One thing I like about SiriusXM in my car is being able to listen to the old time radio channel. Most of the comedies don’t hold up that well (especially sitcoms), but there are dramas that still work well, notably Gunsmoke and Dragnet. But perhaps the best of them all was a show I had never heard of before, even though it lasted longer than just about anything else: Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.
The show premiered in 1949, with Charles Russell in the title role.* Johnny Dollar was an insurance investigator, “the man with the action-packed expense account.” An early quirk was that he tipped everyone a dollar, a big tip back in those days when a cup of coffee was a dime.** Each week, he’d be sent out from the home office to investigate a case. The conceit was that he was dictating his expense account and describing each expense as a well of telling the story of the case. Episodes would begin with Dollar picking up the phone and laying out the situation.
The show was a half hour long, and was pretty routine, and barely different from other detective shows of the time. It went off the air in 1954.
It got a second life the next year in a slight different format. Instead of a half-hour, the time was cut to 15 minutes – five days a week. This allowed for longer and more complicated storyline.
But the best thing about the show as Bob Bailey, who took over as Johnny. Bailey was just perfect – cynical and self-aware, ready with a wisecrack or a gun. The dialog is crisp and clever, and the adventures draw you in.***
By the end of 1956, the show went back to a weekly half hour. Radio drama was dying by then, but Johnny Dollar continued. Bob Bailey left the show in 1960 because CBS wanted to move production to the east coast and he didn’t want to move. Bob Readick took over, and eventually gave way to Mandel Kramer, who stayed to the end. The show was one of the last regular radio dramas on the air.
If you don’t get SiriusXM, many episodes are available at archive.org. Give them a listen.
*Dick Powell did the radio equivalent of a pilot episode, but left.
**This was quickly dropped. His expense account may have been action-packed, but the company auditors didn’t like that sort of action.
***I’ll often listen to episodes even though I know I won’t catch the ending, just to hear the dialog.