Saturday, June 5, 2021

Johnny Olson


"Come on down!"
    - Johnny Olson

John Leonard Olson was born in Windom, Minnesota on May 22, 1910.  He knew from a young age that he wanted to be in show business.  By the time he graduated from high school, he was already working at radio stations in Wisconsin and South Dakota.

In 1933, Olson went to work at WTMJ-AM in Milwaukee, where he organized a five-piece jazz band called "The Rhythm Rascals."  Not only was Olson one of the station's most popular personalities, but his band was successful enough to make it to Hollywood, where they produced a series of hit recordings.  Take a listen to their single "Wah Hoo" on YouTube.

Olson's next project brought him back to Milwaukee and WTMJ.  There he produced his first series, entitled Johnny Olson's Rumpus Room.  It was an overnight success, attracting such notable performers as The Andrews Sisters and Spike Jones.  As a result of the series and its success, WTMJ was able to expand to television, with Johnny Olson's Rumpus Room as it's star attraction.

Then in 1944, Olson and his wife moved to New York City, where they produced and hosted a new radio program called Ladies Be Seated.  The series was essentially a game show, featuring blind taste tests and other household-related games that housewives of the era would surely understand.  

In the 1950s, Olson became an announcer on television, working on such forgotten game shows as Break the Bank and Fun for the Money.  His first series of note was the original Name That Tune, for which he worked during the show's final season.  When it was over, he went to work for Mark Goodson-Bill Todman Productions, an association that would continue for the rest of Olson's life. 

His first programs from this era were a game show hosted by Merv Griffin called Play Your Hunch and the original version of Supermarket Sweep (I always thought David Ruprecht's version was the first).

In the 1960s, Olson announced on such series as To Tell the TruthWhat's My Line and the original daytime version of Match Game.  He was also the announcer for The Jackie Gleason Show, which ran from 1962 until 1970, as well as The Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon from 1966 to 1970.

Hollywood beckoned, and in 1972, Olson moved west and assumed announcing duties at CBS, which was reviving two classic game shows, I've Got a Secret and The Price is Right (TPIR), the latter of which cemented Olson's fame.  When inviting audience members to appear as contestants, Olson would always bellow "come on down," a catchphrase that became a part of Americana.  In this role, he frequently left the announcer's booth, serving as both a sidekick to series host Bob Barker and as a performer in the showcase showdowns.

In 1973, CBS also revived Match Game (left), and Olson was invited back to the series.  He served as announcer for its entire nine-year run, through which he coined a second catchphrase, "get ready to match the stars."  Olson would occasionally serve as a panelist himself, whenever a scheduled celebrity failed to appear.

On the morning of October 6, 1985, Olson was leaving for work when he suffered a stroke.  He was transported to St. John's Hospital and Health Center in Santa Monica, where he died just six days later.  He was 75 years old.

Olson and his wife owned property in the hills of West Virginia and would often spend time there during TPIR's hiatus.  As such, his ashes were interred in the mausoleum at Rosewood Cemetery in Lewisburg. 

It's a very small facility, so this grave is rather easy to find.  When you come in the front door, walk all the way down the hall and turn to your left.  Olson and his wife will be on the wall behind you. 

Rest in peace, Johnny.

  • Author Randy West published the definitive Johnny Olson biography in 2013.  You can order a copy of Johnny Olson: A Voice in Time, From the Birth of the Modern Media to "The Price is Right" from Amazon

  • Before entering show business, Olson studied pharmacy at the University of Minnesota.

  • At the time of Olson's passing, there were a number of his episodes that had not yet aired.  Bob Barker recorded an "In Memoriam" message for those episodes, which you can watch on YouTube.  Seven years after his passing, both Barker and Olson's successor Rod Roddy paid tribute to him in a TPIR 20th anniversary episode.  You can also watch that tribute on YouTube.

  • Since Olson's passing, three different announcers have replaced him on TPIR, each one continuing his long-standing catchphrase of "come on down."

  • Although Olson originated the catchphrase, it appears on the headstone of his successor Rod Roddy, who is buried in Fort Worth, Texas.

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