Who would have guessed that sixty-five years ago today, the premiere of a half-hour program about an independent investigator who specialized in following up on insurance claims would wind up as one of the two last network dramatic shows to leave the airwaves…and bring Radio’s Golden Age to an end? Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar originally starred Charles Russell as “the man with the action-packed expense account”—and no doubt listeners wondered what could be so exciting about an itemized list of expenses. The surname of the lead character, Dollar, referred to the investigator’s gimmicky custom of tossing silver dollars as tips to people in the service industry (busboys, bellhops, doormen, etc.)—which hardly made for compelling radio.
The series that OTR historian John Dunning once observed as having “more lives as a cat” had its genesis with an audition record produced on December 7, 1948 starring new movie tough guy Dick Powell. But, Powell decided that he’d rather whistle “Leave it to Love” every week on Richard Diamond, Private Detective—so after a second audition (January 14, 1949), B-movie actor Charles Russell got the part. Because Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar had originally been planned as a private eye drama, many of the P.I. trappings were in place on the show—the only difference was that Dollar engaged in much of the legwork and painstaking detail of checking the claims involving arson, theft, etc…and only on occasion was he involved in homicides. Johnny was employed by a clearinghouse of insurance companies known collectively as “the Universal Adjustment Bureau,” which would send him to various hot spots in and outside the U.S. Unlike his private eye brethren, Dollar was generally on good terms with the cops…but he possessed many of the attributes that made a good private dick, including a keen analytical mind and the necessary muscle to deal with threatening situations.
Russell stayed with YTJD until January of 1950, when he was replaced by Edmond O’Brien—the character actor who had made quite a name for himself in film noirs like The Killers, White Heat and D.O.A. O’Brien was Dollar for two years before handing the role off to John Lund, known to movie audiences for his roles in such films as To Each His Own and A Foreign Affair, in November of 1952. While competent actors, the stints of Russell, O’Brien and Lund really didn’t make Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar stand out from any of the other crime dramas on the air at that time…and what’s more, the CBS Radio Network bounced the show around continuously as a sustaining program during the five years it was on the air. (It did secure a sponsor during the Lund years, with Wrigley’s Gum paying the bills from March 1953 to August 1954.)
Just as it looked as if Johnny was going to fill out his last expense account, hope for the series was rekindled when producer-director Jack Johnstone revamped the show into a five-day-a-week quarter hour that featured serialized stories. (This concept was developed in a never-broadcast audition with The Adventures of Philip Marlowe’s Gerald Mohr as “America’s fabulous freelance investigator.”) Tackling the role of Dollar this time was actor Bob Bailey, familiar to radio listeners from a Mutual detective series that ran from 1946 to 1954—Let George Do It. Johnny Dollar was the role Bob Bailey was born to play; the actor brought to the part a wry, quick-witted sense of humor, supplied for him by writers like Johnstone, Les Crutchfield and Robert Ryf—who were able to use the serialized version of the show (now totaling an hour and fifteen minutes each week) to flesh out supporting characters while offering meaty, suspenseful plots. The fifteen-minute YTJD series ran from October 3, 1955 to November 2, 1956, and most fans of the series would agree that this is when the program reached its creative peak.
Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar reverted back to its half-hour format on November 11, 1956, with star Bailey still filling out expense reports on a weekly basis—but Bob’s last case was broadcast on November 27, 1960. CBS had decided to move production of the show to New York, and Bailey decided to stay on the West Coast, and he gave up the role to Robert Readick when the show resumed in December of that same year. After six months of Dollar, Readick made way for Mandel Kramer, who finished out the series’ fourteen-year-run on September 30, 1962 (immediately following the final episode of Suspense), bringing “the Golden Age of Radio” to a close.
Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar is that radio rarity where the popularity of the program is larger today than when it was first broadcast. A good starting point if you want to check out what the series has to offer is the Radio Spirits set The Many Voices of Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar, which will allow you to sample all of the actors who played the titular insurance investigator during its fourteen-year-run. The most recent YTJD set is Wayward Matters, and in addition there’s Phantom Chases, Murder Matters, Confidential (with liner notes by yours truly, Ivan Shreve) and of course…Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.