The 1940’s have been called the decade of the bobbysoxer, when young girls with a fondness for short socks developed an infatuation for pop singers and movie stars of the day.
One source of their youthful admiration was Van Johnson, a Hollywood heartthrob with an endearing boy-next-door charm, who was a top box office draw throughout the ‘40s and ‘50s in classics such as “Thirty Seconds over Tokyo,” “The Caine Mutiny,” and “In the Good Old Summertime.”
Johnson passed away in 2008. But three years later, on what would have been his 95th birthday, his hometown of Newport, RI, declared his birthday of August 25 “Van Johnson Day.” And they have been celebrating it ever since.
On the national level, a campaign directed at the U.S. Postal Service to honor Johnson with an official commemorative stamp for his 100th anniversary in 2016 has received support from many celebrities.
“I think it would be wonderful to commemorate Van Johnson with a stamp,” said actor Tim Matheson (“Animal House,” “Fletch”) who appeared early in his film career with Johnson in “Divorce American Style” and “Yours, Mine, and Ours.”
“I’d worked in television before, but these films were my first time around bonafide movie stars,” recalled Matheson, who currently stars in the CW Network series ‘Hart of Dixie.’ “Van was charming as hell and couldn’t have been nicer.”
As a young actor, Matheson says he learned about professionalism from veterans such as Johnson, as well as Henry Fonda and Lucille Ball who played parents to 18 children, including Matheson, in “Yours, Mine, and Ours.”
“Van and Lucy were both demanding and didn’t cut us any slack because we were young,” he said. “We were expected to know our lines, know our cues, be on time, and give our best performance.”
Heading the campaign for a stamp is long-time Johnson fan Bobbie Shaffner, who began a petition to the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee with her husband, Henry. In addition to gathering on-line signatures, the Pennsylvania couple are collectors of Johnson memorabilia.
“We’re also hoping to establish an exhibition in the Smithsonian for Johnson’s 100th anniversary,” said Shaffner from her home in Bala Cynwyd, Penn.
During a previous Newport “Van Johnson Day” celebration, Shaffner even auctioned off a pair of Johnson’s red socks she acquired at an estate sale of the late actor.
Johnson was famous for wearing red socks, a habit he explained in a 1978 Bangor Daily News article:
“It was my first Hollywood party at Mary and Jack Benny’s house. The only clean pair of socks I had were red. Instead of laughing at me they thought I was clever. The socks were a great icebreaker and the color has been with me ever since.”
Another big Van Johnson admirer is William Shatner.
“As a kid in Canada, I would go to the movie theater on Saturdays and watch all the features,” recalled Shatner. “One actor I always looked forward to seeing was this snub-nosed, red-haired American guy called Van Johnson.”
Years later, the two crossed paths when Shatner was producing and directing a summer stock play on the New England circuit.
“Van was also touring the region just behind me,” he recalled. “We’d close on Saturday night, pack up on Sunday morning, and I’d drive to the next theater. But before I left, Van and his company would come in.”
The sight of Johnson, says Shatner, was unforgettable.
“He would almost levitate, he was so full of energy!” said Shatner. “He would spring around the theater from room to room being boisterous and funny, always in the red socks! He was a hero of mine growing up and I had the absolute pleasure of experiencing his charming personality for about an hour every Sunday for a summer.”
With continued support from celebrities and fans, Bobbie Shaffner is hopeful Van Johnson’s image will join the ranks of stars like Lucille Ball, Gary Cooper, and Frank Sinatra who have all appeared on commemorative U.S. stamps.
“There are millions of former bobbysoxers still out there,” said Shaffner. “We need them to sign the petition and get Van his stamp!” (see www.vanjohnsonstamp.org).
Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, Ala., and has written features, columns, and interviews for over 400 magazines and newspapers.