Gerald Johnson's 'fireside chats'

Baltimore Glimpses

October 15, 1991|By GILBERT SANDLER

IN THE 1950s, the early days of Baltimore television (before "Wheel of Fortune" and "Geraldo"), there was an honest attempt to recognize the new medium for what it was (then and now): an historic opportunity to bring to the public in an engaging way the world's great storehouse of knowledge.

From July 4, 1952, to July 4, 1954, WAAM, Channel 13 (now WJZ) brought to its audience a once-a-week commentary by Gerald Johnson, one of the prominent scholar-journalists of mid-century America and a Baltimorean since he had come to work for The Evening Sun (at Henry Mencken's request) in 1926.

It was television as many had hoped television would be -- an intelligent presentation of international, national and regional affairs.

Johnson, a formal man, would sit in coat and tie in front of a reading stand in a studio set up to look like his home library -- full of crowded bookshelves. Johnson, no man for television showbiz as we know it today, had no cue cards or prompter; he simply read his scripts in his native North Carolina accent without worrying about camera or audience. He spoke for 15 minutes in a somewhat squeaky voice, which he never really raised.

Johnson was an admirer of Franklin Roosevelt's "fireside chats," which broadcast over radio. His venture into television was an attempt to transfer the "fireside" technique to the new visual medium.

Probably Johnson's most memorable readings were the ones in which he focused on the infamous communist witch-hunts of Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Most of his telecasts in the fall of 1953 were consumed with what, considering the temper of the times, can only be termed courageous attacks on the popular senator. Johnson called McCarthy "a great bore," "an embarrassment," "a public nuisance."

Here are some quotes from those telecasts:

"There is only one more step to take before the thing [McCarthyism] is complete. If the Army, the church, the colleges, the libraries, the private citizens and the government are all permeated with communism, we need but one addition to the list. If Senator McCarthy can presently discover that Senator McCarthy is tainted with communism, that will make it unanimous, and we can all go goofy together."

And when McCarthy got married: "We assume, of course, that the lady has seen to it that the senator has been cleared by the loyalty board."

Another of the subjects Johnson took on was suburbia, which he despised: "Suburbia is beginning to look like vampire bats clinging to the sides of the city, sucking its blood."

And, "Suburbia is choking the city proper to death, creating a hopeless traffic problem, overcrowding all public facilities and by intolerable jam, actually depreciating the value of downtown real estate, but paying no city taxes."

Though a North Carolinian by birth, Johnson lived in and loved Baltimore for most of his life. He was a resident of Bolton Hill for 40 years. He said of it, "It is no place for men in a hurry."

In his work, Johnson was fearless, fair and articulate, and, having been an editorial writer, essayist and author of more than 30 books, he was instructive, engaging and authoritative. When his show went off the air, according to his biographer, Vincent Fitzpatrick, assistant curator of the Mencken Collection at the Pratt Library, it was reported that the ABC network objected to Johnson's strong criticism of both McCarthy and President Eisenhower. On television and elsewhere, Johnson championed Adlai Stevenson. (Later, Stevenson would call him "the critic and conscience of our time.")

Johnson died in 1980, in his 90th year. Too soon. As a television personality, he was also ahead of his time.

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