IN THE '20s, Brooke Johns was the toast of Broadway, friend of future kings and the sudden royalty emanating from New York's Ziegfeld organization--Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, Fanny Brice and others. Now 87 and comfortably ensconced in the spacious Brook Manor in Rockville, the remarkably robust and genial Johns has put out a record--56 years after his last one.
Actually, Johns retired from show business in 1932 at the height of his career, to raise a family that now includes six children, 17 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. "I raised my own audience," he says on "Brook Johns: Treasures of Broadway, Then and Now" (Webco LPF 0102), which features some old recordings from the '20s and others as recent as three months ago. In the '20s, Johns used to make $1,500 a week as America's first master of ceremonies and Broadway entertainer. He saved most of it and invested in real estate in Maryland. He says, "I'm like an old squirrel. I climbed the tree and took a nut up with me."
Johns is a talking encyclopedia of show biz history and personal memories, including his London encounters in the early '20s with Edward, prince of Wales. "He was nuts about American jazz music. He was a drummer, had about 12 or 15 beautiful drums. He would have parties five nights out of seven with my piano player, myself and him, and maybe four or five couples. He was atrocious, my piano player loved his brandy and I'm a bum banjo player -- we never finished together. We were the lousiest trio you can ever imagine on earth. Edward used to drum loud as hell. One night we were sitting there, and I heard the most excruciating noise over my shoulder. He had a tomato can with gravel in it and a broom handle, shaking it over his shoulder. It was awful, sounded like a bum differential on a Model T Ford. When we got through the number he said, 'Brook, how do you like that instrument?' I must admit I was two-faced, said it was wonderful. Edward smiled and said, 'A buddy over in the Martre district made it for me.' "
Johns will appear with Ed Walker on WAMU-FM at 10 a.m. today; he'll also be featured on tape at the same time on WEAM. Tune in for some wonderful stories.