Stars of Vaudeville #74: Olsen and Johnson
Today is the birthday of Ole Olsen.
OLSEN AND JOHNSON “The Mad Monarchs of Monkey Business”
The most famous effort of John “Ole” Olsen and Harold “Chic” Johnson was the Broadway revue Hellzapoppin, the culmination of their 25 years as vaudeville headliners, which opened in 1938 and ran for years. Though most critics disliked the show strenuously, audiences were crazy about it, and in 1941 it was turned into a movie. Other Broadway shows followed: Laffing Room Only (1945), Funzapoppin (1949), and Pardon My French (1950)—all basically continuations of Hellzapoppin. You might say the various versions of Hellzapoppin were on stage continuously for over 10 years.
Olsen and Johnson created a mad universe very much akin to that of the Marx Brothers, with one salient difference. A Marx Brothers production pitted three lunatics against a sane universe. In Olsen and Johnson, the team and the universe were equally insane, and the boys were the audiences’ ambassadors into that world. For example, in the Marx Brothers, only Harpo could cataylze a truly surreal physical moment, as when in Animal Crackers some statues came to life, or in A Night in Casablanca, when Harpo held up the facade of a building just by leaning on it. In Olsen and Johnson, anyone and everyone could do such things. An unexpected cow might fall from the sky, and the events was pretty much taken in stride. Anything the mind could conceive happened. The gags were fast, funny and cartoon-like, anticipating Mel Brooks, early Woody Allen, Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In and Monty Python’s Flying Circus. It’s a world where a man with a camera around his neck walks in and says to the team “May I take your picture”? When given permission, he walks up and lifts a painting off the wall, and walks off with it. Entrances and exits by stooges were constant to deliver such gags. (One of their perennial supporting players was Joe Besser, that bizarre man in the Fauntleroy suit from the Abbot & Costello TV show, and Shemp’s brief replacement in The Three Stooges.)
The boys themselves had snappy, modern personae. They dressed sort of like Abbot and Costello, in a couple of business suits. Both were equally crazy – there was no straight man. You’d never know it from the way they behaved, but they were actually a couple of Swedes from the Midwest. Both were born in the early 1890s and graduates of Northwestern University –making them among the very few vaudevillians to attend college.
Like Jimmy Durante and others, they started out as musicians (Olsen as a fiddler, Johnson as a ragtime pianist) but cutting up gradually overtook the music. They met while playing in the same dance band in Chicago. The band broke up, so they decided to form a team. Olsen and Johnson debuted at small Chicago nightclub in the mid-teens, improvising songs and ad-libbed patter. By 1918, they were working at New York’s Royal Theatre, where Variety caught them and wrote them a rave. Though they started out in the lowly Pantages circuit, by the late 20s they were knocking them dead at the Palace. A 1922 tour of London was ill-fated when Olie fell sick for the entirety of the trip. Sophie Tucker and the Marx Brothers were among those who came to the sick room to cheer him up.
They’d made several films for Warner Brothers and Universal, but almost all of them have fallen by the wayside. They also briefly tried a TV show based on their revue format called Fireball Fun for All in the late 1940s, but it also tanked. It was in the live experience that Olsen and Johnson truly clicked, and when vaudeville died, and the revues dried up, there was always Vegas and the nightclubs. They remain a team to this day. Chic (d. 1962) and Olie (d.1963) are actually buried side-by-side in Las Vegas Cemetery.
To find out more about these variety artists and the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.