JOHNNY DOWNS, the spry song-and-dance man, tapped his way from silent shorts to second- feature stardom in the 1930s. Although seldom if ever seen on British television, not noted for its attention towards the lower half of double-bill delights, Downs will be remembered with affection by those who frequented the circuit cinemas of a now bygone era.
Born in Brooklyn in 1913, the son of Lt Morey Downs, US Navy, Johnny moved with his family to San Diego, California, when he was eight years old. Placed handily for Hollywood, Mrs Downs took her son to the Hal Roach Studio for an audition, and Johnny made his debut in a silent two-reel comedy starring Charley Chase. Roach had recently launched his most succesful silent series, Our Gang, and the nine-year-old Johnny found a slot in the series starting with The Champeen, released in January 1923. Alongside such regulars as 'Sunshine' Sammy Morrison and chubby Joe Cobb, Johnny met pretty Mary Kornman who remained a good friend for most of his life. Downs remained with Our Gang until Chicken Feed (1927), the 62nd episode.
As with many of the Our Gang youngsters, Downs found himself unemployed at the age of 14. He concentrated on college for a while, forming a double act with Mary Kornman for campus and then vaudeville dates. Moving East he crashed Broadway, fondly remembering the time he spent with Jimmy Durante in the hit show Strike Me Pink. Downs was 20 when he returned to Hollywood to try films once again.
It was his old boss Hal Roach who gave him a break with the small role of Little Boy Blue in the musical comedy Babes in Toyland (1934). This period pantomime starred Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy as a pair of fairy-tale fellows who saved all our nursery rhyme favourites from the bad
The mid-Thirties were the days of the 'college musical'. Big hits then, once again they are a genre of film scorned by British television, despite starring such top pop singers as Bing Crosby and leading comedians like Jack Oakie. Downs, lithe and likeable, soon found a niche in these 'teen operas', beginning with College Scandal (1935). The film was so successful that Paramount remade it in 1942 as Sweater Girl, the film which gave a war-torn world Betty Jane Rhodes and her No 1 hit 'I Don't Want To Walk Without You'.
Downs followed on with College Holiday (1936) at Paramount, Pigskin Parade (1936) at Fox, and Turn Off the Moon (1937), back at Paramount, with Phil Harris and his Orchestra. Then came Hold That Co-Ed (1938) for Fox, followed by a string of low-budget musicals at Universal. First was Swing, Sister, Swing (1939), with Ted Weems and his Orchestra and a dance number called 'The Baltimore Bubble', intended as Hollywood's answer to 'The Lambeth Walk'. Eddie Quillan, a bright comedian, co- starred with Downs, and the pair were promptly cast in the next Universal clambake, Hawaiian Nights (1939). Downs then sang the title song in I Can't Give You Anything But Love, Baby (1940), 'baby' being the charming Peggy Moran. His co-star in Melody and Moonlight (1940), made at Republic, was Jane Frazee, cutest of the singing Frazee Sisters. Universal liked the couple and put them both into Moonlight and Hawaii (1941), which featured another offbeat dance speciality, 'The Aloha Lowdown'.
A break in the chain of musicals came when PRC cast Downs as the hero in The Mad Monster (1942), in which an insane professor makes a werewolf out of his handyman. The film was produced by the prolific partnership of Sigmund Neufeld and Sam Newfield, and these five-day film-makers next cast Downs in a picture more to his taste, Harvest Melody (1943), in which he sang to Rosemary Lane accompanied by Eddie le Baron's Orchestra. What a Man (1944), for Monogram, more or less wound up Downs's song-and-dance career, and he was out of movies for 10 years. It was back to Broadway for roles in Are You With It?, Here Come the Girls and other such shows.
Returning to Hollywood in 1953, he supported Billy Daniels and others of the new breed of pop star in Cruisin' Down the River, a Columbia musical based on the winner of the BBC's 'Write a tune for a Thousand Pounds' contest. After a few more small roles Johnny Downs turned to television, and found great local popularity hosting an afternoon children's series for his home town television station in San Diego. It was a job that lasted 17 years.