Posted by: Bill Tracy | September 17, 2013

The Johnstone Enigma Redux

In radio there was never a term equivalent to boob tube or couch potato.

 -Norman Corwin

Radio was hugely important in this country before being displaced by the less mindful medium of television. It was so important there was a question on the 1930 Census form asking if the household had a radio. There were probably five producer/director types who were the kings of radio drama, or what was more generally and disparagingly called “melodrama.” Norman Corwin is certainly at the top of the heap; I don’t think anyone would dispute that. Orson Welles was probably best known; 75 years ago next month he scared the wits out of everyone with his “War of the Worlds” production. Arch Oboler was a combative personality known best for dark and violent stories in the Lights Out tradition. Norman MacDonnell, producer of Gunsmoke was another. Less widely known was Jack Johnstone who quietly toiled away outworking them all. He was vastly competent, devoted to excellence and respected by everyone.

Johnstone Cottage

In disrepair, this is today called the “Johnstone Cottage” on the grounds of the Vineland Training School in Vineland, NJ. Jack Johnstone may have lived in this house as a child although there is no certainty. June 2013

Over two years ago I published a piece about old-time radio producer/director/writer Jack Johnstone. He was a talented and fascinating man about whom almost nothing was generally known. I had managed to find out a little bit about him and published the piece in hopes it would spark interest from people who may have known him or knew more of his history. A few members of the family contacted me, and I learned more. However the people in the family who really know, his two daughters, have declined to talk. I’m not a pushy paparazzi type so I haven’t tried to change their minds. Certainly they have their reasons. And I feel Jack would not have wanted people badgering his family about him and his business. So, I leave things be.

Two years ago, I moved back to the east coast from California. I’ve kept doing what background research I could, and I’ve visited places from Johnstone’s young life in this area. Since I’ve probably gone as far as I can, I’ve decided to put out all that I know. I suspect (hope) a real researcher will come along at some point, and this may be a starting point for such a person.

So, in chronological order, here’s what I believe I know of the life of Earl Ransom (Jack) Johnstone:

1906

May 7, 1906. Born in Vineland, NJ. Lived and raised on the grounds of The Training School of Vineland as his father, Edward Johnstone was the Superintendent/Director. The school was a residential facility for the training and study of developmentally disabled persons (known at that time as “feeble-minded”).

On the grounds of the Vineland Training School in Vineland, NJ, this is the "Maxham Cottage." Cornerstone is dated 1899 so it was built seven years before the birth of Jack Johnstone. He and his family may have lived in this building when he was a child although there is no certainty. June 2013

On the grounds of the Vineland Training School in Vineland, NJ, this is the “Maxham Cottage.” Cornerstone is dated 1899 so it was built seven years before the birth of Jack Johnstone. He and his family may have lived in this building when he was a child although there is no certainty. June 2013

1910

Jack, age 4, climbs to the top of the water tower on the grounds of the Training School. He said he wanted to see the water in the tank. Apparently he was curious, rambunctious, bold and adventurous. This is family lore. Jack was attracted to water (and fishing) all his life, apparently starting at a very young age. After his death in 1991, his ashes were placed in the Santa Barbara Channel between Santa Barbara, California and the Channel Islands.

1924

Jack, age 18 plays “fiddle solos” on a now defunct Philadelphia radio station. He said he did a “couple of appearances,” as stations were always looking to fill air time. This is from an early 1980s radio interview with radio historian John Dunning. The family suggests at home Jack entertained the family with the violin accompanied by his sister on the piano.

The N.W. Ayer & Son Building in Philadelphia today. In 2005, it was turned into a residential condominium.

The N.W. Ayer & Son Building in Philadelphia today. In 2005, it was turned into a residential condominium.

1930

Johnstone is now age 24 and working in advertising sales for N.W. Ayer & Son advertising agency at their swanky new headquarters building at 210 West Washington Square, Philadelphia, PA. They are the oldest advertising agency in the world and renowned for originating: “When it rains it pours” (Morton Salt, 1912); “A diamond is forever” (De Beers, 1947); “Reach out and touch someone” (AT & T Corp., 1979); “I’d walk a mile for a Camel” (R.J. Reynolds Tobacco, 1921).

At this time, he lived at 334 S. 21st Street in Philadelphia, fourteen blocks from the Ayer building where he worked. The 1930 U.S. Census has him as a “lodger” at this address. The “head of household” was William Jones, age 26 who is listed as an advertising copywriter. Seems like an obvious conclusion they were coworkers at N.W. Ayer and were sharing this house. One other person is listed as a lodger at this address, Lois Gilbons, a 44-year-old “historian” working at a University. This address is walking distance from University of Pennsylvania as well as Drexel University.

An Anna Schumann appears in the Census at 437 E. Indiana Ave., Philadelphia. Occupation: Operator. Industry: Radio. Born: NJ. It’s possible she is the Anna Schumann who became Jack’s wife in 1931. Chances are she was a telephone operator at a radio station where Jack was making a sales call, and that’s how they met. Johnstone family members suggest she was a girl he knew while growing up in Vineland. Census shows her born in New Jersey so she could be both. Perhaps Jack got her a job at a radio station so she could live in Philadelphia where he was living. Romance obviously fuels this speculation, none of which may be factual.

1931

Jack marries Anna Schumann and moves to New York City. He continues working with the Ayer agency as they were the leaders in radio advertising at the time and New York was the heart of radio as networks were becoming established and were headquartered there.

Jack's Philadelphia home in 1930.

Jack’s Philadelphia home in 1930. Picture taken January, 2013.

1932

An exciting new radio program pops up – and with it opportunity for Johnstone. He becomes a writer for the new Buck Rogers in the 25th Century program. In published interviews, Jack says this was where his directing debut took place. He tells a story of director Carlo D’Angelo calling in sick one day and asking Jack to direct the rehearsal. D’Angelo then does not make it to the live broadcast so Jack directs that also. While formally listed as director D’Angelo continues to let Jack do it until eventually Jack becomes the director of record. He said his salary at this point went from $32 week to over $300 week.

1935

From Microphone Gossip, a trade paper, February 10-16, 1935 issue:

“Jack Johnstone, author of those Buck Rogers in the Twenty-Fifth Century dramas over CBS, can write a single script in forty-five minutes, but it often takes him two days to complete one. That’s because Johnstone is a stickler for detail and insists upon each episode being thoroughly accurate and plausible. New gadgets and new characters usually require additional writing time, for Johnstone often delves into simple physics and mechanics to make sure that his scientific ideas and inventions are reasonable in application.”

This was characteristic of Johnstone. People who know how he worked tell me on the Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar scripts he directed, he would call airlines to get exact fares for the trips taken by the Johnny Dollar character. As a comment on today’s medical expenses, in the April 30, 1956 week “Johnny Dollar” episode, he has an expense item of $14.95 for one night in a hospital. Another is $43 for “hotel and board, two days in Los Angeles.” Today, $15 might get you an aspirin in a hospital, no more, and $43 wouldn’t pay for a cab ride from the airport to downtown Los Angeles.

1936

August 2. Maritime records show Johnstone arriving in NYC aboard MV Georgio from LeHavre, France. Sailing date 7/19/36. Wife Anne is listed as accompanying him. She is listed as born New York City, 1908. Residence address is:

414 E 52nd St.

New York, NY

1939

April 21. Maritime records have Anne Johnstone arriving in NYC from Hamilton, Bermuda aboard the Monarch of Bermuda. Her address is listed as:

49 E. 96th Street

New York, NY

Again, she is listed as born in New York. This may or may not be Jack’s wife.

1940

Oct. 19 Variety runs the story, “Draft Eligibles Numerous in Radio, Noted As a Young Man’s Industry.” Jack is listed among those eligible for military draft; shown to be with Biow Agency in New York City at this time. Story says: “As expected radio broadcasting stands to lose a particularly large percentage of its more or less prominent personnel in the military conscription. Broadcasting has long been noted for its youngish executives, many of them who came in as office boys when radio wasn’t taken too seriously. They got important when radio did and now are still on the drilling side of 36.”

I’m not sure where Variety gets the “36” from. FDR signed the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940 on Sept. 16, 1940, the first ever-peacetime military draft in the U.S.

The eligible draft age at this point was 21 to 45. On Dec. 5, 1942, the eligible draft age range was changed to 18 to 38. Johnstone, in December 1942 was 36. In May, 1944 he reached age 38. Since he was married with dependents, he probably had a lowered chance of being drafted. He would probably have been in one of these categories:

III-A — Men with dependents, not engaged in work essential to national defense

III-B — Men with dependents, engaged in work essential to national defense

It is possible his work in radio could have been classified as essential to national defense.

In one interview, Johnstone answers a question about directing James Cagney saying he directed him once in a movie – “…a top secret World War II film for the War Department.” This is exactly the kind of thing that makes Johnstone such an ongoing enigma. Just when you think you understand a lot about him, he throws out an offhand remark about directing a movie, and a top-secret one at that.

Jack Johnstone Anne Baxter

Jack Johnstone directing Anne Baxter, presumably in the 1950s. Origin of this photo is unknown, it may have come from Jack. It may be in the public domain or it may have a copyright owner. If anyone knows, please let me know.

1943

November 24. Variety headline: “Giving Cues the Hard Way.” Story:

“Jack Johnstone, director of ‘Crime Doctor,’ the Philip Morris meller [melodrama] on CBS, topped all the proverbial gags about cue-tossers on the broadcast two Sundays ago (15). Giving a music cue to conductor Ray Bloch, he accidentally hit announcer Ken Roberts in the face, breaking his nose. Johnstone is one of the few directors who work in the studio with the actors, instead of from the control booth.

“When the mishap occurred, Roberts was standing a couple of feet from Johnstone’s side, waiting to step to the microphone to read the middle commercial. The force of the blow stunned him, but he quickly held a handkerchief to his nose to stem the spurt of blood, and managed to get through the commercial without interruption. The gasp and subsequent buzz of conversation from the studio audience was audible over the air.”

1944

Orson Welles gets Johnstone to leave New York and start working in California. Welles was in New York and approached Johnstone about creating and directing a new radio program, Orson Welles Almanac. Jack agreed and moved to California both to direct the program as well as to assuage many people in the industry who had been urging him to move there. After the first 13-week contract period, Johnstone resigns. While he praises Welles’s genius, he said that same genius proved disruptive to the show. Soon after, ratings declined and the show went off the air.

1949

April 19. Variety story headline: “Popkin Hurls 500G Suit at CBS Show.” Harry Popkin was executive producer of the movie, Impact, released in New York City on March 20. Johnstone was the producer of a “radio play” titled “Impact” on March 6. Popkin sued Johnstone, CBS, Prudential Insurance Company and Music Corporation of America for $500,000 damages claiming the radio program “was calculated to mislead listeners into believing the story was a dramatization of the picture with the same title.” I have no information on resolution of litigation. The radio “Impact” appears to be an episode of The Prudential Family Hour of Stars. The only description I can find is “…a tale of a padre and a half-crazed dictator.” This is not remotely similar to the movie.

Jack's home in Santa Barbara, California. Picture taken in 2011.

Jack’s home in Santa Barbara, California. Picture taken in 2011.

1950

Somebody knows. Nobody’s telling. Summer radio in 1950 was innovative. Jack Johnstone was part of the innovation. Thursday evening, July 6 of that year debuted a new reality radio show, Somebody Knows. Directed and narrated by Johnstone, it offered $5000 to any listener who could solve a real murder case, what we call today a “cold case.” Each Thursday evening a new unsolved murder was dramatically reviewed and listeners were invited to supply information leading to the conviction of the murderer. Minimum wage that year was 75 cents per hour. You were doing well if you made $2500 per year. Somebody Knows was offering a lot of money. Well, somebody probably knew, but nobody told. Not a single crime was solved through the program.

Around this time, Jack, an avid fisherman invents and patents a new type of fish hook.

1953

The Six Shooter, starring Jimmy Stewart begins its legendary one-year run on radio with Johnstone as director. It may possibly have stayed on radio, but it had no sponsors. A tobacco company and a beer brewer wanted to sponsor the program, but Stewart vetoed those as not good for his image.

1955

Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar series is revived with Johnstone as new producer and director. Actor Bob Bailey takes the Johnny Dollar role and becomes what most people consider the definitive Johnny Dollar.

In Bordentown, NJ, the “Manual Training and Industrial School for Youth” was closed. It was renamed for Johnstone’s father who had died in 1946. Called the “Edward R. Johnstone Education and Training Center,” it was a state-run school for the developmentally disabled.

1956

Johnstone writes the first of 350 episodes he will write for Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar, “The Laird Douglas-Douglas of Heatherscote Matter.” The professional, talented writers like E. Jack Neumann (AKA John Dawson) and Les Crutchfield had been wooed away by the big money in television and had little time for radio work. Johnstone said he had to start writing to get the kind of scripts he wanted.

June 28, 1956. Variety reports Johnstone has been elected vice president of the Hollywood chapter of the Radio-TV Directors Guild.

The MacKenzie Park Lawn Bowls Club where Jack spent time during retirement. Picture taken 2011.

The MacKenzie Park Lawn Bowls Club where Jack spent time during retirement. Picture taken 2011.

1960

The CBS network moves production of the Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar radio show from Hollywood to New York. Most of the crew involved with production, including Johnstone and star Bob Bailey decline to move with it. This essentially ends Bob Bailey’s acting career. Johnstone continues writing scripts for the program but no longer produces or directs. He writes the scripts in his California home and sends them to the studio in New York.

1962

Sunday, September 30. The final broadcasts of Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar and Suspense, ending at 7:00 pm Eastern Time on September 30, 1962, are cited as the end of the “Golden Age of Radio.” Jack Johnstone wrote both those stories. “The Tip-Off Matter” aired from 6 to 6:30 PM to close out Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar. The Suspense episode “Devil Stone” aired from 6:30 to 7 PM. Johnstone’s wife was nicknamed “Bundy,” and he used the pen name Jonathan Bundy for the “Devil Stone” story. “The Tip-Off Matter” was written under his real name.

Word has it Johnstone listened to these last two episodes as played on the radio that Sunday in the living room of his California home. When they ended he got up, walked over to the radio, turned it off and said, “Well, that’s the end of an era.” I think few people at the time realized this, but to Johnstone it was crystal clear.

The last words spoken in the final episode, “Devil Stone,” are: “requiescat in pace,” Latin for rest in peace. Johnstone knew that what we now call the “Golden Age” of radio came to a close with that utterance. I don’t think anyone could have done it better.

Johnstone never again worked in broadcasting. He considered radio a “clean” business with honest people trying their best to provide great programming. He did not see television or movies in those terms so he did not want to participate in them. In his retirement, he and other old-time radio folks spent time making audio recordings for the blind.

Sitting room at the Mission Terrace Convalescent Hospital & Nursing Home where Jack died. Picture taken 2011.

Sitting room at the Mission Terrace Convalescent Hospital & Nursing Home where Jack died. Picture taken 2011.

1974

Johnstone moves to Santa Barbara, CA. [Sources for this date uncertain.]

1977

Now out of broadcasting altogether and living in Santa Barbara, CA, Jack and wife Anne divorce after 46 years of marriage.

1980

In retirement, Jack is named President, MacKenzie Park Lawn Bowls Club, Santa Barbara, CA. This is a recreational club promoting the sport of lawn bowling.

1991

In the spring, Johnstone, age 85, is diagnosed with cancer at a medical facility, Foundation Clinic a mile or two from his home in the Rancho Santa Barbara Mobile Home Park in Santa Barbara. In the autumn, he retires to the Mission Terrace Convalescent Hospital & Nursing Home, where he dies on November 16. His ashes are placed in the waters of the Santa Barbara Channel.

Requiescat in pace to a man with a heart and soul of radio. Thank you, Jack Johnstone.

Santa Barbara Channel as seen from the Santa Barbara Cemetery. Jack's ashes were placed in this body of water.

Santa Barbara Channel as seen from the Santa Barbara Cemetery. Jack’s ashes were placed in this body of water.

.

Just came across this image of Jack Johnstone and James Stewart going over a script. Credit to Charles & Erna Reinhart from their book, "Jimmy Stewart on the Air," published 2012 by BearManor Media, Albany, GA.

Just came across this image of Jack Johnstone and James Stewart going over a script. Credit to Charles & Erna Reinhart from their book, “Jimmy Stewart on the Air,” published 2012 by BearManor Media, Albany, GA.

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Responses

  1. And thank you Bill Tracy………….

  2. Thank you for the diligent work chronicling an important person.

  3. Thanks, Bill—Jack was my great granduncle, and I believe you’ve been in touch with my mother and aunt (Jack’s nieces), their cousins, and my older brother. I didn’t know anything about uncle Jack beyond the “Johnny Dollar” scripts he wrote and directed. I relocated from NYC to Philadelphia in the past year, so reading your blog is very much part of my “homecoming,” of sorts! Thank you for your meticulous research.

    e= Hart

  4. A fine article which informed the public and family of Jack. It is easy to realize much time was spent in research. I always enjoy reading your writing, blog or articles. Thanks.

  5. Thank you, Bill. I very much enjoyed this and have shared it with my fellow Columbia Square Alumni. I appreciate your time and effort.


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