Zany duo had city laughing with its 1936 stage show
HUNTINGTON -- Although mostly forgotten today, the comedy duo of Olsen and Johnson was one of the biggest acts in the show business world of the 1930s and '40s. Starting out in small nightclubs and vaudeville, they quickly moved on to motion pictures, radio and the Broadway stage.
The two were scheduled to bring their touring stage show to Pittsburgh on April 2,1936, but that city was still a soggy mess following a devastating flood that had struck only two weeks earlier. When the Pittsburgh show was cancelled, the comedy team's agent started looking for a substitute booking. Thus it was that Pittsburgh's loss proved to be Huntington's gain.
At this point in their career, Olsen and Johnson ordinarily played in only the nation's largest cities. But that April 2 found them in Huntington, opening a three-day engagement at the Keith-Albee Theater.Ole Olsen (1892-1963) and Chick Johnson (1891-1962) began as musical entertainers. Olsen played the violin and Johnson played ragtime piano. They met in 1914, when they joined the same band. The two hit it off and liked to kid around with each other.
When the band broke up, they hit the road as a comedy team. At first, they played small nightclubs in the Midwest. Later they moved on to the vaudeville circuit, where they were billed as "the likeable lads loaded with laughs." Most comedy teams have a straight man and a stooge. However, Olsen and Johnson both took on the comic role, chuckling their way through a fast-paced patter of jokes and insults aimed at each other.
The two starred in a dozen modestly successful screen comedies and when they took to the air, the buffoonery proved to be a big hit with radio audiences. But the stage was the best showcase for their brand of nonsense.
"Anything Happens" was the title of the show Olsen and Johnson brought to the stage of the Keith in 1936 and that seems to be an accurate description of the shows the pair typically offered. The two comics would dash on and off the stage in a series of crazy costumes, cracking corny jokes. Acrobats and trained dogs would do their thing, zany characters were planted in the audience and no show was complete until at least one chorus girl had lost her skirt.
The Keith-Albee's ad for their show boasted that it had "50 Crazy People," including "35 Gorgeous Girls." The same ad proclaimed: "It Took The Flood In Pittsburgh To Give Huntington A Chance To See This Show."
During their Huntington engagement, Olsen and Johnson also appeared in a half dozen other newspaper ads, singing the praises of a wide variety of products and businesses. Apparently, they were adept at lining up endorsements.
Local auto sales representative "Chick" Enslow took out a large ad noting that the two comics "Drive and Endorse Auburn and Cord Automobiles." The ad also noted that the latest "Auburn Super-Charged Speedsters" were on display in front of the Keith. The two also smiled out of newspaper ads for Firestone tires and Leonard refrigerators. Small ads informed readers that the pair would be eating at Bailey's Cafeteria and having their clothes cleaned by Model Laundry.
Surely the strangest of the ads was one for Huntington's Fesenmeier Brewing. It featured a photo of the two comics, each with a mug of beer in hand. Johnson appears to be pouring his beer on his head.
"Why are you pouring that good old West Virginia Special on your head?" asks Olsen.
"You told me it was a tonic!" Johnson replies.
"Yeh," says Olsen. "A health tonic, you dope, not a hair tonic!"
Beer as a health tonic? A strange claim, but that's what the ad says.
Audiences who enjoyed Olsen and Johnson's 1936 show at the Keith had no way of knowing it, but the comedy team's single greatest success was still to come. In 1938, they mounted a Broadway show titled Hellzapoppin', which proved to be a box-office hit, enjoying a lengthy run and spawning a movie version. Other stage shows followed on Broadway and elsewhere, although none drew the huge audiences of Hellzapoppin'.
With the arrival of television in the 1950s, Olsen and Johnson tried their hand at the new medium but without success. Their broad (and often bawdy) brand of humor wasn't a good fit for the small screen. But in their heyday, the two had audiences in stitches.