John Sigvard "Ole" Olsen and Harold Ogden "Chic" Johnson were zany American comedians of vaudeville, radio, the Broadway stage, motion pictures and television. Their shows were noted for their crazy blackout gags and orchestrated mayhem ("anything can happen, and it probably will"). Their most famous concept, Hellzapoppin', has become show-business shorthand for freewheeling, anything-goes comedy; it enjoyed a lengthy run on Broadway and spawned a movie version.
Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson began as musical entertainers: Olsen played the violin and Johnson played ragtime piano. They met in 1914, when Olsen hired Johnson to replace the pianist in his College Four quartet. Ole and Chic hit it off immediately and joined forces for a vaudeville act. No joke was too old, no song too corny for Ole and Chic, and the two engaging comics became a minor sensation in the Midwest. Radio enlarged their audience and led to appearances in early talkie movies for Warner Bros. and two more minor features for Republic Pictures. The movies of the 1930s were much too confining for Olsen and Johnson's special brand of nut humor. Ole and Chic recited their lines and played off each other well, but their scripts were too formal, leaving the team little room for their nonsensical comedy. During the Summer of 1932, they were featured each week on NBC's Red Networks' Fleischmann's Yeast Hour. Based on surviving samples, Rudy (Vallee) did not interact with them on-air. The intense and fast paced segments were titled "The Padded Cell of the Air". It was a Presidential Election year: in one, they nominate Mickey Mouse for President. The "Padded Cell..." segments are clearly a predecessor of Hellzapoppin'.
Comedy teams traditionally had a straight man and a stooge. However, Olsen and Johnson both took on the comic role, goodnaturedly chuckling their way through the steady barrage of gunshots, explosions, props plummeting to earth, intrusions from other performers and input from the audience.
In 1938, they mounted their revue, Hellzapoppin'. Sophisticated Broadway audiences were unprepared for such chaos: stray props came out of nowhere; comic characters were planted in the audience and disrupted the action; Olsen and Johnson dashed on and off the stage in crazy costumes and indulged in cheerfully earthy humor; chorus girls lost their skirts, and vaudeville acts did their trick specialties. The show never played the same way twice. On some nights, songs would be pre-empted by jokes, and on others, songs would interrupt the jokes.
Olsen and Johnson in
In 1941, Universal Pictures decided to commit Hellzapoppin' to film, with plenty of crazy and sometimes innovative gags. A cab driver literally goes to hell, with Olsen and Johnson as his reluctant passengers. A serious song by Robert Paige and Jane Frazee is interrupted when a title card crashes on the screen, advising one Stinky Miller to go home. Man-chasing Martha Raye pursues Mischa Auer, who finds himself suddenly stripped down to his underwear and running a mock track meet. The film goes out of frame, and Olsen and Johnson try to correct the problem themselves. Despite Universal's insistence on a then-customary romance and a 'serious plot', somewhat diluting the Olsen and Johnson onslaught, Hellzapoppin' is still fresh and funny. Copyright issues involving the original stage production have forced the film version out of general circulation in the United States, although a European DVD has entered circulation.
Universal made three more comedies with the team. Crazy House (1943) had Olsen and Johnson running amok through the Universal studio and evacuating the staff, including Universal regulars Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, Johnny Mack Brown, and Andy Devine. In Ghost Catchers (1944), Ole and Chic help singer Gloria Jeanmake her Carnegie Hall debut, despite strange happenings in a spooky old house. See My Lawyer (1945) was a patchwork of vaudeville acts, with Olsen and Johnson noticeably absent from most of the proceedings. After completing this last film, Olsen and Johnson resumed their stage career, mounting variations of Hellzapoppin'.
Olsen and Johnson with comedianHarry Langdon
Although Olsen and Johnson were a leading act in vaudeville, their greatest achievement was their "legitimate theater" production of Hellzapoppin'. Assembled and produced by Olsen and Johnson, Hellzapoppin' opened at New York's 46th Street Theatre on September 22, 1938 and ran for 1,404 performances, transferring to the Winter Garden Theatre mid-run.
The show had its start in a revue called Monkey Business where the team began developing their signature style of observing and commenting on the lunacy taking place around them. The gags and comic premises were borrowed from classic variety entertainment, but Olsen and Johnson put an original spin on the material through their inspired improvisation in live performance.
Described as a rule-breaking exercise in hysteria, Hellzapoppin' was a comic amalgam of the best - or worst - of vaudeville and burlesque. It gloried in the broadest type of comedy, with no sketch too lowbrow to be included. Technically a musical because it included a score by lyricist Charles Tobias and composer Sammy Fain, it was best known for its crazy combination of comedy acts, which included clowns, midgets, animals, and an audacious mock newsreel making fun of Adolf Hitler. Stylistically, the show consistently broke the fourth wall utilizing shills, plants, and zany audience-participation gags. It also made heavy use of prop comedy including rubber snakes and breakaway pants.
Olsen and Johnson's shows were so popular that the team franchised them, with road companies headlining similar vaudeville acts and comedians. (The road company of Hellzapoppin' starred Jay C. Flippen and Happy Felton in the Olsen and Johnson roles.)
Later Broadway productions
In 1943 Olsen and Johnson returned to Broadway with a new revue, Sons O' Fun, which offered the same frenzied assortment of old gags and new songs. After this show had run its course, Olsen and Johnson mounted yet another variation on Hellzapoppin', this one titled Laffing Room Only (1944). Their final Broadway show was the 1950 production Pardon Our French, introducing their "discovery." French singer Denise Darcel. Unlike the previous Olsen and Johnson hits, Pardon Our French ran only three months, and closed on January 6, 1951.
In 1949 NBC Television hired Olsen and Johnson to star in an ambitious variety show, Fireball Fun for All. It was hard to adapt Olsen and Johnson's unpredictable, prop-laden humor to a rigid time slot. Surviving kinescopes of the expensive, short-lived show demonstrate just how hard everyone tried to recapture the old, large-scale Hellzapoppin' magic under the limitations of live television. At least the series reflected on the stars' achievement: they had now performed in every form of popular entertainment. The team tried TV again, appearing semi-regularly on NBC's All-Star Revue.Their last regular TV series was ABC's 1957 children's series, Popsicle Five Star Comedy. Seen Saturday evenings, the short-lived series also featured ventriloquists Paul Winchell and Senor Wences, and cartoonist-storyteller Bob Bean. (All-Star Revue is listed in "The Complete Encyclopedia of Television Programs: 1946 to 1979" by Vincent Terrance, published by Arlington House;Popsicle Five Star Comedy is referenced in "Children's Television: The First 35 Years: Live, Taped and Filmed Shows" by George Woolery, published by Scarecrow Press.)
Olsen and Johnson continued to preside over rowdy revues into the 1950s, mostly in Las Vegas. In the late 1950s illness forced Johnson to retire from the hectic show-business lifestyle, while Olsen continued to work as a solo performer. When Milton Berle was hosting NBC's Jackpot Bowling, Ole Olsen was on hand to play straight to Berle's antics. This was actually a surprise for Olsen, as his live comic routine was interrupted by Ralph Edwards and a This Is Your Life tribute. The flabbergasted Olsen greeted family and friends, with frequent breaks for time-honored O & J sight gags. The final guest was Chic Johnson, who ran on-camera in his familiar stage costume and joyfully reunited with his old friend and partner.
Johnson died in 1962; Olsen less than a year later. The two partners had always been close, and fittingly enough, their final resting places (in Las Vegas) are adjacent.
Olsen and Johnson's comedy style has often been imitated (most successfully by Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In) but never duplicated. Expo 67 in Montreal, Canada featured a stage presentation of Hellzapoppin, featuring comics Soupy Sales and Will B. Able; the show closed after only a few performances. A one-shot TV revival produced by ABC co-starred Jack Cassidy and Ronnie Schell. Jerry Lewis secured the stage rights and NBC planned to telecast his version of Hellzapoppin' live, in 1980. The show closed prematurely, however, and never aired on television.