Sunday, June 26, 2016

Johnny Mack Brown: From Gridiron Hero to Hollywood Hero

"Everybody loves a hero. People line up for them, cheer them, scream their names. And years later, they'll tell how they stood in the rain for hours just to get a glimpse of the one who taught them how to hold on a second longer. I believe there's a hero in all of us, that keeps us honest, gives us strength, makes us noble, and finally allows us to die with pride, even though sometimes we have to be steady, and give up the thing we want the most. Even our dreams." ~ Aunt May in Spiderman II

"In Hollywood - in Hollywood, you're as good as your last picture." ~ Erich Von Stroheim

 Fight on, fight on, fight on men!
Remember the Rose Bowl, we'll win then.
Go, roll to victory, Hit your stride,
You're Dixie's football pride,
Crimson Tide!

 Before every BAMA game and after every BAMA score, we hear the tune of YEA, ALABAMA and most of us sing along. The lyrics, often sung by heart by even toddlers, refer to the day BAMA won its first national championship: January 1, 1926. Almost 90 years have passed since the heroics of Alabama's first championship team in the Rose Bowl established BAMA as a national power so memories of the 1925 squad are slowly fading from popular culture. As the 2013 BAMA team attempts to make college football history once more by winning three national championships in a row, it might be appropriate to remind THE CRIMSON NATION of how "Dixie's Football Pride" was able to first find it's way into the center of the national spotlight.

BAMA's football fortunes turned on a single immortal play that Friday afternoon so long ago when the Tide went ahead of Washington 14-12 on a third quarter Grant Gillis’ touchdown pass that was caught by Johnny Mack Brown. Up to that point in time, Gillis' 59-yard pass was the longest in Rose Bowl history and one of the longest in the entire history of American football- college or pro. In his souvenir book of the 1926 Rose Bowl, THE WILL TO WIN, Champ Pickens called the Gillis pass "the longest ever thrown." After the 20-19 BAMA victory, Johnny Mack, who had caught two touchdown passes and made a game winning tackle on the last play of the game, was declared the game's Most Valuable Player and the wheels of progress began to turn for this gridiron hero, rolling him along a path in life that would see him become a Hollywood hero.

So how does a little barefooted boy who grew up playing in the dusty streets of Dothan get himself out of the Piney Woods of the Wiregrass and up on Hollywood's silver screen? It's an amazing story and without the help of some loyal Crimson Tide fans, it never would have happened.
When Johnny Mack Brown graduated from Dothan High in 1922, Southeast Alabama football had about as much status in the Gulf South as CRIMSON TIDE football had on the national scene. It was completely irrelevant. Southeast Alabama football was just as irrelevant in our region as BAMA football was irrelevant to the entire nation.

Johnny Mack Brown was one of the first Southeast Alabama players to ever be named to the All-State team much less get a football scholarship to BAMA.  In these first thirty years of its existence, the BAMA team had never won a single championship in any league and only one player in its entire history had made All American: Bully Van de Graaff in 1915.  Johnny Mack Brown would have a tremendous impact upon changing not only the regional perception of Southeast Alabama football but also the national perception of BAMA football.

In February of 1926 a reporter for the DOTHAN EAGLE wrote that Johnny Mack Brown "is credited with doing more to advertise Dothan than any other individual." The same could be said about Brown's impact upon the nation's recognition of University of Alabama football. When the 22-man BAMA squad arrived at its hotel in Pasadena for the Rose Bowl, the chairman of the selection committee greeted Coach Wade and told him that until Alabama Governor Brandon sent them a telegram urging them to consider Alabama they'd "never heard of your team." Johnny Mack explained the importance of the game years later when he said, "We were the first Southern team ever invited to participate. We were supposed to be kind of lazy down South- full of hookworm and all. Nevertheless, we came out here and beat one of the finest teams in the country, making it a kind of historic event for Southern football. We didn't play for Alabama, but for the whole South."

After Bama's victory, Ed Danforth of the ATLANTA CONSTITUTION wrote, "The South will outdo itself in welcoming Mack Brown home. It should. He has written DIXIE all over California."
A Chinese philosopher once said, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” For Johnny Mack Brown, it may be said that his personal journey to California began on Saturday, November 7, 1925, at Rickwood Field in Birmingham when he met actor George Fawcett who had been allowed to sit on the BAMA bench during the Kentucky game along with other Hollywood actors who were in town to make a film called MEN OF STEEL.  Fawcett told Brown, ”You ought to come to Hollywood, son, and have a try at pictures.”
Johnny Mack and the Alabama team got a step closer to California the next Friday night at the Exchange Hotel in Montgomery. It was the evening before Saturday’s game with Florida in Cramton Bowl. Coach Wallace Wade was in his hotel room when Champ Pickens came in for a visit. Champ had no official title but in 1925 this sports agent, promoter and advertising man acted as the Tide’s one-man athletic director, recruiting coordinator and sports information officer. Champ said, “Wallace, let’s go to the Rose Bowl.”
Wade’s reply was two words: “Let’s do.”
Champ described what happened next in his 1956 autobiography, A REBEL IN SPORTS:
“I knew he thought I was joking, but I grabbed ahold of the old phone hanging on the wall, and put in a call to Governor Brandon, an old friend. (ed. Note: Champ had been elected Alabama State Representative from Sumter County in 1922 after promising Budweiser’s August Busch that he would get elected so he could change Alabama’s Prohibition laws so Bud could sell their “near-beer” Bevo. Champ failed to get the law changed.)
‘Bill,’ I said, when I finally reached him, ‘I want to send a wire and sign your name to it.’
Without even asking for an explanation, he said, ‘Go right ahead, Champ.’
‘Don’t you want to know what it’s all about?’ I asked.
The governor only chuckled.
‘Forget the details,’ he said, ‘and lots of luck.’
I phoned Western Union that night and dictated the following message: ‘Speaking unofficially and without knowledge of the University of Alabama authorities, I want to call your attention to the Crimson Tide’s great football record this year. Alabama plays Florida tomorrow for the championship. Please watch for score. If you are interested in a real opponent for your West Coast team, then give Alabama serious consideration.’
It was signed W.W. Brandon, Governor of Alabama, and addressed to the chairman of the Tournament of Roses Committee, Pasadena, California.
Champ could not have had better timing. November of 1925 was the turning point for college football as well as for professional football in America. Suddenly, with Red Grange playing his last college game at Illinois and going pro, the word football was being spelled with the letters M-O-N-E-Y. College presidents and editors across the country were spilling all the ink they could get writing opinion pieces about how the commercialization of the sport threatened “Mom, Apple Pie and The American Way.” The cultural phenomena of “Red Grange” had made an invitation to the Rose Bowl “politically incorrect” but there was a big crowd of Crimson Tide supporters around Tuscaloosa ready to take advantage of this new opportunity brought on by the self- righteous academic attacks on college football coming from the Ivy League campuses.
BAMA had drawn a winning hand and all they had to do was take care of Florida and Georgia. Florida fell 34-0 in Cramton Bowl on November 14 and Thanksgiving Day saw Georgia collapse 27-0 in Rickwood Field. As the train returning the team to Tuscaloosa pulled out of Birmingham Terminal Station that evening, everything was coming up ROSES for the Crimson Tide but when the professional football contracts promising thousands emerged on the ride back to T-town, the celebration by the new Southern League champs with hopes of a Rose Bowl bid was replaced by the somber tones of a serious business discussion inside Coach Wade’s rail car.
Years later, in 1929, an enterprising sports writer intent upon helping Johnny Mack’s movie career wrote a wire service article using the headline, GRIDDER, LOYAL TO ALMA MATER, GETS MOVIE JOB. The article, which also ran with the headline GRID STAR TURNED DOWN $5000 BUT PICKED UP JOB IN MOVIES, went on to describe how Johnny Mack Brown’s loyalty to BAMA caused him to refuse to sign a pro contract on the train coming back from Birmingham that night after BAMA’s 1925 Thankgiving victory over Georgia. In the story, Johnny Mack turned down a contract to play five games for $5000 for a team of barn-stormers selected to play against a Red Grange led professional team. The story has a Hollywood ending with Johnny Mack sacrificing the money in order to play in the Rose Bowl and returns home to spend the summer selling insurance, not knowing that soon his name would be up in lights and he’d have a successful career on the screen. This story is probably apocryphal, however, there’s no doubt that big money was being promised on the train that night from none other than Champagne-Urbana, Illinois, theater owner C.C. “Cash and Carry” Pyle, owner of Red Grange’s All-Stars.
A far more accurate picture comes from Champ Pickens’ autobiography:
“No matter where I was or what I was doing, I kept an eagle eye on the football fortunes at Tuscaloosa. One season, right in the midst of a successful campaign, a big-time sports promoter, Charlie Pyle, hit the Alabama campus with a bundle of greenbacks and tried to lure Pooley Hubert away to join Red Grange’s All Stars. When I heard of this attempted piracy, I got ahold of Pyle and promised him a compromise. We arranged a meeting in a New York hotel room.
‘Charlie,’ I said, ‘I’ll see that Pooley (ed. Note: quarterback of the ’25 BAMA squad) signs with you for a post-season coast-to-coast tour if you will wait until the college season is over.’
‘All right,’ said Charlie, ‘But when BAMA finishes its season you agree to see that he comes with the All-Stars.’ ”
Champ successfully negotiated a contract that promised Pooley Hubert $5000 for ten games and Hubert went on to play the next year with the All-Stars.
One of the reasons Johnny Mack did not pursue a professional contract was due to the fact that he was getting married and he really did have dreams of making it in Hollywood. There are many unsubstantiated stories that Johnny Mack made a screen test during Bama’s 1926 Rose Bowl trip. There probably was no screen test made in Hollywood but what literally amounted to a screen test was the film of Johnny Mack and the teams’ return to campus in which it was very obvious that the motion picture camera was very kind to a 21 year old Johnny Mack Brown.
Again, we find the evidence for this is in Champ Pickens’ A REBEL IN SPORTS:
“Movies of the Rose Bowl Game were taken, and, as a means of recruiting new students, we showed them in hamlets, towns and cities throughout the state. We always closed by saying, ‘Come to the University of Alabama.’
Johnny Mack Brown, a regular big buster of a guy, with the profile of a matinee idol, stood out in the film. He photographed particularly well. One night, at a showing I thought particularly well. One night, at a showing, I thought to myself,  ‘That big, handsome lug ought to be in Hollywood.’
Johnny was earning outside money for school by selling insurance. I went to him and told him about my plan to get him in the movies. I’d be his agent. He agreed and we got on a train and headed for Southern California. (ed. Note: This was BAMA’s 1927 Rose Bowl trip where the team fought Stanford to a 7-7 tie and Johnny Mack served as backfield coach.)
Johnny’s screen test was a smash hit. They offered us a five-year contract, with options. I told him to sign. They put him in Westerns and he’s been making pictures since. How he could remember his lines I will never know. His memory was terrible. They called him ‘Dumb Dumb’ at Tuscaloosa because he had a hard time remembering football signals. Coach Wallace Wade, in fact, had to install the huddle system for Johnny’s benefit.
Once he got his signals straight, however, it was a case of Mr. Brown doing it up brown.
He needed no script to score touchdowns.”
Now, thanks to Champ Pickens, we all know “the rest of the story.”

SID SEGLER: "Robert, you may have seen this before, but just in case I'll comment on Johnny Mack again. Johnny Mack's Aunt Ada was the wife of Troy Lewis who ran the men's clothing store on N. Foster Street (I worked there part time over Christmas in the 11th and 12th grades.) My aunt, dad's youngest sister Mattie, rented her and my Uncle LeRoy Peacock's apartment in back of Troy and Ada's house. When I was in the 5th and 6th grades, she would call me when she found out that Johnny Mack was coming to Dothan to visit his aunt and uncle, then would come get me out of Highland school to spend some time with Johnny Mack Brown! BTW, she was in Johnny Mack's DHS class! Of course, I felt like a real wheel getting to spend time in person with a Hollywood star! Great memories for me!"

Champ Pickens: The Man Who Sold JMB To Hollywood

JMB in front of Dothan High. Miss Pelham is on the left.

The Brown's shoe store in Dothan.

JMB with is younger brother, David. (picture from THE GARGOYLE)

JMB in silent movies

from JMB comic book

Recently restored house built by JMB in Beverly Hills

Corolla picture

First spotted by Hollywood on the sidelines of the Bama-Kentucky game in B'ham
JMB and his wife. She was a Foster from Tuscaloosa

Corolla picture

Corolla picture
Corolla picture

 l. to r.: Leslie Howard, Will Rogers, Carole Lombard, Spencer Tracy, JMB













 VICTOR HUGO FRIEDMAN: Tuscaloosa businessman and the benefactor of the ALABAMA CRIMSON TIDE during their rise to their FIRST NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP.