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’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.”
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.