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Revisiting radio history: Driftwood filmmaker's work turns spotlight on Parks Johnson

Patrick Beach
Richard Kidd works in his Driftwood home, where he finished 'Vox Pop: The Story of Parks Johnson' late last year. The filmmaker is working on a project about Hays County veterans' experiences during World War II.

"Vox Pop" was one of the most popular programs on the radio back in the day, but that day was a long time ago. Today, if you're not a broadcasting scholar or relative, there's no shame in not knowing who Parks Johnson was.

In fact, Richard Kidd didn't know who Johnson was before Kidd made a film about the man.

"Vox Pop: The Story of Parks Johnson" will screen at 7 p.m. Thursday at the First Baptist Church, 203 W. U.S. 290, in Dripping Springs. The show is free, and DVD copies of the film will be available for purchase.

The film is a production of the Hays County Historical Commission and the result of about 10 months' work by Kidd, a former film production business owner who now lives here.

Johnson, who died in 1970, didn't invent the man-on-the-street interview, but there's no question that he rode it to great popularity from the early 1930s, broadcasting from Houston's KTRH, then nationally until 1948. Along the way, "the show that travels America to bring you the voice of the people" achieved a number of firsts, including the first show to broadcast from a country at war — Canada, before the U.S. entered World War II — and the first to broadcast from an aircraft carrier.

It was also among the first audience-participation shows — sort of the reality TV of its day, a scholar notes in the film. And during the war alone, the show logged some 226,000 miles on the road.

After Johnson left the show, he and wife Louise — a Hays County native — retired to Wimberley. His son, Bill, still lives at the family's Sabino Ranch and had donated a wealth of archival material — Johnson was meticulous about saving photographs, newspaper clippings and lists of show questions — to the Library of American Broadcasting at the University of Maryland in Baltimore.

Still, Kidd didn't approach the project without a little trepidation.

"As a filmmaker, I thought, 'You've really lost your mind this time making a film about radio. What are you going to show?'" Kidd said.

In terms of moving images, the answer was "not much." There's only one known film of Johnson and Louise, an interview that Cactus Pryor did with them in 1958 for TV station KTBC. In retirement, the Johnsons were very active in Wimberley's civic life, helping to found a club that later became the chamber of commerce, according to Bill Johnson, and helping to establish the Chapel in the Hills church.

The small-town life seemed to suit Johnson, who always insisted that his interview subjects were the real stars of the show, which consistently enjoyed ratings in the top 10 or 20.

"They did not change," Bill Johnson said of his parents after they retired. "They were unassuming and dodged the spotlight."

They were probably happy just to have stopped moving. By the end of 1945, "Vox Pop" had visited some 200 military bases, hospitals and war plants, according to the university library, and contributed enormously to maintaining stateside morale. The show also broadcast from Hollywood to offset war fatigue.

But, Bill Johnson said, his parents were more interested in interviewing the man whose job it was to keep the crickets quiet during filming than the head of RKO Pictures. The film portrays Johnson as a gentle interviewer who asked provocative and open-ended questions and could find something interesting in most anyone.

The show also gave away cash and, later, prizes. At the end of one interview, a young woman nearly swoons when she hears she's to receive "two pairs of lovely nylon stockings."

Kidd was friends with Bill Johnson for some time before he discovered the man was descended from radio royalty. "One thing led to another with Bill saying, 'Have you ever heard of my dad?' And I said, 'Well, no,'" Kidd said.

It probably didn't hurt that the president of the historical commission, Kate Johnson, is a cousin by marriage of Bill Johnson's. Kate Johnson raised money to cover production costs and is the film's producer.

"It's been a wonderful relationship," Kidd said. "Kate has a real interest in making these things happen."

"Vox Pop" is the third film Kidd has made for the commission. He's currently at work on a documentary about Hays County soldiers' experiences during World War II.

pbeach@statesman.com; 445-3603

Parks Johnson