Monday, Jul. 11, 1949
The studio audience recoiled under a shower of dried beans and pin feathers; then a covey of dead quail and a stuffed cow flopped down onto the stage. There were shotgun blasts, scampering midgets, severed arms, proscenium-climbing cupids and baboons in full cry. Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson, the rowdiest, slap-happiest zanies in show business, had moved into Milton Berle's time spot (Tues. 8 p.m. E.D.T., NBC TV) with their first television show.
Family Act: The Buick-sponsored, hour-long uproar offered explosive fragments of an act the comics have been working on for 35 years. It grew from the first prop they ever used — a brass rail to support their vaudeville rendition of Sweet Adeline. Today, their hundreds of props fill three baggage cars, their cast of 90 includes 35 stooges. For all its size, the show is still essentially a family vaudeville act. Johnson's pretty daughter, June, and his son-in-law, Comic Marty May, have leading roles. So does deadpan Ole's deadpan son, J. C. Olsen. Johnson's wife and Olsen's mother used to be in the act and are still on call. "We're more laugh manufacturers than comedians," says Ole Olsen, 56. "Our gags are kind of living cartoons with spoken captions. We operate on the theory that people want fun, fun and more fun. Mister, you can't stand still. Even when we make mistakes we make them enthusiastically."
Two nights after their television premiere, Olsen & Johnson unveiled their new revue Funzapoppin before 8,700 people in Madison Square Garden. Next morning the gun-shy critics produced mixed notices. "A gargantuan honky-tonk," sniffed the Time's Brooks Atkinson. "Olsen & Johnson would be practically scriptless if the Chinese hadn't invented gunpowder," grumped the Herald Tribune. "A cheerful nightmare," said the World-Telegram. Actually, Olsen and Johnson seem to be criticproof. Funzapoppin's predecessor, Hellzapoppin, was disdained by almost every critic, yet it ran for more than three years on Broadway.
Into the Parlor: Last year Olsen & Johnson invaded Europe to satisfy a lifetime ambition to play in Scandinavia (Olsen is of Norwegian descent; Johnson, Swedish). They were so successful in London that the show never got to the Continent. One Hellzapoppin road company is still in England; another is touring New Zealand. Both men have invested their huge earnings (they grossed $227,000 in 16 nights in Chicago; $387,000 in 14 days in Toronto) in real estate and in such enterprises as a string of frozen-custard stands on Long Island and an ice-skating rink in California.
Though Olsen & Johnson did poorly on radio in the 1930's, they are confident about their TV future because "all our gags are ocular." The audience—under constant attack from live piglets, cakes of ice, skirt-blowers, chorus girls and clowns —has always been an integral part of their act. The comics have not yet quite solved the problem of framing their wide-ranging madhouse on TV's small screen. By using five television cameras (instead of the two or three used on most TV shows), Olsen & Johnson think they will be able to get the visual intimacy they need. Their only other problem, according to Chic Johnson: "We've got to figure a way of jumping out of the TV set and into people's parlors. It may take time but we'll do it."