My Brush with Van Johnson

By Karen

Reading that actor Van Johnson passed away at age 92 sent me digging for an old theater program, some newspaper clippings, and my journal chronicling the night he played Richmond, Virginia.

It was December 15, 1987. He appeared for a week at the Carpenter Center in a locally written play called The Twelve Dreams of Christmas. I was there and wrote:

The play was horrible. Van Johnson was too virile. He said later his part should have been played by Captain Kangaroo.

I got to go to a reception afterward. Johnson came in and stood near me, but didn’t notice me. He affably shook everyone’s hand, but only stayed 10-15 minutes.

I captured him eating a ticket to the bad play.

I captured him eating a ticket to the bad play.

I’d just seen him in State of the Union and hung back, star-struck, thinking of all the greats he’d known (Tracy and Hepburn, Gene Kelly, Humphrey Bogart).

For 71, he was extremely fit and healthy – even sexy. I was never a great fan, but I am now. I wonder what gives certain people such magic?

He was a true professional toward the other actors, particularly his co-star, Victoria Mallory, who got all the attention. My heart really went out to Van because of the lousy play, lousy microphone, and his lousy part. He handled it all with dignity, and even told an interviewer before the show opened that the script was “beautiful.”

Johnson wasn' too bad for 71

Johnson wasn' too bad for 71

The local papers panned the play. How Van Johnson got involved in such a train wreck is a mystery, except maybe he still wanted to work and had to say yes to anything.

I still stop and watch two of his movies any time I catch them on TV: Brigadoon and The Caine Mutiny.

As the stars of Hollywood’s heyday disappear, few of the current crop seem able to replace them. The studio system gave us personalities larger than life, and actors today just don’t have the same magnetism.

Van Johnson, I’ll miss you.

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10 Responses to My Brush with Van Johnson

  1. Adele says:

    I always liked Van Johnson, and I remember him particularly fondly in The Last Time I Saw Paris, with Elizabeth Taylor. I don’t think I was much older than 10, when I saw it, and it was old, then; it was at an umpteenth run movie house, which was only 10cents for kids, so the 50 cents I got for my Saturday movies really went a long way. I remember crying my eyes out, making my popcorn soggy.

    How did Yul do with Santa? (I’m sure he’ll be letting us know)

  2. catsworking says:

    Adele, I just saw “The Last Time I Saw Paris” for the first time not too long ago. I’ve never been big on Elizabeth Taylor, especially after the way Rex Harrison got basically turned into a bit player after she went all ga-ga over Richard Burton while they were all making “Cleopatra.” (I do like Richard Burton, though. With that voice and craggy looks, he could always act circles around Taylor.)

    I did enjoy Taylor’s performance in “Suddenly, Last Summer,” if only because Katharine Hepburn’s character wanted to have Taylor lobotomized.

    Van Johnson was the kind of clean-cut, nice-looking, straight-shooting guy every girl wanted to meet. Unfortunately, he too often ended up with June Allyson!

  3. MorganLF says:

    Oh gee- I so hate to be the one..but Van Johnson was gay. Just read Farley Granger’s biography. And he outed him. apparantly he married keenan Wynns wife on the day they were divorced (they were all good friends). It was a studio arrange ment to head off rumors that he was gay. They were married a long time and had one child. He was supposed to have been a distant and difficult father, ( well I don’t wonder!). Those arrangements wwere quite common then. I must say that I was shocked, but if you read the book half of Hollywood including Farley were as gay as Easter bonnets!

  4. catsworking says:

    Oh, Morgan! Not another one!!!

    I think I read in one of his obits that he married Keenan Wynn’s wife 4 hours after her divorce was final, which seemed very strange and tacky.

    But now you have explained why he always wore red socks. (I think that was a Van Johnson thing.)

    A few of my biggest let-downs over the years have been finding out about Danny Kaye and Laurence Olivier (well, bi- in Olivier’s case).

    Now all I need is to hear something about James Mason and Charles Boyer and I will have no illusions left!

    And if anybody tells me Lauren Bacall was a front for Bogart, I may shoot myself.

  5. MorganLF says:

    Whaaaaat? Danny Kaye!! I’m shocked but now that you mention it he was quite flamboyant. I’ll shoot myself if t he rumors that persist about Cary Grant are true…that man is my idol the whole package looks, wit…please say it ain’t so!

  6. catsworking says:

    Yup. Danny Kaye was also reputed to have one of those “marriages of convenience” for many years. If anyone “outs” Cary Grant, I’m with you. I’m throwing in the towel.

  7. Keri says:

    As someone in the “business,” I can only say that if they’re sexy, funny, charismatic…? Then they’re probably gay. Still single at 49 because of it. (sigh) Even the ones that are straight are gay (think Tom Cruise).

    I believe Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward were the real deal though. So that’s something.

  8. catsworking says:

    I think Bogie and Bacall were the real deal, too.

    Keri, to put it in “Sex and the City” terms, I guess all these actors who become sex symbols are “straight gay men.”

  9. Tu Holmes says:

    Was reminiscing and googled the play.

    I was in it. One of the main orphans in this wreck as you put it.

    I can’t argue with much… The script was terrible, but Van was sill great.

    He was one of the nicest guys you could ever meet.

    I still remember the rehearsals and how much he seemed to really be enjoying just doing something small at the time.

    I laughed at many of his jokes, even at that age.

    He was great and will be missed for many many years to come.

  10. catsworking says:

    Welcome, Tu! I had to go back and reread that post because I didn’t remember what I wrote about the play, although I still remember it as pretty bad. Obviously, my brief brush with Van Johnson made quite an impression on me. I’m so glad to hear that he wasn’t a prima donna behind the scenes. I’ve heard stories about other actors from his era who passed through Richmond and didn’t leave people with happy memories of them (Carol Channing springs to mind.) What a thrill it must have been for you, getting to work with a big Hollywood star.

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