On the Set with…Olsen and Johnson

The kingdom ruled by the comedy team of Olsen and Johnson was Broadway, not the movie studio. From the 1920s through the 1950s, Ole Olsen (on the right) and Chic Johnson starred in hit musical comedy revues season after season. The nine films they made from 1930 to 1945 were a sideline to increase their theatrical appeal – “see movie stars live on stage” – but they only hit their stride in films at Universal in 1941 with HELLZAPOPPIN, adapted from their Broadway show that ran for over 1400 performances!

Both men were professional musicians, Ole played the violin and Chic the piano. They met in 1912 when Olsen needed a ragtime pianist for his band and an amazing chemistry soon developed. Their musical training gave them a fine sense of comic timing. For example, they appear to both speak at the same time but, oddly, they never interrupted each other. Another quality that set them apart from other comedy teams – they were both the comedian and there was no straight man.

The team’s freewheeling style was somewhat straitjacketed in their earlier films such GOLD DUST GERTIE (1931) with Winnie Lightner:

I’m a big fan of Laurel and Hardy, and Abbott and Costello too, but I must admit that Olsen and Johnson are the only team that can make me laugh just by looking at their photo. Below, they seem to enjoy checking film footage on the set of HELLZAPOPPIN at Universal:

After another three-year run on Broadway in SONS O’FUN, Universal welcomed back the team with three more films: CRAZY HOUSE (1943), GHOST CATCHERS (1944), and SEE MY LAWYER (1945).
Silent film comedian Harry Langdon visits the boys at Ole Olsen’s 4-40 Club in New York, circa 1942. Whatever Langdon is saying, Ole doesn’t seem to be buying it as he flashes a reaction to Chic:

Olsen and Johnson performing at the Chicago Stadium celebrate Ole’s birthday on November 6, 1952, with a local Boy Scout troop in attendance. The lady in roller skates is Nancy Lee Parker, three time National Women’s Figure Skating Champion. Honestly, these guys look like they were a lot of fun:

In 1959, Ole and Chic are still going strong after 45 years together as they both near 70, outlasting Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, and even Martin and Lewis. Here they star in HELLZ-A-SPLASHIN’, at the Aqua Amphitheater in Flushing Meadows, New York, with Esther Williams, who knew a few things about swimming:

Olsen and Johnson were more than a successful comedy team throughout the decades. They were also such close friends that their widows agreed to inter them next to each other. I don’t believe that any other comedy team is buried together, not even when they were relatives such as the Marx Brothers.

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  1. I remember going to see “Hells a Splashin” with my parents when I was a kid. Those guys were as fun in person as they looked. Lot’s of gags, even into the audience. I remember they had a woman, who walked around looking like a bag lady, trying to pick up men. She came over to me and took me by the hand and walked down to the stage with me. Great memory! I wish I still had the program, I got all their autographs.

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