Early Acting Career
Like his father and grandfather before him, Johnny was expected to go on to college at Princeton University. However, while Johnny was in high school, his father’s real-estate business lost nearly $2 million by 1927 in the collapse of the Florida real-estate boom. The family was deeply in debt and his father could no longer afford to send him to college. Johnny finished his last year at Woodberry Forest School in Virginia but did not graduate due to his poor grades. He then returned home and went to work for his father to help him reestablish his business.
Back in Savannah, Johnny continued listening and learning about music, taking advantage of live concerts and performances that came to the coastal town. His favorites were the dances out on Tybee Island, east of the city on the Atlantic Ocean. Tybee Island had a large open-air pavilion with a dance floor and crystal balls hanging from the roof that reflected the different-colored lights hung from the ceiling.
The summer after he returned home from high school was a magical time for Johnny, but he began to feel the draw of new places. His best friend was performing on ships that ran between Savannah and New York City. He hatched a plan to stowaway in his friend’s cabin to make it to New York City. He decided to tell his mother who subsequently told his uncle who was the ship’s purser. Not long after the ship was underway, Johnny was discovered and spent the remainder of the trip working below-decks to pay his way.
New York City was very different from Savannah. In Harlem, he could hear jazz and blues, and he could see vibrant musicals on Broadway. He bought his first set of sheet music while he was there, another step towards his future career. Johnny soon returned home to Savannah, but he continued to dream about returning to New York.
When he returned to Savannah he found a new job and decided to join the cast of a small theatre group. He did so well that the theatre group asked him to perform in their next production. This performance, called Hero Worship, was entered into a contest. Johnny and the rest of the cast traveled to New York City to compete against other small-town theatre groups. When they won the competition, Johnny was elated. He again went home to Savannah, but he was determined to return to New York City to find success as an actor.
Soon afterwards, Johnny decided to spend two weeks in New York City trying to find work as a stage actor. He soon had bit parts in a touring company that traveled to cities around the U.S. to perform. After several months traveling and performing, Johnny returned to New York City. He continued to look for work but spent his spare time playing music and writing lyrics. He would continue to try to act, but was able to earn income from songwriting.
During his first two years in New York City, he wasn’t always successful, but he was persistent in following his dreams. He began to make contacts that helped him start and continue his career as a songwriter and lyricist.