Thursday, March 17, 2011

Whatever happened to John Brown?

My good friend, "Boston Blackie" and I explore the mystery of John Brown.

Jimbo: John Brown was a superb character actor and occasional star of radio (he starred on Damon Runyon Theater.) It's not known exactly how much radio he did but it's close to the amount of radio done by William Conrad, I would assume.

For some reason - there is no Wikipedia page for him and there's very little information about his background of anything or that sort.

Boston Blackie:  On one of my morning walks I was thinking about John Brown.  His voice is very distinctive but he was not.  Most everyone remembers Elliot Lewis or William Conrad, but John Brown mainly goes unnoticed. 

When I think of OTR I do think of My Friend Irma and ‘Al.’  Al of course was portrayed by John Brown.  His phrase “Joe, (this is ) Al, got a problem.”  That line is very memorable and part of OTR lore.  The funny thing is that I remember that from my youth, not William Conrad or Elliot Lewis. 

Most people who listen to OTR recognize his voice.  You find him appearing in Life of Riley, Ozzie and Harriet and Damon Runyon Theater.  In addition to these there a thousand of other shows where he plays either a supporting role or bit role. 

Today many people are hooked on OTR and I am glad that they are.  Most people today will know who William Conrad is and the many shows he was on.    He certainly deserves recognition for his work and he gets his due.  Same could be said for Elliot Lewis.  Not only was he a fine actor, but, a great producer as well.  These two you will find information about all over the Internet. 

What I find interesting is that hardly any kind of information can be found on John Brown.  You can hardly find a picture of him.  I did not find one.  Why not?  It is only on your blog I finally found some.  According to you, it took much extensive research.  One can find out information about William Conrad or Elliot Lewis, no such luck with Brown.   After much looking I found this article on McCarthy’s black lists and there was John Brown.  That was the last I ever found or saw of him.  I notice Ralph Bell on that list as well.  I am familiar with him in many gangster type shows.  Himan Brown another active old time radio star played on many shows was also on the list.

So, what happened to Brown?  When did he die?  Was he convicted of something?  Did he just disappear into society to go hiding.  I have no idea.

Jimbo:  Brown was a veteran character actor who acted in thousands of radio dramas and comedies.  Besides those you listed, he was a member of Fred Allen's show and was also a part of the famous Allen's Alley.  Though I have never heard it, I've read that he was popular in the 1930's on a show called Roses and Drums (purported to be the first drama for radio.)  There is little information about this show.

Brown was a huge figure in radio in the 1930's-1950.  And as I researcher, I can tell you that it should relatively easy to find out a lot about someone who had that kind of life span in radio.

But the contrary is true.  I won't go as far as to say that his name has been wiped from history -- but either very little was written about him over time or the majority of things that were written about him aren't available to view on the Internet.  Has he has been "wiped" away with the stroke of the Joseph McCarthy pen?  It's just hard to understand how someone with that kind of radio history can only have 10 or so photographs on the Internet.

To answer one of your questions, we do know he died in 1957.

John Brown
Boston Blackie:  I did not know he was on the Fred Allen show.  It is probably not a surprise as I do not listen to that show as it is not one of my favorites.  It is interesting that he is not as recognized on the Internet as other old time radio actors are.  The character Digger O'Dell is well known by old time radio buffs.  You would have thought that alone would have motivated someone to create a Wikipedia page for him.  The possible McCarthy accusations could have some influence here.   I do not know if he was ever proven to have had Communist connections.  I am leaning he did not but why the omission from a Wikipedia page?  We also know that Himan Brown and Ralph Bell came back to surface on CBS Mystery Theater series. 

Jimbo:  Well, considering he died in 1957, he probably didn't have time to "bounce back" after the accusations, true or not true.

It's just a sad case that in this day of the Internet and of information, there is so little known about him.  Was he married?  Where did he live?  There's a rumor he was born in England,but do we know this to be true?  We may never know these things about him.  And he's probably the 2nd most-prolific actor in the history of radio.  It's a shame.

Boston Blackie:  I guess being on the blacklist does make one stop to think if that had any influence of his quick disappearance from the public view.  Speculation alone does not explain what happened.

There are too many unanswered questions about his life.  This type of information is so readily available on other actors or actresses of the day.  It is curious as to why his is so void of information.  I suppose some of it might be due to his death in the 50s.  That can only explain very little of it.  Where is his family and relatives?  Why are they so silent?  How about some of the people he worked with and why have they not said anything about him?  Without information, one becomes more suspicious that something is being hidden.  But, what?

Jimbo: Brown is someone I really admire as an actor. Sadly, he probably will not "go down in history" like a William Conrad or a Parley Baer.  Information that's lost or wiped away can probably never be replaced.   And unless we do something about it - those who appreciate his work - it will be as though he really never existed.

©Jimbo 2010/2011


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  2. Probably the easiest place to see John Brown is on an early (season 1) episode of I LOVE LUCY titled "Ricky's Moustache." He plays an agent for whom Ricky wants to audition for a movie role.

  3. Thanks so much for this spot about John Brown. Truly he was one of the outstanding radio actors and deserved more recognition than he got.

  4. I was watching the tv version of Ozzie & Harriet, and thought how much more I had enjoyed the radio show because of John Brown. I enjoyed the radio shows - My friend Irma and Life of Riley and always enjoyed hearing John Brown's voice on those shows as well, his voice definitely had personality

  5. I only know him from Runyon, but - that voice!


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