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Lititz boy makes it big, but never forgets his roots
“I come from Lititz, Pennsylvania.”
Those were the words uttered to host Dick Clark on American Bandstand July 15, 1959, right after the song “The Heart of an Angel” was sung to many screaming fans in the studio. The event took place 55 years ago this month. The artist was Johnny Johns from Owl Hill Road.
This is his story.
A typical boy from a small town, Johns remembers going to Lutz’s Meat Market, Floyd Hagy’s Western Auto on Main Street, and even has fond memories of acting as a tour guide at Sturgis Pretzel House and working at Rosey’s Lunch Wagon. He graduated from Rothsville High School in 1956.
Johns was exposed to music at a very early age.
“I remember music,” he said. “I remember Grandpa had an old Philco radio, and I remember standing by that radio, hearing music coming out. It was so pretty. That was my introduction to music. All I ever wanted to do was sing.”
Johns knew all along that he wanted to sing, and had big dreams for his future. He listened to artists such as Doris Day, Johnny Mathis and Ella Fitzgerald, who were all early inspirations to his music career.
One day, while at WLAN radio station on Queen Street in Lancaster, Johns met a gentleman named Harold Kern who was in a band called the Admiral Tones. Kern asked Johnny to sing in the band, and shortly thereafter, they went to Philadelphia to record. Together, the group recorded such hits as “Hey, Hey, Pretty Baby” and “Rocksville, PA” on the Hi-Mar recording label. Johns and Kern began to knock on doors around Philadelphia to get noticed.
“I wanted to sing, I wanted a Cadillac, and I wanted a diamond ring” Johns stated.
Eventually, Johns was asked to cut a single entitled “The Heart of an Angel” on Vista Records, which was owned by Disney. This was the track which propelled him to stardom, and in no time he found himself performing with some of the biggest acts in music at the time.
“When I went to Philadelphia to make the record, the record distributor had a connection with Dick Clark, and told me I was going to be on the show. I went down to American Bandstand in my ‘57 Chevy. At the time, Raymond Reedy was the mayor (of Lititz), and when I arrived to the studio, I had a telegram waiting for me wishing me the best from Lititz,” he recalled.
As the song climbed the charts, Johns saw his fame skyrocket.
“It was neat hearing myself on the radio” he said.
A radio station in Miami hosted a contest where boyfriends could write in to tell listeners why their girl has the heart of an angel. The winner’s girlfriend received a date out with Johnny Johns. He also spent an evening with Frankie Avalon at Fred Hohl’s house in Miami. Hohl was a popular local radio DJ. Prior to this experience, Johns spent three days with Annette Funicello in Washington, where they made personal appearances together. Being the young handsome man that he was, it was no surprise that Funicello even sat on his lap at one of the stops along the way. Johnny also had the pleasure of meeting top artists like Fabian during his time in the spotlight.
Just when things looked great and his band was preparing to put an album together, the sobering reality of responsibility kicked in. Johnny Johns received a draft notice.
“The thing that stopped this whole deal was that I got drafted, right in the middle of putting a record together,” he said. “That was the end of it.”
While in the Army he sang, and before long, he and other soldiers formed a combo for the Daughter’s of the American Revolution. Shortly thereafter, he was offered a chance by a General’s wife to sing in the Army Chorus, but he respectfully declined.
After getting out of the Army, his friend Alicia Rush, who was the artistic director at Franklin and Marshall College, encouraged Johns to read for a part. Rush was impressed by his acting ability, and before he knew it, he had a job at the Fulton Opera House painting sets. Then, in 1973, he auditioned for the production of “Carnival,” winning the part of Paul the Puppeteer. Performing seemed to come naturally for him.
While involved in theatre, he acted in shows such as “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Mame” and “Sly Fox.” He did Shakespeare and children’s theatre; and he performed in a production of “Tilly: A Mennonite Maid,” which played at the Guernsey Barn in Lancaster and the Mount Gretna Playhouse. In this show, he was able to utilize his natural PA Dutch accent to further immerse himself in the role.
Now retired and still living in the area, Johns reflects on his life, which was filled with excitement and reward.
“I’m thankful to have the talents and abilities I have, which gave me a terrific life. It opened many doors,” he said. “When you’re doing something, no matter what it is, you do the best you possibly can do. When you have a job to do, you get it done. Dick Clark show? No problem, no nerves. I did my job, and got it done.”
Never forgetting his roots, Johns was so moved by the beauty of the Lititz Springs Park that he recently wrote a poem about it:
A long time ago,
When I was a child
I remember a place,
Where my feelings ran wild.
The feelings I felt,
As I walked on the ground
Made me feel like a prince,
with a bright golden crown.
The place was a park,
With trees all around.
Where multi-colored leaves,
Had covered the ground.
Yellow and orange
Red and bright green,
All over the ground
Made a pretty fall scene.
But wait, I have more
I saw there that day,
Something that made
My young heart float away.
A trickle of water
A stream I had heard,
Was floating on by
Like the sound of a bird.
At the head of the stream
I saw with delight,
A lion of stone
I called him Big Mike.
For years and for years
The lion was there,
Not a move did he make
Not a frown nor a stare.
He guarded the stream
Both day and night,
He kept the park safe
With all of his might.
The Lititz Springs Park
Is the name of the place,
A smile not a frown
It will leave on your face.