Olsen and Johnson: Broadway’s Zanies – UA Library Entry, with David Soren

This collection contains material related to the career of Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson. It includes signed photographs, playbills, posters and sheet music from Hellzapoppin. It also includes correspondence between Frank Cullen and the daughter of Ole Olsen, Moya Olsen Lear, and his grandson, Stephen Ron Olsen.

Ole Olsen (born John Sigvard Olsen, 1892-1963) and Chic Johnson (born Harold Ogden Johnson, 1891-1962) were originally musical entertainers from the Midwest (Indiana and Illinois) where they met and worked together as band mates.

Ole Olsen was a violinist with a group called the College Four quartet when he hired ragtime piano player Chic Johnson and they soon became a vaudeville duo who became well-known in the midwest with a radio program that had a reputation for zaniness. Corny humor, old jokes and a rapid-fire approach led to appearances in movies and growing fame. Their particular brand of humor was known as “Nut Comedy” and had been pioneered in the 1910s by comedians such as Henry Lewis who became famous in the Broadway shows of Anna Held for singing songs with silly lyrics and acting ridiculous on-stage.

By summer of 1932 they were introduced on the Fleischmann Hour, a yeast-sponsored radio show associated with crooner and entrepreneur Rudy Vallee. Their crazy comedy interval was known as “The Padded Cell of the Air” and over radio they were interrupted by all sorts of noises, crazy situations, and nutty people while they kept calm and just muddled through it all as if it were normal.

In 1938 the revue Hellzapoppin hit Broadway and ran for 1404 performances over 3 years, an incredible smash hit. Full of the kind of horrible puns, lame jokes, and crazy carryings on that had marked the careers of this duo, the show proved a must-see in New York City and even spun off into a movie in 1941. For a time Olsen and Johnson were the most famous entertainment duo in America.

Olsen and Johnson were innovators in a number of ways in their radio and early vaudeville stints. They did away with the standard idea of a straight man and a comedian in a paired act. Instead each delivered the dialog which would be constantly interrupted by crazy happenings. Secondly, they took traditional comedic situations and stood them on their ear, so that a showy number on-stage featuring chorus girls might be interrupted by a bomb going off sending everyone scattering (not something we’d find so funny in today’s world), a singer might be cut off in mid song by people entering to do repair work on the set. And so on.

In the later 1930s this kind of entertainment became increasingly popular as it offered escape from the Great Depression and at the beginning of World War II nut comics of all kinds were growing in popularity: Martha Raye (who would later work with Olsen and Johnson), Cass Daley, Spike Jones and His City Slickers, to name a few. These comedians usually flailed about with exaggerated body movements, contorted faces and strange sounds. Olsen and Johnson, on the other hand, were the calm center of it all as the craziness raged all around them.

They also developed the idea of the audience plant or stooge to greater heights. This meant that massive interruptions to the show could occur right out of the audience and no longer was there simply a heckler there but there might be an entire brass band suddenly appearing and marching onto the stage.

Because the Hellzapoppin type comedy was best seen live on Broadway, it did not transfer so well to the movies. Furthermore, this kind of crazy comedy, so popular in the war years, seemed out of place after the war as the world situation briefly eased. In their later careers the duo were consequently less successful as comedic trends shifted a bit more to basic stand-up. Also, an Olsen and Johnson show seen on Broadway was a real three-dimensional experience happening in front of, beside and behind you whereas reducing it to a viewed movie or, worse, to a small television screen, took all of the excitement and freshness and immediacy out of it. And of course once viewed on television, a subsequent viewing of the mayhem only seemed repetitive and unfunny.

They did some television in 1949 and continued to perform in their own revues during the early 1950s in Las Vegas, where they eventually retired.

For a look at the typical Olsen and Johnson full frontal assault comedy style, also featuring Shemp Howard, later of the Three Stooges comedy team, see:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c2TOriWWSLE

The University of Arizona School of Anthropology Vaudeville Collection includes the following:

G’BYE NOW 1941 – by Olsen and Johnson, Jay Levison, Ray Evans. Cover OLSEN AND JOHNSON in NEW HELLZAPOPPIN’ OF 1941. Sheet music from the famous show.

Holdings of the Main Library Special Collections Include:

box folder

47 1 Correspondence

Letters from Moya Olsen Lear to Frank Cullen, 1995-1999

E-mail from Stephen Ron Olsen to Frank Cullen, 2002

47 2 Articles

The Milwaukee Journal – Screen and Radio, Sunday, July 23, 1944 (color original and photocopy)

“Olsen & Johnson, the zaniest of the zanies” by Charles Stumpf, Classic Images website, accessed Dec. 15, 1999

47 3 Publicity photographs, 1943Postcard, “Chic Johnson in Sons of Fun“, , photo by W. Eugene Smith (2 copies), 1941

47 4 Programs and sheet music

The Playbill for the Winter Garden (New York)

“Hellzapoppin”, beginning Monday, July 21, 1941

“Sons O’ Fun”, beginning Sunday, December 28, 1941

“Laffing Room Only”, beginning Sunday, June 24, 1945

Chicago Stage, 1945 (photocopy)

“Laffing Room Only” (souvenir flyer)

“Olsen & Johnson’s Sons o’ Fun”, souvenir program, ca. 1943

“Olsen & Johnson in Laffing Room Only”, souvenir program, ca. 1944

“Olsen and Johnson’s New Hellzapoppin of 1940”, souvenir program

“G’Bye Now, Olsen and Johnson’s New Hellzapoppin of 1941”, sheet music

“Souvenir program, Olsen and Johnson in Funzapoppin”, ca. 1949

47 5 Olsen & Johnson perpetual calendar, signed by Moya Olsen Lear, ca. 1999

“Hellzapoppin'” (modern reproduction of poster, for 1941 motion picture)

Name: Johnson | Olsen
Topics: Comedians