the production in late 1940 and headed back to Hollywood where Universal wanted to make a movie adaptation of the show. The result was a success in capturing some of the outlandish insanity of the original but dulled the proceedings by adding an unnecessary plot. 

With the U.S. now embroiled in World War 2, the boys alternated their time between Broadway shows like Sons of Fun and Laffin’ Room Only and three more fairly successful Universal movies.

At war’s end Olsen and Johnson again toured the country with their tried and true live show and in 1949 staged an extravaganza called Funzapoppin at Madison Square Garden. A year later they were back on Broadway with a show called Pardon Our French.

Olsen and Johnson were also pioneers of the early days of television when their Fireball Fun-For-All took over Milton Berle’s Tuesday night timeslot on NBC during his summer break. In 1951 Ole and Chic joined the rotating line-up of headliners on the network’s All Star Revue.

Now into their sixties, the boys spent the rest of the 1950s taking their stage production around the country and overseas, and by 1959 were appearing at the Aqua Amphitheater on Long Island with a production called Hellza-Splashin’.

Chic Johnson died in early 1962 and his partner three years later. It’s probably fitting to end their story with the lines they used as their curtain speech …

“May you live as long as you want, and laugh as long as you live”.

 

OLSEN AND JOHNSON’S DETECTIVE SKETCH

Chic     Just found a man dead out in the alley with a knife in his hand.

Ole      With a knife in his hand?

Chic     Who do you think poisoned him?

Ole      I don’t know, who?

Chic     Nobody, he hung himself.

Ole      How do you know he hung himself?

Chic     How do I know … the gas jet was wide open.

Ole      Was there much gas?

Chic     Much gas … he was cut from ear to ear.

Ole      Did he bleed much?

Chic     Did he bleed … every bone in his body was broke. He’d been in the water over 72 hours.

Ole      Was he dead?

Chic     I don’t know, he’s gonna phone and let me know in the morning.

 

Stage

Take a Chance (Apollo Theater, Olsen & Johnson joined the cast in June 1933)

Hellzapoppin (46th Street Theater (later at Winter Garden), September 22 1938)

Sons of Fun (Winter Garden Theater, December 1 1941)

Laffin’ Room Only (Winter Garden Theater, December 23 1944)

Pardon Our French (Broadway Theater, October 1950)

 

Films

Oh Sailor Behave! (1930)

Fifty Million Frenchman (1931)

Gold Dust Gertie (1931)

Country Gentlemen (1937)

All Over Town (1937)

Hellzapoppin (1941)

Crazy House (1943)

Ghost Catchers (1944)

See My Lawyer (1945)

 

Radio

The Olsen and Johnson Show
CBS Fridays September 22 1933 to March 30 1934
no known recordings

KFI Los Angeles series in 1936/7
one undated episode is with collectors

Treasury Star Parade (15 min)
Ole and Chic appear in editions 4, 5 and 6 of early 1942
recordings of all three survive with collectors

Mail Call # 49
July 25 1943
recording survives with collectors

 

Television

Fireball Fun-For-All: NBC Tuesdays 8-00pm June 28 to August 1949,
and 9-00pm September to October 27 1949 (60 min)

All-Star Revue: NBC Saturday 8-00pm (60 min)
Olsen and Johnson starred in four editions:
September 15 and December 15 1951, February 2 and March 1 1952 

 

Recordings

At The Cabaret
Australian Columbia 78rpm 0798 (October 18 1927)

The Whole World Is Laughing At Me/Fair Dinkum
Australian Columbia 78rpm 0806 (October 18 1927)

 (The Motoring Song was also recorded at the same session, but unissued)

Oh! Gee, Oh! Gosh, Oh! Golly I’m In Love/My Heartzapoppin’
Varsity 78rpm 8308 (c. May 1940)

Stars Over Broadway
Star-Tone LP 214
has radio extract

 

DVDs

Country Gentlemen

All Over Town

Hellzapoppin

Crazy House

Ghost Catchers

All-Star Revue
Shokus DVD 532
includes the Olsen & Johnson edition of March 1 1952

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