Saturday, January 26, 2013

A Brief History of Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar

In this clip from our recent conversation, John Abbott - writer of The "Who Is Johnny Dollar?" Matter - gives a brief overview of the history of this classic program.

Monday, January 21, 2013

The Big Broadcaster

Radio Hall of Fame inductee Ed Walker has been working as a broadcaster in the Washington DC area for six decades. For the last couple of those decades, that work has included hosting WAMU's weekly old-time radio showcase The Big Broadcast. Since that was where I first heard Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar, I was very grateful that Mr. Walker agreed to sit down for an interview about the show and the golden age of radio that ended when Johnny filed his last expense report. I encourage anyone who loves old-time radio to seek out his weekly show which is accessible just about anywhere via the internet.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Expense Account Item Number One

I'm happy to say that shooting started the other day in the form of an interview with John Abbott, writer of The "Who is Johnny Dollar?" Matter. Not surprisingly for the man who devoted so much time and effort to that three-volume chronicle, Abbott was enthusiasm and insight about Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar and its enduring popularity. I'll be posting some clips over the next couple weeks as work on the project continues. In the meantime, if you're interested in the answers to questions like how much expense account money was racked up for any given company, you should check out the book via Amazon or directly from the publisher.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Knowing Jack

Next to Bob Bailey, perhaps the most important figure in the history of Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar was writer-producer Jack Johnstone. A veteran of numerous successful programs, Johnstone shepherded the transition to the 15-minute daily episodes in 1955 then back to half-hour weekly stories a little over a year later. When the show moved production from Los Angeles to New York, Johnstone was replaced as producer but continued to contribute scripts until the end of the show (and by extension the end of the golden age of radio) in 1962. Johnstone resisted the temptation to work in television and seems to have largely stepped back from public life until his death in 1991. Consequently, his later years are an enigma worthy of Johnny Dollar. Back in 2011, the Metropolitan Washington Old Time Radio Club published an interesting piece about this very question. It's especially interesting reading for anyone who's heard references to nearby locales while listening to Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

The Many Voices of Johnny Dollar

Bob Bailey in his natural element.
When Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar began as a regular series on CBS in February of 1949, the show was already on its second leading man. The first one, movie star Dick Powell, took the lead role in another program after doing just a single audition show - a pilot episode used to convince network executives and sponsors of a show's potential. By the time the show's run ended in 1962, a total of eight actors had played the title role, including Powell and one other actor who had appeared only in audition shows. Of the leads who did more than a single episode, Edmond O'Brien may be best known to general audiences from his starring role in the classic movie D.O.A., but for aficionados of old-time radio the man who defined the role was Bob Bailey who filed his first expense report in 1955.

Though Bailey had appeared in several feature films, including two with Laurel & Hardy, he was best known as a radio actor. From 1946-1954, he had been playing another title role, that of George Valentine in the detective series Let George Do It. The start of Bailey's tenure coincided with another key change in the show, the shift from weekly standalone episodes to serialized storylines that ran each weekday night. While this alternative approach to storytelling was a big part of the show's appeal, Bailey's approach to the character was also key.

Aside from the insurance-based nature of the cases, neither the original incarnation of Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar nor its leads were all that different from the multitude of hard-boiled detectives that came  and went during the golden age of radio. The additional air-time provided by the shift to daily installments allowed the writers to adopt a more character-driven approach to stories aided by a repertory group that included radio mainstays such as Robert Conrad, John Dehner and Bailey's Let George Do It co-star Virginia Gregg. It wouldn't have worked as well, though, had the show's lead not been on the same level as the supporting players.

Though Bailey's Johnny Dollar could be as tough as any detective this side of Sam Spade and wasn't above skirting the law in the interests of justice, there was also a streak of sensitivity that distinguished him from more traditional private eyes. This trait came to the forefront when the program reverted to individual weekly episodes and more emphasis was given to recurring characters and plot threads that dealt more with Johnny's personal life.

Bailey left the show after five years and hundreds of episodes, one of which he wrote, and $135,311 in expense reports (over a million dollars by current rates). Johnny Dollar would get two more voices before filing his final expense report in 1962. Bob Readick and Mandel Kramer were good in their own right and the continued input of Jack Johnstone as a writer ensured that Dollar's cases were still engaging. For most fans, though, the true voice of Johnny Dollar will always be a guy named Bob.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The Enduring Appeal of the Man with the Action-packed Expense Account

September 30, 1962 marked the end of the golden age of radio, as the last two network radio dramas aired their final episodes. One of them, the long-running dramatic showcase Suspense, was among old-time radio's most iconic programs. The other was lesser-known series but no less remarkable. Despite a lack of big-name stars or even a sponsor for most of its run, Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar had been running almost continuously since 1949 and endured long after many better known radio shows had either transitioned to television or been canceled all together. 

Johnny Dollar - both the show and the character - started out little different than dozens of other detective shows from the heyday of radio drama. The employers may have been insurance companies rather than suspicious spouses, but the methods employed were virtually indistinguishable, aside from the weekly accounting of his "action-packed expense account". That changed in 1955 with the debut of new leading men both on-air and behind the scenes. Five actors had already played the title role before radio veteran Bob Bailey took over, but Bailey is the one who is not just best remembered but also best loved by fans, due to a portrayal balanced the hard-boiled elements with a more humanized take on the character. At the same time, under the guidance of veteran writer/producer Jack Johnstone, the program shifted from a standard once-a-week presentation to serialized stories that ran five days a week. The new format allowed for a more character-driven approach and, though, the daily format only lasted a little over a year those stories remain the most popular and are still repeated on old-radio showcases all over the country.

My documentary The "Whatever Became of Johnny Dollar?" Matter examines this unique program that continues to find not just new fans but also fans who are as devoted today as they were five decades ago. The film will do so in the manner of its inspiration - interviews with experts, pounding the pavement and, of course, with every expense documented (and then some). If you want to learn more about the project, come back to this blog for updates. Enjoy.