The Marx Brothers
Marxology - Who was Will B. Johnstone?

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will and groucho
Will B. Johnstone and Groucho Marx in 1931

Visit The Will B. Johnstone Virtual Gallery

I'll Say She Is, the Marx Brothers' first show on Broadway, was the lucky combination of them and the Johnstone Brothers. With the help of relatives of Will B. Johnstone (most notably his son Will B. Johnstone Jr., his great granddaughter Meg Farrell and Bruce Beckman, grandson of his second wife Constance) I've tried to find out who Will B. Johnstone was.

He was born in 1883 in St. Louis, Missouri, and raised at the family home in Evanston, Illinois. His father Thomas Taylor Johnstone was a graduate of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and became one of the leading civil engineers of the time. His mother Wilhelmina Saphira Fritz Breuninger was the daughter of jeweler Wilhelm Gustave Breuninger from Washington, D.C., the designer of the "globe and anchor" U.S. Marine Corps device. Will's older brother Alexander was an accomplished musician and a concert violinist who ended his life as a race-tout in Florida, living in a trailer complete with a pipe organ. The youngest brother Thomas "Tom" A. Johnstone (1889 - 1970) was also of musical bent and worked as art editor for The World. Later he ran a very successful business, managing comic book artists illustrating advertising comic ads and books.

Will B. Johnstone was a great artist and athlete. He was the catcher on the Evanston Township High School baseball team before being admitted to Northwestern University. After a few days he withdrew to accept a scholarship at the Chicago Art Institute and upon graduation he became an artist with the Chicago Interocean. In those days reporters did not have camera men but used artists to illustrate their stories. Will was the first person to diagram football games showing every play for each team (see The Will B. Johnstone Virtual Gallery). Will B. Johnstone, Jr. writes: "I'll always remember the day he took me to see Red Grange's debut as a professional football player. He ran 77 yards (his jersey number) for a Chicago Bears touchdown against the New York Giants. How Dad loved football!"

Will Junior also reveals that his father was an avid history buff; "He took me around to the many revolutionary battle fields in New York and New Jersey. He showed me the exact movements of the troops during each battle. The battle fields of Saratoga and Monmouth were made to live in my mind. He showed me pictures of Molly Pitcher's well and the wounded soldiers' blood on the pews in the Monmouth Church".

Will fell in love with Helen Ross Beckham and when her family moved to New Jersey, Will followed. "I will never forget Dad's revenge on Grandpa Beckman who did not think he was good enough to marry his daughter, Helen", Will Junior says. "Grandpa had brought a parrot back from a trip to South America and when he was going to California next winter we had to baby-sit the parrot. Dad waited until the family had turned in for the night then, using a picture of Grandpa, prepared the parrot to welcome Grandpa on his return. When Grandpa came into the door of his apartment the parrot was in his cage by the front door and blurted out, "Hello you old son-of-a-bitch"! Dad had his revenge."

Will's first job in New York City was with the Hearst Newspaper doing illustrations, but he felt the Hearst management too controlling on the subject matter of his work so he quit. He was then hired as a political cartoonist at the New York paper The World (which later became The New York World-Telegram). Will commuted from his home in East Orange, New Jersey, on the Lackawanna Railroad to Hoboken and then took the ferry to lower Manhattan walking through the Fulton Fish Market and pass the Woolworth building to his office in The World, overlooking New York's City Hall. After the market crashed in 1929, he said that he should be getting combat pay because of the dangerous walk past the Woolworth building where many market losers were leaping out of windows committing suicide.
Will went to the office in the morning, read all the papers, got an idea for that day's strip and then played chess (his favorite pastime) in the office until it was time to actual draw up his cartoon just in time for the deadline. He did a comic strip based on the news of the day and over the years he developed the famous character of an impoverished taxpayer wearing a barrel (see The Will B. Johnstone Virtual Gallery).
"I used to see the original hanging in my grandparents house", Meg Farrell writes.

Before being replaced by Dick Dorgan, Will was the original artist on comic strip "You Know Me Al", which ran 1922-25 and was based on author Ring Lardner's series of letters from fictional baseball player Jack Keefe to his hometown pal Al, chronologizing this bush-league player's rise to the majors. In 1979, Harcourt, Brace and Jovanovich reprinted the comic strip adventures of Jack Keefe in a 165 pages paperbound book. Ring Lardner was also one of the members of the Algonquin Hotel's famed Round Table, including Harpo and led by Alexander Woollcott. Years later, Lardner's son Ring Lardner Jr wrote the movie script of Richard Hooker's novel "M*A*S*H".

While in New York, Will also started to write plays, often in collaboration with his brothers. The three Johnstone Brothers were involved in creating at least 10 musical shows between 1911 and 1925. Regarding Up in the Clouds, Will Junior says that he still recalls one of the songs;
"I'm dreaming Day Dreams Up in the Clouds". I remember seeing it on the stage at Newark NJ. It was the first time I was allowed behind the curtain. I guess it was the chorus girls that impressed me.
The song "How Dry I Am!" by Will B. and Tom A. Johnstone was recently featured in a note book collection with "150 of the best children's songs ever". Meg confirms that "How Dry I Am" is a well known song in the States, especially with the parody lyrics which refer to finding the bathroom key.
"As I recall, the original ones refer to drinking alcohol, which wouldn't be appropriate for a children's songbook."
"The Call of the Cosy Little Home", copyrighted in 1918, was written by Will B. Johnstone and Will R. Anderson, a collaboration that suggests a connection with the 1919 show Take It From Me. By the way, this is not the song with the chorus beginning "There's a little white house with a little green blind" as suggested before. That line appeared in the 1926 show Honeymoon Lane by Eddie Dowling and James Hanley (identified by Eric Stott in Albany, NY).
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Will's interest in play-writing continued and his son writes:
"I remember well the night he came home after first seeing the Marx Brothers in a vaudeville act in Hoboken, N.J. Dad had written a play later called I'll Say She Is and needed a comic character for the main role.

"That night he arrived at our home in East Orange, N.J., long after we had all retired. He woke everybody up shouting, "I found them!". It was just what he wanted, Groucho. Dad rewrote the play bringing in the brothers."

After the success of I'll Say She Is, Will became one of the writers behind the Marx Brothers. "During the long run many of the weekends we had the Marx Brothers with us in East Orange, I blame them for my warped sense of humor", Will Junior writes. Meg passed on an anecdote from her grandmother regarding the acquaintance with the Marxes;
"She was in a train station one day, some time after my mother was born, and she ran into Groucho. She approached him saying that she was Jeannie Johnstone and that she had just had a daughter. Groucho's classic response was "Are you married?".

In 1926 Will was contracted to write a silent Marx film for First National but this was abandoned (see A Film Fantasy). In 1931 Will worked with Morrie Ryskind on an unused radio sketch for the Marxes before Groucho suggested a collaboration with S.J. Perelman for another proposed radio series. Perelman is quoted by Simon Louvish in "Monkey Business - the Lives and Legends of the Marx Brothers";
"We put in a couple of enjoyable sessions that got nowhere, except for a misty notion that the Marxes might be characterized as stowaways aboard an ocean liner."
Groucho told them that "this isn't any fly-by-night radio serial - it's our next picture!" (i.e. Monkey Business).

Apart from co-writing the script for Monkey Business, Will also produced the cartoon for the pressbook (see The Will B. Johnstone Virtual Gallery). According to Perelman, Will dashed off over fifty strip cartoons for his paper on the train to Hollywood, as well as a sheaf of watercolours of the remarkable passing landscapes.
Meg: "He was indeed a painter as well as a cartoonist. My mother has at least one of his paintings and I believe my uncle has more. My grandmother, his daughter, turned out to be a painter as well."
Will Junior: "Dad encouraged my sister to become an artist. She graduated from Parson's in New York City and in later years became a well-known professional painter."

For the production of Horse Feathers in 1932, the writing team of Johnstone and Perelman were joined by Arthur Sheekman, Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby. The scene in the apartment of the college widow (played by Thelma Todd) is clearly based on Napoleon's First Waterloo. Considering Will's great interest in football, it's also possible that he conceived the spectacular finale of Horse Feathers.
None of the Marx Brothers' films was so fully prepared as A Day At The Races. Six screenplays, fourteen outlines and treatments, and five vaudeville-act scripts for a try-out tour have been mentioned. According to Simon Louvish, it was Will who introduced the idea of a race track, a vital part of the final film to say the least.

Will Junior says that his father was a showman at heart;
"I recall one Christmas he traced sled marks and deer tracks on our porch roof to prove to us that there was a Santa Claus. One Easter I received a present of a baseball suit wrapped in paper with Easter Bunny footprints...meticulously drawn!"
Will was in the National Guard and was called to guard a bridge over the Raritan River after the Perth Amboy explosion. His son was very young at the time and was told that the sign on the bridge said "Will B. Johnstone guarded the bridge". Later when he learned to read he found out it said "Trucks Over 10-tons Not Allowed".
During World War II, Will made some outstanding war cartoons (see The Will B. Johnstone Virtual Gallery). In 1942, Life Magazine picked the best 20 cartoons of the year and Will was the only one to have two cartoons picked.

After Will and Helen had divorced, he moved with his second wife Constance to West Palm Beach in Florida, where he passed away in 1943. Will Junior was in the South Pacific with the Marines at the time;
"A small obituary notice was in the mimeographed news sheet that came to my office on the docks. He had passed away in Florida. His ashes are interred in the back garden of our old home in East Orange, New Jersey. My Dad was a great man, I am proud to be his son."

Meg's mother has most of the cartoons and his journals;
"I have tried to read them but it is almost like decifering Sanskrit. I don't know if they contain any references to the Marx Brothers. I do recall my mother found one that recounted the day of my grandmother's birth (in 1911) so they may be a bit early for any mention of the Marx Brothers."

Meg also revealed how parts of the Napoleon scene has become a lovely family tradition;
"When anyone in the family says "Well, I must be off", someone, or everyone launches into: "Josephine, where's my horse? Without my horse I'm a second lieutenant. Well, I must be off. If I leave you with these guys I must be off. Beyond the Alps lies Peter's Milk Chocolate. I'll bring you home a hunk. And by the way, if my laundry comes, send it to Russia, care of General Delivery. And you might sew a button on hither and yon. Hither's not so bad but yon on yon, it's terrible."

Musical shows by the Johnstone Brothers
(source The Internet Broadway Database)
Sheet covers provided by Robert Moulton

Opening: 11 December 1911
Produced by Byron Chandler
Music by Alexander Johnstone
Book by H. Kellett Chambers
Lyrics by W. B. Johnstone

Miss Princess
Opening: 23 December 1912
Produced by John Cort
Music by Alexander Johnstone
Written by Frank Mandel
Lyrics by Will B. Johnstone

The Red Canary
Opening: 13 April 1914
Produced by Mackay Production Co.
Music by Harold Orlob
Book by William Le Baron and Alexander Johnstone
Lyrics by Will B. Johnstone

Fiddlers Three
Opening: 3 September 1918, Cort Theatre
Total Performances: 87
Produced by John Cort
Music by Alexander Johnstone
Written by William Carey Duncan
Lyrics by William Carey Duncan

Take It From Me
Opening: 31 March 1919
Directed by Fred A. Bishop, Joe C. Smith and Joseph Gaites
Music by Will R. Anderson
Book by Will B. Johnstone
Lyrics by Will B. Johnstone

Up In The Clouds
Opening: 9 January 1922
Produced by Joseph M. Gaites
Libretto by Will B. Johnstone
Lyrics by Will B. Johnstone
Music by Tom Johnstone

Molly Darling
Opening: 1 September 1922, Liberty Theatre
Total Performances: 99
Produced by Moore and Megley
Music by Tom Johnstone
Book by Otto Harbach and William Carey Duncan
Lyrics by Phil Cook

Plain Jane
Opening: 12 May 1924, New Amsterdam Theatre
Total Performances: 40
Produced by Louis I. Isquith and Waller Moore
Music by Tom Johnstone
Book by McElbert Moore and Phil Cook
Lyrics by Phil Cook

I'll Say She Is!
(earlier names: "Love For Sale" and "Give Me A Thrill")
Opening: 19 May 1924
Produced by Joseph M. Gaites
Libretto by Will B. Johnstone
Lyrics by Will B. Johnstone
Music by Tom Johnstone

When You Smile
Opening: 5 October 1925, National Theatre
Total Performances: 49
Produced by James P. Beury
Book by Tom Johnstone and Jack Alicoate
Music by Tom Johnstone
Lyrics by Phil Cook