The Endurance of Johnny Dollar and Sherlock Holmes

This is the first article that’s based on a listener/reader question. Wben I was soliciting questions for starting this column on Facebook, Matthew wrote:

How about a study on why Johnny dollar and Sherlock Holmes lasted as long as they did while others shows didn’t.

There were other shows that lasted as long or longer than these two programs such as Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons (1937-55), Nick Carter (1943-55), and Mr. and Mrs. North (1942-54), but there’s no question that  Johnny Dollar (1949-54, 1955-62) and Sherlock Holmes (1930-36, 1939-42, 1943-50) carved out a spot for themselves in America’s golden age of radio that was unique and worth examining.

The glut  of radio detective shows came to air from about 1947-51. The success of Rogue’s Gallery and Sam Spade had convinced network executives that there was a market for more detectives, particularly of the hard boiled sort. While some shows were poorly made (ABC’s Danger, Dr. Granger and The Deadline Mysteries) stand out, there were many well-produced shows that got lost in a flood of similar shows. And after the early 50s, the growth of television made it impossible to launch an even well-produced shows like the Adventures of the Abbotts for more than a season.

Sherlock Holmes and Johnny Dollar are separate cases of shows that survived the glut of radio detectives and decline of radio respectively. So, let us begin with what kept Sherlock Holmes on the radio:

1) There’s Only One Sherlock Holmes

The pure number of radio shows hitting the airwaves could not compete for Sherlock Holmes’ audience. Americans had already developed a fond admiration for Holmes.  There have been countless adaptations in every imaginable media. The demand for Sherlock Holmes is and was inexhaustable. Therefore, if one network or one sponsor decided they were no longer interested, someone else would step up as they knew there was an audience.

2) Rathbone and Bruce

 While Nigel Bruce was only connected with Sherlock Holmes for seven seasons and Basil Rathbone for six, their role in securing the current and future popularity of Holmes  cannot be overstated. They were popular and well-beloved with the American people to make listening to Sherlock Holmes a radio tradition than anyone else.

3) A More Leisurely Pace

One reason that radio detective shows burned out is that the vast majority of them were year-round operations. While comedians such as Bob Hope and Jack Benny always took Summer break, radio private eyes had 52 scripts a year to perform and writers had to come up with 52 different mysteries. It was easy for actors and writers alike to run out of creative juice.  Even when a detective show did take a Summer break, it was often abbreviated, such as the 4 week Summer Break Edmond O’Brien took from Yours Truly Johnny Dollar in 1950.

With the exception of the torrid 106-week period of 1943-45 that had Rathbone and Bruce appearing every week, the show had shorter seasons. Those prior to the Rathbone-Bruce pairing ran for less than 40 weeks each, the first three Rathbone-Bruce seasons were between 23-26 episodes each, and after the marathon 1943-44 and 1944-45 seasons, all subsequent Holmes seasons were 39 episodes each, giving the writers and Holmes-Watson pair 13 weeks of vacation.

Johnny Dollar:

1) Standing Out From the Crowd:

Like Holmes, the Johnny Dollar productions had something unique going for them. First, was the unique concept of focusing on an insurance investigator. While countless detectives would occasionally be hired by an insurance company, Johnny Dollar was the only network-based detective show which featured a character who specialized in insurance investigations (the syndicated Adventures of Frank Race did as well.)

Dollar was not a typical private detective with a typical relationship with the local homicide squad who was often politely (or not so politely) asked to keep his nose out of police business. Rather,  nine times out of ten, Dollar was treated with respect as someone with an official status and a right to be in on the case.

In the second half of the show’s life under producer Jack Johnstone, there was far less competition in the detective area. While a few shows (NBC’s The Big Guy and Mutual’s It’s a Crime, Mr. Collins come to mind) ran for one season each, for the most part Johnny Dollar was the only place in town for a radio detective story from 1955 on.

2) Have Expense Account, Will Travel

While most detectives were more or less stuck in one location. Dollar could easily end up jetting anywhere in the world on his cases, which gave his adventures an exotic feel. You never knew where he’d end up. His investigations could take Johnny Dollar to steel plant, down to Mexico, over near Palestine, over to England, or just down the street from his apartment in Hartford.

3) Adaptability

Johnny Dollar survived because the show adapted and changed. The original run of Johnny Dollar had Dollar as a poor man’s Sam Spade. The change to Edmond O’Brien brought a more Malowesque pathos and world-weariness.  The popularity of Dragnet spurred the show to have many episodes that were practically police procedurals. The ability to roll with the punches kept the show going while other programs went down for the count.

4) Bob Bailey and Jack Johnstone

Bob Bailey had put in at least six seasons playing a private eye in Let George Do It and was the perfect choice to revive the series after its one year hiatus. Bailey’s performance was the perfect mix of compassion, tenderness, and toughness that allowed Johnny Dollar to gain a new lease on life, while other detectives faltered.

Jack Johnstone, a veteran of Superman and the Man Called X made a show that was just as exciting for adults as Superman had been for kids. Under Johnstone, the character of Johnny Dollar began to take shape. Johnny developed a favorite hobby (fishing), a couple recurring characters including a girlfriend in the 1960 season. Some of the recurring characters Johnny dealt with included the various insurance company executives who would call on Johnny. Previous shows never re-used the same executive twice, but Johnstone not only reused insurance company men, but gave them distinct personalities. The best known of these was Pat McCracken of the Universal Adjustment Bureau. Johnstone made Johnny more realistic and three dimensional than most of his predecessors. This is why his interpretation of Johnny Dollar is still beloved more than 50 years later.

If you have an idea for a future column, email me.

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