Orlando Johnson

[Age 88] The Baltimore barber was a bass and baritone who sang on radio and in a Broadway show in the 1940s.

January 11, 2007|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,sun reporter

Orlando Franklin Johnson, a retired Baltimore barber who performed in the stage and film versions of This Is the Army during World War II, died of heart failure Jan. 2 at his Edmondson Village home of more than half a century. He was 88.

Mr. Johnson was the son of a farmer and raised in the Calvert County community of Mutual. As a youngster, he worked with his father during the winter shucking oysters for a Broomes Island packing company.

He attended the two-room Pink School in Island Creek and graduated in 1936 from the old Central Industrial High School in Prince Frederick.

Mr. Johnson, who became a master barber, enlisted in the Army in early 1941 and was assigned to the 16th Training Battalion at Fort Dix, N.J. A baritone and bass who enjoyed singing, he joined a quartet there and appeared as a regular singer on the weekly radio show at the Army base.

Mr. Johnson was recruited to be in the all-soldier cast of more than 300 - the only integrated World War II armed forces company - in Irving Berlin's This Is the Army. Proceeds from the show went to the Army Emergency Relief Fund.

The show opened a three-year-run at New York City's Broadway Theater on July 4, 1942, and then toured nationally and abroad.

When it was made into a motion picture in 1943 - with a cast that included Irving Berlin, Kate Smith, Ronald Reagan, Joe Louis, Frances Langford and George Murphy - Mr. Johnson remained with the show.

"The most noted experience he loved was filming a canteen scene where he danced with boxing champion Joe Louis, and when Irving Berlin found out he was a barber, he cut his hair while on tour," said a daughter, Patricia Wells-Smith of Baltimore.

"Every year until 1974, the cast met for a reunion and had a big lunch at Sardi's. He'd take the train to New York and stay for a couple of days. He really looked forward to it," his daughter said.

"He donated his Army hat and show program from This Is the Army to the Reginald F. Lewis Museum. He also recorded a narrative on his experiences of being a black and serving in the Army," she said.

After the war, Mr. Johnson returned to Baltimore and resumed working as a barber. He cut men's and women's hair at various shops, including the Mondawmin Concourse Barbershop from 1968 to 1978, when he opened his own shop, O'Jay Barbers, on West North Avenue.

"He worked six days a week cutting hair, and on Saturday morning people waited for him as early as 4 a.m.," his daughter said.

After suffering a heart attack in 1986, Mr. Johnson closed his shop and worked at Razz Ma Tazz Beauty Shop on Cumberland Street, cutting hair by appointment. He retired in the late 1990s.

"As long as he could cut hair and get to the shop, he was happy. He did it because he loved being around people," Mrs. Wells-Smith said.

Mr. Johnson continued to enjoy singing, and was a member of the Baltimore Singers and the choirs at the Heritage United Church of Christ and St. John's African Methodist Episcopal Church in West Baltimore.

When he was 77, Mr. Johnson began leading the men's chorus at Ames Memorial United Methodist Church, where his funeral service was held Monday.

Also surviving are his wife of 64 years, the former Erna D. Gray, a retired Baltimore Sun cafeteria worker; another daughter, Pamela F. Johnson of Baltimore; two grandsons; and two great-grandchildren.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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