Little story. Old vaudevillian sees George Burns in barber chair, says, ''You don't remember me, but I used to play the Palace. Fifty years ago. Name's Brooke Johns.'' Burns squints, puffs, says ''Banjo.''
Johns turned 88 Christmas Eve. Gets around his 207-acre spread with two canes. Owns half of Olney, they say, bought it for $37,500 in '25, turned down $3 million for it some years ago. Brooke Manor Country Club. Shopping centers.
"I made more from less than anyone I ever heard of. Can't read a note of music. Only knew four chords on the banjo -- and I lost one of those in Omaha one night."
His voice still booms, he shakes hands like a lumberjack, bangs fist into palm, slaps knees, even the one with water on it from being tackled by Jim Thorpe when Georgetown played Carlisle and lost 60-4. "You're gonna get a lotta laffs with me. I'm so damn egotistical. Oh Christ, I'm awful."
Local boy, born 3304 Prospect, no money but he went to school with Teddy Roosevelt's sons. When he said he was going into show biz his mother opened the window and shouted down to his grandmother: "Women and whiskey will kill him!"
He fooled her. He never smoked or drank, has been married to one woman 56 years (six children, 16 grandchildren, eight great-grandchildren). He went to his first interview in a derby hat and a $9 suit, and the guy said to go join the police force because he was 6 feet 4, 188 pounds and strong as a bull. But he went to Altoona instead, at $25 a week for banjoing plus $5 for carrying the juggler's tray of apples. The very first time on stage he dropped the apples. The juggler said, "Never mind, I do it myself sometimes." He never forgot that.
The names. The pictures. "Got 500 pictures around here," stacked on chairs, desks, file cabinets. Jolson. Cantor. Bill Fields ("he juggled for 10 years before he ever said a word on stage"). Paul Whiteman. Will Rogers, his idol, who took him to Lindy's once and gave him some advice. "Never learn to play any better, kid."
He was on Broadway for seven years. The Roaring Twenties. Played the Palace, adored Flo Ziegfeld, the fabled promoter who died with two $5 bills and four rubber bands in his safe. And the other palace: He jammed with the Prince of Wales more than once. Over by the fireplace is a banjo head with "Edward P" written on it ("the P is for Prince") and "Calvin Coolidge" on the other side.
He was so handsome he won the America's best-dressed title from Valentino four times running. Posed free for Prince Albert tobacco ads, Pep cereal and others. You suddenly realize you've seen that hearty smiling manly face with the brick chin and the center-parted hair in a hundred long-gone magazine ads.
Made "Manhandled" with Gloria Swanson in New Jersey, before there even was a Hollywood. Made "Jack and Jill" with Clifton Webb and dancer Ann Pennington, his partner for years (her legs were insured for $250,000). In 1925 the Skouras brothers lured him away from his $6,300-a-week Broadway career to St. Louis to be, in effect, the first emcee in America, smoothing the transition from vaudeville to movies.
He met Ginger Rogers there when she was still Virginia McMath from Mexico, Mo., winner of a local Charleston contest. He couldn't use her as a dancer but put her on stage in walk-ons at $50 a week. After 16 weeks, Mervyn Leroy saw her and took her off to Hollywood and Astaire.
And Brooke Johns hadn't reached 40 yet.
He and his wife Hazel tried taking the kids on the road for a while but he soon settled down to the life of a country squire. In 1946 he was elected to head the first Montgomery County board of commissioners, resigned in his first term.
Last year he cut a record. "For Me and My Gal," vintage songs, some rerecorded. He often entertains at nursing homes. "Life is wonderful," he booms. "I've been so lucky. God is leaving me here for a purpose."
Posing for a picture with his wife: "Yessir, I gave her everything I had."
"You didn't. You only gave me what belonged to me." They laugh the inner laughter of the long-in-love.