"In For a Dime . . .": The Story of "Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar"
Updated: Mar 30, 2020
By John C. Alsedek:
Among old-time radio enthusiasts, September 30, 1962, is a black date of sorts. For on that date, the last two radio dramas being broadcast nationally aired for the last time. One of those, the original Suspense, I've talked about at length previously. But as for the other . . . well, that's the subject of this week's column!
Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar ran on CBS Radio from 1949 until 1962, totaling over 800 episodes. During that time, the title character morphed from a rough-and-tumble private eye who gave out silver dollars as tips to a tongue-in-cheek insurance investigator with “the action-packed expense account.” Dick Powell was the first of seven actors to play the title character, assaying the role in the 1948 audition show that set the series on its way; it was originally entitled Yours Truly, Lloyd London, but the title was changed in order to avoid legal issues with the world-famous insurance firm Lloyd’s of London. But that was it for Powell, who passed on continuing the role once the show was picked up; instead, it was Charles Russell who voiced Johnny Dollar from the official premiere in February of 1949 until January of the following year. He was succeeded first by well-known film tough guy Edmond O’Brien (February 1950–September 1952) and then by John Lund (November 1952–September 1954).
During this phase of the show’s existence, Johnny Dollar was a pretty traditional detective program. But that changed in the mid-Fifties; after a year’s hiatus, Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar returned with a reworked premise and a brand-new format: instead of one 30-minute show per week, Johnny Dollar became a weekday 15-minute serial (Friday nights from 8 p.m. to 8:15 p.m.), with an entire week’s 75 minutes devoted to one case. Dollar was no longer a hardnosed P.I.—now he was a freewheeling, freelance insurance investigator. Lund had moved on, replaced first by Gerald Mohr (in the 1955 audition show of the revised Johnny Dollar) and then by the man who would become the consummate Johnny, Bob Bailey.
A typical episode of the Bob Bailey–era Johnny Dollar began with a telephone call from an insurance company wanting to hire Johnny to look into a suspicious claim. Johnny would then travel to investigate, almost always ending up in grave danger before wrapping things up at the end of the show. The fun hook used to move the plot along was Johnny totaling up his expenses—how each expense, no matter how minute, fit into the overall scheme of things as the story was told in flashbacks. The tone of the new Johnny Dollar, initially just a bit lighter than its predecessor, slowly grew more tongue-in-cheek. In one episode, the great Vincent Price does a guest star appearance—as himself; in others, it took a sly, self-referential turn as characters would recognize Johnny’s voice . . . from his own radio show.
The serial format lasted for one year before reverting to a weekly half-hour drama, moving from Friday night to late Sunday afternoon. But Bailey remained on until 1960, ultimately leaving due not to dissatisfaction with the show but rather because of a disagreement with CBS Radio. What happened? Well, seeing the handwriting on the wall with the rise of television and the fall of radio drama, CBS Radio decided to start cutting costs. In June 1959, it announced plans to move production of its four remaining radio dramas (Johnny Dollar, Suspense, Gunsmoke, and Have Gun, Will Travel) from Hollywood to New York City. This plan was not well-received by the cast members or crews of any of the four shows; in fact, the Gunsmoke and Have Gun, Will Travel casts and crews—headed by renowned character actors William Conrad and John Dehner, respectively—were fully prepared to cancel their own shows before they would move from L.A. to N.Y.C. The result was a stalemate that lasted for almost a year and a half. But in November 1960, CBS Radio decided on a half-measure: it canceled Have Gun, Will Travel outright, kept Gunsmoke in Hollywood for the remainder of its run (it went off the air in 1961), and moved Johnny Dollar and Suspense to New York. Bob Bailey wasn’t willing to move, and so he gave his last performance as Johnny in the November 27, 1960, episode "The Empty Threat Matter."
The relocated Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar continued
on in New York with Bob Readick, a former child actor
and member of CBS’s New York stock company, in
the lead; after six months, Readick was replaced by Mandel Kramer, who played Johnny from June 1961 until the end of its run. Kramer brought a low-key approach to Johnny that, among radio aficionados today, was second only to Bailey’s interpretation of
the role. But the end had come for radio drama on network radio. On September 30, 1962, at 6:35 p.m. Eastern, "The Tip-Off Matter" aired—the final episode of Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.
Johnny Dollar continued on for decades, after a fashion, in reruns (most notably on WAMU’s The Big Broadcast) and in satires by comedy groups like the Firesign Theatre. It also caught on in the unlikeliest of places: a Persian version of Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar (with Heidar Saremi as Johnny) was a popular weekly show on Radio Iran from the mid-1960’s to the early 1970’s. But the cancellation of Johnny Dollar and Suspense had really signaled the end of radio’s "Golden Age" on U.S. network radio.
But not so fast. Though the period between September 1962 and January 1974 (when the CBS Radio Mystery Theater premiered) is considered a vast wasteland by old-time radio fans, that’s not exactly the case. I’ll tell you about that next time when we’ll be talking about Theatre-Five. Until then, thanks for tuning in!
Writer, producer, and radio-drama aficionado, John C. Alsedek, shares the history of radio and the impact it has made on the world of entertainment.