Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar
The first several seasons imagined protagonist Johnny Dollar as a private investigator drama, with Charles Russell, Edmond O'Brien and John Lund portraying Dollar in succession over the years. In 1955 after a yearlong hiatus, the series came back in its best-known incarnation with Bob Bailey starring in "the transcribed adventures of the man with the action-packed expense account – America's fabulous freelance insurance investigator." There were 809 episodes (plus two not-for-broadcast auditions) in the 12-year run, and more than 710 still exist today. Jim Cox's book American Radio Networks: A History cites "886 total performances" which includes repeat performances.
The format best remembered was instituted by writer-director Jack Johnstone. Each case usually started with a phone call from an insurance adjuster, calling on Johnny to investigate an unusual claim: a suspicious death, an attempted fraud, a missing person, or other mysterious circumstances. Each story required Johnny to travel to some distant locale, usually within the United States but sometimes abroad, where he was almost always threatened with personal danger in the course of his investigations. He would compare notes with the police officials who had first investigated each strange occurrence, and followed every clue until he figured out what actually happened. Johnny's file on each case was usually referenced as a "matter," as in "The Silver Blue Matter" or "The Forbes Matter". Later episodes were more fanciful, with titles like "The Wayward Trout Matter" and "The Price of Fame Matter" (the latter featuring a rare guest-star appearance by Vincent Price as himself; here Price and Dollar team up to retrieve a painting stolen by Price's insurance agent).
Johnny usually stuck to business, but would sometimes engage in romantic dalliances with women he encountered in his travels; later episodes gave Johnny a steady girlfriend, Betty Lewis. Johnny's precious recreational time was usually spent fishing, and it was not uncommon for Johnny's clients to exploit this favorite pastime in convincing him to take on a job near good fishing locations. His past was rarely mentioned, but Dollar in “The Bennett Matter” described himself as a four-year US Marine veteran who then worked as a police officer for a decade before changing careers to insurance investigation. In "The Blackburn Case" Dollar also refers to his time as a Pinkerton Detective.
Each story was recounted in flashback, and every few minutes the action would be interrupted by Johnny listing a line item from his expense account, which served as an effective scene transition. Most of the expense account related to transportation, lodging, and meals, but no incidental expense was too small for Johnny to itemize, as in "Item nine, 10 cents. Aspirin. I needed them." The monetary amounts weren't always literal: the smallest line item Johnny ever recorded was "two cents: what I felt like" after a professional setback; the largest was "one million dollars" (the way he felt after finding a missing woman and her daughter in a snowbound cabin). The episodes generally finished with Johnny tallying up his expense account and traveling back to Hartford, Connecticut, where he was based. Sometimes Johnny would add a sardonic postscript under "Remarks," detailing the aftermath of the case. ("The Todd Matter," which especially disgusted Johnny, ended abruptly with "Remarks – nil!")
In later seasons the program sometimes referred to itself, with other characters recognizing Dollar's voice from the radio; in the episode “The Salkoff Sequel Matter” Johnny’s radio show becomes an important plot point.
As originally conceived, Johnny Dollar was a smart, tough, wisecracking detective who tossed silver-dollar tips to waiters and bellhops. Dick Powell starred in the audition show, recorded in 1948, but withdrew from the role in favor of other detective programs, Rogue's Gallery and Richard Diamond, Private Detective. The Johnny Dollar role went instead to Charles Russell. The show for which Powell auditioned was originally titled Yours Truly, Lloyd London, although the name of the show and its lead character were changed to avoid legal problems with the actual insurance company, Lloyd's of London, before the audition tape of December 7, 1948, was recorded.
With the first three actors to play Johnny Dollar – radio actor Russell and movie tough-guy actors Edmond O'Brien and John Lund – there was little to distinguish Johnny Dollar from other detective series at the time (Richard Diamond, Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade). While always a friend of the police, Johnny wasn't necessarily a stickler for the strictest interpretation of the law. He was willing to let some things slide to satisfy his own sense of justice, as long as the interests of his employer were also protected. The series ended in September 1954.
CBS Radio revived Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar in October 1955 with a new leading man, a new director, and a new format. The program changed from a 30-minute, one-episode-per-week program to a 15-minute, five-nights-a-week serial (Monday through Friday, 8–8:15 pm EST) produced and directed by radio veteran Jack Johnstone. The new Johnny Dollar was Bob Bailey, who had just come off another network detective series, Let George Do It. With a new lead and 75 minutes of air time each week, it became possible to develop each storyline with more detail and with more characters. Almost all of the Johnny Dollar serials were presented by CBS Radio on a sustaining basis (unsponsored, with no commercials); only two of the 55 serials take time out for a sponsor's message.
Bob Bailey was exceptionally good in this format, making Johnny more sensitive and thoughtful in addition to his other attributes. Vintage-radio enthusiasts often endorse Bailey as the best of the Johnny Dollars, and consider the 13-month run of five-part stories to be some of the greatest drama in radio history. The serial scripts were usually written by Johnstone, "John Dawson" (a pseudonym for E. Jack Neuman), Les Crutchfield, or Robert Ryf. Blake Edwards also contributed several scripts and the show was always produced and directed by Johnstone. The show featured a stock company of supporting actors, including Virginia Gregg, Harry Bartell, Vic Perrin, Lawrence Dobkin, Stacy Harris, Parley Baer, Howard McNear, John Dehner, Barney Phillips, Lillian Buyeff, Tony Barrett, Don Diamond, Alan Reed, and Forrest Lewis. Movie character actors appeared occasionally, including Jay Novello, Hans Conried, Frank Nelson, Leon Belasco, William Conrad, Edgar Barrier, Gloria Blondell, and Billy Halop.
In late 1956, CBS Radio retooled the show, which reverted to a weekly half-hour drama, airing on late Sunday afternoons. Bob Bailey continued in the leading role until 1960 and wrote one episode, "The Carmen Kringle Matter," under his first and middle names (Robert Bainter).
Roy Rowan was the announcer for the first two years of Bob Bailey's run; he also was an announcer on CBS's I Love Lucy. Rowan was succeeded by staff announcer Dan Cubberly.
Changes at CBS
CBS Radio tried to institute an economy measure in June 1959: its four remaining dramatic series (Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar; Suspense; Gunsmoke starring William Conrad; and Have Gun, Will Travel starring John Dehner) would be moved from Hollywood to New York. The plan met with some resistance, because the cast members and crews of Gunsmoke and Have Gun, Will Travel were willing to cancel the shows themselves rather than move to New York. The situation was stalemated for 17 months, as all four programs remained on the air. Finally, in November 1960, CBS Radio kept Gunsmoke in California, discontinued Have Gun, Will Travel, and moved Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar and Suspense to New York. Bob Bailey, unwilling to relocate, gave up the Johnny Dollar role. Bailey's last performance, aired November 27, 1960, was in a script titled "The Empty Threat Matter," perhaps writer Johnstone's editorial comment on CBS's intention to shut down production in California.
In New York, CBS staff producer Bruno Zirato, Jr. (who also directed TV game shows for CBS) took over Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar, although Johnstone continued to write the scripts. Former child actor Bob Readick took over the leading role in a manner reminiscent of the original Dollar, Charles Russell. After six months he was replaced by Mandel Kramer, who gave the role his own low-key interpretation. Many fans found Mandel Kramer second only to Bailey as the most effective Johnny Dollar. Both Readick and Kramer were members of CBS's stock company in New York, and both appeared in other CBS dramas.
The final episodes of Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar and Suspense, airing on CBS, are often cited as the end of the golden age of radio. The last episode of Johnny Dollar, "The Tip-Off Matter", ended at 6:35 pm. Eastern Time on September 30, 1962, followed immediately by the final broadcast of Suspense.
Although network radio drama returned to the airwaves – in ABC's Theater Five (1964–65), and CBS Radio Mystery Theater (1974–82) – these were more experimental "drama workshop" shows, and did not adhere to a continuing format or leading character, albeit the latter did spark a bit of a revival of drama on US commercial radio networks in the 1970s. The "Golden Age" of radio drama, as pioneered in the 1920s, died with Johnny Dollar in 1962.
Three unsuccessful attempts were made to transfer the success of Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar to television. Charles Russell starred in a 1949 pilot directed by Ralph Levy, Bob Bailey starred in a 1958 pilot entitled The Adventures of Johnny Dollar (which failed because Bailey's 5-foot 9-inch, 150-pound physique didn't match the tough-guy characterization), and William Bryant starred in a 1962 pilot entitled Johnny Dollar. The latter was written, produced, and directed by Blake Edwards.
Actors who portrayed Dollar
- Dick Powell (Audition show in 1948)
- Charles Russell (February 1949 – January 1950)
- Edmond O'Brien (February 1950 – September 1952)
- John Lund (November 1952 – September 1954)
- Gerald Mohr (Audition show in 1955)
- Bob Bailey (October 1955 – November 1960)
- Bob Readick (December 1960 – June 1961)
- Mandel Kramer (June 1961 – September 1962)
Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar was so familiar to CBS Radio's listeners that the network's resident comedians, Bob and Ray, occasionally satirized it. Their version, "Ace Willoughby, International Detective," followed the Johnny Dollar format of exotic locales, continental officials, cool villains, and tense confrontations, with Ray Goulding doing a letter-perfect imitation of Bob Bailey's delivery. In the comedy version, however, the detective usually gave up on the case after being beaten up incessantly.
Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar was a popular weekly radio mystery play in the 1960s and early 1970s on Radio Iran. The role of Johnny Dollar was played by Heidar Saremi, a popular radio performer. Contrary to the original, Johnny Dollar was more of a criminal investigator. At the end of each episode, the narrator asked the radio audience how Johnny found the perpetrators, making the show a mystery quiz as well as a drama; those who guessed correctly were entered into a raffle for a prize.
In the 1970s and 1980s the comedy troupe The Firesign Theatre released a number of satirical record albums; several featured spoofs of old-time radio featuring the character Nick Danger, Third Eye, who was loosely based on Sam Spade and Johnny Dollar. The scripts included inside references to radio with lines such as, "It had been snowing in Santa Barbara ever since the top of the page," and riffs on radio sound effects.
The show has been the opening item on The Big Broadcast on WAMU in Washington, D.C. since the early 1990s.
As of August 2017, the show is being aired several times a day on KTQA FM 95.3 in Tacoma, WA and CHLU FM in Middle LaHave, Nova Scotia, Canada.
As of August 2021, the SiriusXM satellite radio network is airing some episodes of the show on its "Radio Classics" channel 148. Citation missing (it had been airing on Radio Classics on Sirius XM much longer than that).
As of February 2019, a documentary about the program, Last Man Standing – Johnny Dollar & the End of Old-Time Radio, has been produced.
- “Programs on the Air”. The New York Times. 18 February 1949. Listed as "Premiere".
- Sterling, Christopher H.; O'Dell, Cary (2010). The Concise Encyclopedia of American Radio. Routledge. p. 891. ISBN 978-1135176846. Retrieved 31 August 2016.
- Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar Log Otrsite.com. Retrieved 18 February 2020.
- Cox, Jim (2009). American Radio Networks: A History. McFarland. p. 164. ISBN 978-0786454242. Retrieved 31 August 2016.
- Episode 4 of "The Bennett Matter", broadcast February 23, 1956
- "More Mystery". The Kokomo Tribune. Kokomo, IN. February 15, 1949. p. 22. Retrieved August 30, 2016 – via Newspapers.com.
- Old Time Radio Researchers Group. "Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar – Single Episodes". Retrieved 25 March 2018 – via Internet Archive.
- Dunning, John (1998). On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio (Revised ed.). New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 741–743. ISBN 978-0-19-507678-3. Retrieved 2019-11-07.
742 Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar Bailey walked into a serial format that compared to the old show had the breath of life.
- Television Digest, June 22, 1959
- Radio historian Art Chimes, in an NPR Commentary on the 40th anniversary of those final broadcasts, includes a very brief excerpt from the final Johnny Dollar episode.
- Terrace, Vincent (2013). Encyclopedia of Television Pilots, 1937–2012. McFarland. p. 149. ISBN 978-0786474455. Retrieved 31 August 2016.
- "Johnny Dollar & the Last Days of Old-Time Radio". Retrieved 18 February 2020.