Child star (then former child star) Johnny Downs (1913-1994) had a truly interesting if minor career on stage and screen, one that was ironically much better than those of better known colleagues who couldn’t find work in show biz in adulthood. Over a period of over 40 years his credits included vaudeville, silent film, Broadway, talking pictures (often musicals), and television. He left behind a wonderful body of work; it’s been a delight to learn more about it.
A navy brat living in San Diego, the good looking Downs became a regular in Hal Roach’s Our Gang series from 1925 through 1927. He also landed some parts in other major films, such as a Jesse James (1927), in which he played the title character as a boy, and King Vidor’s The Crowd (1928), again playing the main character as a boy.
When talkies came in, Downs got some needed stage experience, touring vaudeville for a time in a two-act with fellow Our Gang alumna Mary Kornman, then appearing in the Broadway musicals Strike Me Pink (1933), Growing Pains (1933), and Ragged Army (1934). Newly acquired singing and dancing skills would serve him well in the era of sound pictures.
In 1931 he returned to films in the Hal Le Roy short High School Hoofer. Next came a couple of other musical shorts for Vitaphone, around the same time, he was appearing in Broadway shows in the evening. In 1934, he had the small part of Little Boy Blue in Laurel and Hardy’s Babes in Toyland. The following year, he’s in the Walter C. Kelly vehicle The Virginia Judge, along with Stepin Fetchit, Hyams and McIntyre, Charles Middleton, Bonita and a young Bob Cummings. He actually gets star billing in Coronado (1935), directed by Norman McLeod, with Jack Haley, Andy Devine, Leon Errol, Alice White and Betty Burgess. Pigskin Parade (1936) is one of the more notable of the pictures he appeared in during this period, for it not only had Stuart Erwin, Patsy Kelly, Jack Haley, Betty Grable, Tony Martin, Grady Sutton, Julius Tannen, Edward J. Nugent, and Elisha Cook Jr, but was the very first film of Judy Garland. Numerous other similar films, mostly minor musicals followed over the next decade. He’s still getting star billing, albeit in B movies, as late as the mid 40s. He briefly had his own series of Columbia comedy shorts in 1942, to wit:
Gradually he became a bit player — you can see in such roles in Danny Kaye’s The Kid from Brooklyn (1946) and The Caddy (1953) with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. As the film roles got smaller, he returned to Broadway on two additional occasions, in the shows Are You With It (1945-46), and Hold It! (1948). A bit part in Here Come the Girls (1953) with Bob Hope was his last Hollywood role.
After this, he settled permanently in Coronado, California (near San Diego, where he’d lived as a kid). Here, he had his own local children’s television program, The Johnny Downs Show from 1953 through 1968. As you can see from this still, he still had a fresh-faced, boyish quality well into middle age. In later years Downs also appeared occasionally in local theatre. He was 80 when he died of cancer in 1994.