This story was published in Radio Recall, the journal of the Metropolitan Washington Old-Time Radio Club, published six times per year.
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THE JACK JOHNSTONE MATTER:
The Improbable Case of a Public Enigma
by Bill Tracy © 2011
(From Radio Recall, June 2011)
I think some people are meant to hear more than to see. Sometimes a blessing, sometimes a curse, I hear things. While listening to old time radio shows the past few years what I was hearing seemed at first just too improbable to be true. Could a big shot Hollywood writer/director/producer really be pining away for the farmlands and salt marshes of southern New Jersey? Was he really writing his love for New Jersey peaches into his scripts? Can you spend the morning giving direction to Jimmy Stuart, then write the following words to describe one of your radio characters traveling from Philadelphia into south Jersey?
“I crossed the Delaware River Bridge and finally picked up Route 47 for the 35-mile drive down to Vineland. Flat country this, with plenty of beautiful trees and rich farmland, and occasional cranberry bogs. The soft smell of ripening peaches greeted me from the vast orchards I passed. It was all very pleasant.”
That sounds a bit like nostalgia to me; as I said, I hear things. Next you coach Marilyn Monroe through her first radio performance and go back to your office to write a story set in Ong’s Hat, New Jersey? Ong’s Hat? For those who didn’t grow up in the southern half of the Garden State, Ong’s Hat is a sort of inside joke around the insular pine barrens country. A real place, sure, but who could believe it?
Could this Hollywood bigwig, a man named Jack Johnstone, be just a south Jersey farm boy who grew sweet potatoes and picked peaches? Born there, perhaps? Grew up on the farm before finding his way to Hollywood? I decided I had to find out. Turns out, that wasn’t so easy to do. In many ways, Jack Johnstone is a public enigma. Before long I felt like a detective in one of those old mystery dramas. Where was Johnny Dollar when I needed him?
The basic Internet search doesn’t tell you much about Jack Johnstone. He shows up in New York City writing, directing and producing for some of the first radio dramas – Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, for instance as early as 1932. He wrote scripts for and helped develop the original The Adventures of Superman radio program. By 1950. Johnstone is directing Hollywood Star Playhouse – introducing Marilyn Monroe to radio drama and moving Jimmy Stuart into a new and different style of thoughtful western, The Six Shooter. While that show lasted only one year I suspect it may have been inspired by the tremendously popular, Gunsmoke.
In 1950, Johnstone was the director and narrator of a show any viewer of television’s America’s Most Wanted would recognize today. Called Somebody Knows, the show recounted details of unsolved murders and offered a $5000 reward to the person who could came forward with the information that would convict the killer.
I first encounter Jack Johnstone listening to the Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar radio program. He takes over as show producer in 1955. As a radio veteran he writes, directs and produces most of the episodes.
I’ve been listening to these recordings for 30 years. Recently however, as I listen I keep hearing the Philadelphia and southern New Jersey area showing up. I grew up in south Jersey, and I know these places. I know Route 47. I know the towns of Vineland, Millville, Woodbine, Malaga, Fortescue, Pemberton, and yes even Ong’s Hat. Those, and more, are settings developed by Johnstone in his scripts. So I determined to find out who this Jack Johnstone fellow really was. An inventive mind. Jack Johnstone, an enthusiastic fisherman, invented and patented a fish hook around 1950.
It didn’t take long to find out he was born in 1906, and he died in 1991 in Santa Barbara, California. But where was he born? What did he do between 1906 and his emergence as a radio drama pioneer producer? Also, after the Johnny Dollar show ended in September, 1962, Johnstone disappears. For the next 29 years, until his obituary appears in 1991, he’s the invisible man. Well, invisible to me anyway. While it looked like a dead end, I knew Johnny Dollar would never give up on this one.
My first “break in the case” came when I discovered Donna Halper. She’s a radio consultant and historian, author of several books, most notably, Invisible Stars: A Social History of Women in American Broadcasting. I asked if she knew anything about Jack Johnstone. She didn’t, but said she’d do some research. A couple of days later she had found a piece published in the May 7, 1950 Trenton Evening Times. Her summary follows:
Born in Vineland NJ, briefly attended Rutgers but dropped out and worked in the mental health field before entering radio circa 1931 (some sources say 1932). Had originally planned to be a journalist, but ended up free-lancing for radio, doing commercials and then got involved with the “Buck Rogers” series, and became a full-time radio producer and writer. Married to a woman named Anne (Schumann), 2 kids (Toni and Bonnie). In 1950, he and his family were living in Westwood Calif. (All of this comes from the Trenton (NJ) Evening Times, 7 May 1950, p. 15). I scoured newspapers from all sorts of databases– very little about his personal life, but I hope this at least gives you a lead or two.
So, the improbable was true. The big-time radio guy producing some of radio’s best drama was born and raised among the peach orchards and farm fields of south Jersey. But there was a lot more to know about this public enigma, and I had a big surprise in store.
Donna Halper provided a calling card for a real detective, Jack French. He is one of most helpful and knowledgeable people in the “old time radio” world and the author of one of the best titled books I’ve ever come across, Private Eyelashes – Radio’s Lady Detectives. It won the 2005 Agatha Award for best non-fiction book. As a retired FBI agent, Jack has some contacts and he was willing to share one with me. Like all good cops, this informant is kept confidential, but the information is revealing.
First, Johnstone only used “Jack” as a professional name, making research rather more difficult for me. His real name was Earl Ransom Johnstone. This Jack, it turns out, was not only a south Jersey kid, but son of Edward R. Johnstone, who was a world-renowned leader in the care of developmentally disabled people and had schools and institutions named after him.
So, turns out Jack was famous (or as famous as radio producers can be) and his father also was famous. Yet in 1962, at age 56, Jack Johnstone simply walks away and “retires.” This man with so much talent and energy, known and respected in the entertainment world, a man who could have easily worked in television or film, this grand success story from south Jersey, he rides off into the sunset. I had learned that Jack was an enthusiastic fisherman, but nobody can spend all his time fishing.
For the next 29 years, until his death notice in 1991, there is nothing public or published about Jack Johnstone. For me, this was the next improbable mystery. How, and why, could Jack Johnstone vanish like the aroma of a warm apple pie in cold deep space? From a public standpoint, his life was a dark void. I had a “hunch” there was a lot more to the story.
That’s when I called on Johnny Dollar – or at least the world’s leading authority on Johnny Dollar. John Abbott has created an extraordinary three-volume work on the Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar radio program. The “Who Is Johnny Dollar?” Matter researches every script ever written for the program. It can tell you every girlfriend, every hotel used, every bad guy “tagged,” and every dollar spent and recovered on behalf of clients.
As for Jack Johnstone, program producer from 1955 to 1962, there is nothing after 1962. However, again like a good detective, Abbott has confidential informants. He contacted some and a picture has now begun to emerge. My own sense is that Jack wanted to live quietly and anonymously, and he seems to have accomplished that.
After Johnny Dollar, Jack Johnstone was tempted by offers from television, no surprise there. But he is said to have thought television was a dirty and nasty business and he wanted nothing to do with it. He moved less than 100 miles up the California coast to the pleasant seaside town of Santa Barbara. In 1962, that would have created a good buffer for him. I’ve recently driven between Santa Barbara and Los Angeles, and as far as I can tell it’s now just one great megalopolis. His 46-year marriage to Anna ended in divorce in 1977. From there Jack apparently spent the rest of his life living quietly in what is now the San Vicente Mobile Home Park a couple of miles from the ocean.
One of Abbott’s informants sent word that the Santa Barbara Jack Johnstone had been involved in organized lawn bowling. A little research on my own turned him up in the MacKenzie Park Lawn Bowls Club. Not only was he a member for many years, he assumed the presidency one year near the end of his life. So, my “hunch” was right; you can’t keep a good man down. He may have walked away from entertainment, but he rose to the top of the political end of the lawn bowling club where he socialized!
I spoke with Ray Stone who created a history book for the MacKenzie Park Club. Jack has been gone 20 years now, and there seems to be no one there who remembers him. (Although I’m not familiar with the lawn bowling world, it seems to attract a mature clientele.) I spoke with one man who remembers Jack by name but not much else, and I’m guessing that’s the common refrain among anyone old enough to have been there when Jack was.
For me, one of the most intriguing tidbits from Abbott informants was that Jack Johnstone spent time making audio recordings for the blind. That explains his obituary request for donations to the Recordings for the Blind organization in Santa Barbara. A man who had spent over 30 years creating images for the mind through radio continued to provide those images in a much more intimate way. As I said, I think there are people who are meant to hear more than see. Maybe Jack was one of us.
The post-1962 Jack Johnstone picture is developing, but it has a long way to go. I plan to keep cultivating confidential informants and anyone else who has information. So, if you know anything, I’m going to keep working on this. Jack Johnstone left quite a legacy in entertainment, and I believe he deserves recognition. For those of us with ears to hear, he has a reserved spot in our hearts.
For more info, including photos, go to: http://deadreckoning1.wordpress.com/2011/05/14/the-johnstone-matter-the-improbable-case-of-a-public-enigma/
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Bill Tracy is a prisoner of time currently enjoying Mark Twain country in Calaveras County, CA. Old time radio gives him a temporary time-travel pass. When in the 21st Century, he gets email at firstname.lastname@example.org