Will B. Johnstone: The Man Behind the Man Behind “I’ll Say She Is”

As we head into our last week of our announced run of I’ll Say She Is, I thought it would much behoove us to pay tribute to the man who wrote the book to the show, and co-wrote its songs. Fortunately, Will B. Johnstone’s great-grand-daughter Meg Farrell is not only thoroughly steeped in the lore of her fabulous forebear, she also happens to be a bona fide scholar, as well as a performer. She has been a great friend to this revival of her great grand-dad’s show through every stage of adapter Noah Diamond’s five year Odyssey. She has been kind enough to share her thoughts with us.

I Thank You, On Behalf of my Great Grandfather, for Giving Him One More Hit Show!

by Meg Farrell

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Figure 1 Will B. Johnstone at work

As I stood on line outside the Sheen Center Friday night waiting for the doors to open a woman approached me looking to buy a ticket to the sold out performance of I’ll Say She Is! I immediately thought to myself that my great grandfather, Will B. Johnstone, would have been pleased. You see, he tried to make it as a playwright and lyricist for more than ten years before finally having one big Broadway hit and then sinking back into theatrical obscurity. I don’t know if he ever dared to dream that the words he wrote would be spoken and sung on stage ninety years later.

Will B., or “Grandpit,” as my family calls him, was present in our lives in many ways, even though he died back in 1944. He was there in his stark oil painting that hung in our dining room and in the artistic talent he passed on to his daughter Jean, my “Granny.” I believe his creative spirit is the most valuable legacy he left to us. We carry on that legacy through the creation of words, music and image and I know that it feeds our souls.

I’ll Say She Is! was also present in my childhood, most noticeably when anyone said “I must be off!” The immediate response has always been to launch into the following speech:

“If I leave you with these guys I must be off! Beyond the Alps lies Peter’s Milk Chocolate! And by the way, if my laundry comes, send to general delivery, care of Russia. And you might so a button on hither and yon. Hither’s not so bad but yon oh yon it’s terrible!!”

This speech is actually a collection of some of Groucho’s best lines from the famous Napoleon Scene. Imagine my delight when I saw the ad for Peter’s Milk Chocolate in the program last night! Thanks dear Noah Diamond for including that version of the line in the scene!

We also heard some stories of how the show came about, which, I have found, were as fanciful as those told by the Marx Brothers. I remember being told that Grandpit and his brother Tom were looking for an act to save a failing show and that they found the Marxes playing in the basement of a church in Brooklyn. They put them in the show, saving both the show, and the careers of a floundering comedy act.

A few years back I inherited the diaries of Will B. Johnstone and the first thing I looked up was the opening of I’ll Say She Is! at the Casino Theatre. I was puzzled when I read that Grandpit had gone to dinner with “Julie” and that after seeing the “final tune-up” of the show at the Walnut Street Theatre they were sitting in a car when “Julie” brutally insulted a couple of streetwalkers. Who was this “Julie” and why was she so rude? Of course, it turned out to be Groucho (Julius). I also learned a great deal about my great grandfather’s careers as a playwright/lyricist and apolitical cartoonist, including details about the production of I’ll Say She Is!

The Johnstone Brothers

Three Johnstone brothers – Alexander (1878-1956), William Breuniger (1881-1944), and Thomas Arthur (1888-1970) were raised in Evanston, Illinois. Family legend has it that Grandpit chased his young lady love, Helen Beckman, to New York after her family whisked her away from his unwanted attentions. Helen’s family did move to New York but they did not disapprove of Grandpit. In fact, his diariesn show that he came to New York not only to be with Helen but also to seek work as a newspaper illustrator and political cartoonist. As it turns out, he was more successful in this line of work than in show business and is still remembered for his cartoons featuring a taxpayer who has been reduced to wearing nothing but a barrel.

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Figure 2 Birthday cartoon for my mother Jean

When he arrived in New York in 1906, Grandpit found work as an illustrator with Hearst’s New York Journal. By 1909, he was working for the New York Evening World as an illustrator, cartoonist, and occasional writer. It was in this same year that his brother Alexander asked him to write lyrics for some songs he had written and the two began working on a show. Over the next ten years Grandpit worked with Alex, and other composers on three flops: Betsy (1911), Miss Princess (1912), and The Red Canary (1914). In 1919 he finally had a hit with Take It From Me. This show, on which he collaborated with composer Will R. Anderson, ran for four years and was successful enough to inspire its producer, Joseph M. Gaites, to use its logo on his letterhead.

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Figure 3 Letterhead for the office of Joseph M. Gaites

The success of Take it From Me may have been what led the famous British beauty Kitty Gordon (1878-1974) and comedian Jack Wilson (c.1891-1931) to approach Grandpit to write a show for them. By this time Uncle Tom Johnstone had followed his older brothers to New York and, along with fellow composer Harry Auracher (later Archer) collaborated with Grandpit on Love For Sale (1919). Sadly, this show turned out to be another disaster, partly due to production problems but the Johnstone brothers weren’t giving up on the idea. In 1920, they reworked it into a “unit show” for the Shuberts’ vaudeville circuit and renamed it Gimme a Thrill.

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Figure 4 Ad for Love For Sale in Sandusky Herald, October 12, 1919

Enter the Marx Brothers

I am here to tell you that Grandpit did not run into Chico in front of the Palace Theatre, or ever, to my knowledge, play dice with him [he does mention that Chico once showed him his loaded dice]. What I do know for sure is that he met three of the Marx Brothers in the office of Ned Wayburn on March 15, 1923. Here is what he had to say about the meeting in his diary that day:

Up with Tom to Ned Wayburn’s office … There he greeted us & introduced us to the Marks [sic] Brothers (three), one absent. They want a show written to fit them & Ned called us in. … I spilled an idea that they seemed to like & we talked it over. … The boys were very nice. They are going to get booked in vaudeville for this week (where they are a big hit) so we can see them work. Everything seemed to be set for going ahead when we left.

Grandpit did see the Marx Brothers’ act, for the very first time, at the Premier Theatre, in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, on April 15, 1923. Before the show they all had dinner at Jewish restaurant where Groucho teased the waiters about the music and performed an impromptu “Russian dance.” Then it was off to the theater to see the boys. Grandpit’s assessment of the performance was “Very good indeed tho’ not done expertly. Will fit into show O.K.”

It appears that Grandpit had another idea for a new show but by April 25 he is referring to the piece as the “thrill show” and by May 27 the title was fixed as I’ll Say She Is!. He was not pleased with this new title and comments in his diary that he would have preferred The Thrill of Love or You Must Come Over.

Over the course of the production process Grandpit and Groucho became close. The diaries contain many entries referring to meetings with “Julie,” including one at the Century Roof where Grandpit pitched a sketch idea set in Napoleonic France. That sketch was an immediate hit with audiences when I’ll Say She Is! premiered at the Lyric Theatre in Allentown, Pennsylvania on May 31, 1923. Grandpit commented in his diary for that day that the title of the show was worked into a line in the opening scene just before curtain. On June 4 they moved to Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia, where they had a successful summer run before going on the road in September. The tour went well overall, especially in Chicago, where the run was extended, to the consternation of the producers of Abie’s Irish Rose and on May 19, 1924, I’ll Say She Is! opened at the Casino Theatre in New York City.

Claims have been made that I’ll Say She Is! was mostly created by the Marx Brothers but the truth is actually more complicated. This comic revue was, like many revues of the time, a composite of new and recycled material, some of it drawn from the Marx Brothers repertoire and earlier Johnstone shows. The opening scene, later featured in the 1931 Paramount promotional film The House That Shadows Builwas adapted from the 1921 Marx Brothers vehicle “On the Mezzanine/On the Balcony.” The overall concept of this book revue was borrowed from Love For Sale, along with songs and dance specialties from that and other Johnstone shows.

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Figure 5 Headline from the famous review of I’ll Say She Is! in the NY World, May 20, 1924

The reviews of the show in the New York papers were famously positive regarding the performances of the Marx Brothers but not as kind in their assessment of music and spectacle. The show was such a success that on May 28, 1924, Grandpit was informed that the Marxes had delivered an ultimatum to the producers that they wanted 15% of the show’s gross. Grandpit was devastated and called “Julie” to ask him about it. Groucho wouldn’t talk about it over the phone so Grandpit went and confronted the Marx Brothers in their dressing room. They were defensive and Grandpit stormed out. By August they had made up and on the closing night of the Broadway run, on February 7, 1925, Grandpit was asked to make a speech as the author of I’ll Say She Is!. He comments in his diary “Could I have foreseen that moment in 1898 when I attended this theatre as a boy or in 1904 when Tom & I sat up in the top gallery?”

After I’ll Say She Is! closed Grandpit tried to sell the Marx Brothers a couple of show ideas including a “cartoonist” revue and what he refers to as the “tramp show.” Unfortunately for him, but fortunately for them, they were already committed to the Sam Harris agency who were planning to put them in book show and nothing ever came of either proposal. Grandpit also pitched a movie scenario entitled The Gate Crashers. The Marxes liked it but the movie studios in New York did not. The title suggests that the brothers would be featured as unwanted guests, not so different from the stowaways they would play in Monkey Business (1931). Considering his established practice of recycling material, it may be that Grandpit incorporated some of this scenario into the script he wrote for Monkey Business with S.J. Perelman.

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Figure 6 Promotional cartoon for Monkey Business by Will B. Johnstone

Yes I said it – S.J. Perelman. I don’t know exactly why but in my family the mention of his name evoked a similar reaction to that Lou Costello got when he asked for the Susquehanna Hat Company. Apparently the creative collaboration between Grandpit and Perelman was less than pleasant, and, given the fact that their first script draft was rejected by the studio, less than successful. Grandpit went on to work on Horse Feathers but it appears that he had to fight for credit on that film. Glenn Mitchell, in his book The Marx Brothers Encyclopedia reports that an item in the Hollywood Reporter mentions Grandpit suing to obtain screen credit for Horse Feathers. If you watch the film, and I’m sure many of you have, you will hear Groucho speak a line taken directly from the Napoleon scene: while “teaching” a class, Professor Wagstaff says “Beyond the Alps lies more Alps and the Lord alps them that alps themselves.” One might also argue that the concept of all four brothers seducing the same woman came from the same scene.

Grandpit was apparently disillusioned with Hollywood and returned to his work as a political cartoonist. He died in 1944, at the age of 61. Sadly, he has largely been forgotten by the theatrical community but is still respected for his work as a cartoonist.

I think Grandpit really wanted to be a famous Broadway book & lyrics writer. His diaries show him always scheming for the next show and knocking on doors of producers. Regarding I’ll Say She Is! he commented “At last I’ve put over a big New York hit. Some satisfaction. …” (Diary of Will B. Johnstone, June 8, 1924). I had more than just some satisfaction on Friday seeing his work come back to life thanks to the hard work of Noah Diamond, Trav S.D. and all of the people involved in this historic revival. I will be forever in your debt for giving Grandpit one more hit!

 

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One Response to “Will B. Johnstone: The Man Behind the Man Behind “I’ll Say She Is””

  1. Wendi Winters Says:

    Meg: I am possibly a cousin of yours. I am a descendant of Karl Wilhelm Breuninger. Will B. Johnstone is a great uncle of mine – and a grandson of Breuninger’s. Feel free to google my name. Then, let’s talk and compare notes. My email is wendi@wintersgeimer.com and my cell is 410-562-4189. A lot of your information jibes with what I know. And, I spent some time getting credit restored to Will’s grandfather as the designer of the Marine Corps Emblem. Best, Wendi Winters

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