Two brothers, both are fighting hard to remain the ‘average guy,’ but are in no way ‘average.’
In preparing for the bus trip to participate in the dedication services for the Washington, DC Martin Luther King Memorial I had the opportunity to briefly interview Harry Johnson, Sr. and more extensively, Van Johnson.
Just what is their relationship to this project? Harry is the man most singularly responsible for the initiation and fruition of the Memorial. Van is Harry’s brother and a long-time resident of Milwaukee.
Reared in St. Louis, Missouri, they spend their teen years on supplementing their incomes with various manual labor jobs. Their paths seem to move in opposite directions after high school. Harry goes off to Xavier University in Louisiana where he pledges Alpha phi Alpha Fraternity, meets and marries his wife and eventually establishes a successful law practice in Houston. Van goes further north into Chicago, Detroit and the like. He soon finds his footing in the entertainment industry where he spends the next 30-plus years as a promoter and tour director for named acts and theatrical plays.
Van and Harry have the opportunity to work together again, when Harry ran for political office in Houston. As Van explains, “The first two attempts were so-so, but the third time was the charm.” The third race was not an actual political race; Harry was elected 31st General President of the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity.
It was during Harry’s tenure that this organization would successfully petition to have a monument of Dr. King erected on the National Mall. The end result was the passing of Public Law 104-333 (1996) under President Clinton and the establishment of The Washington, D.C. Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation; Harry to serve as its Manager. On August 28, the world will see the true success of these efforts.
Van’s career in entertainment management flourishes to the point that he is tapped as the individual most capable to revive The Riverside Theatre here in Milwaukee. In 1996, Van takes over as the General Manager of The Riverside; his wife supports him as Box Office Manager. The stability of an established city is easily measured by its appreciation for the arts.
Van’s leadership opens Milwaukee to his experience with a host of named performers such as the Commodores, Jackson 5, Marvin Gaye, Smoky Robinson, the Dramatics, Dells and Temptations. Lenny Williams, Barry, Teddy and the like. For the next ten years, The Riverside Theatre will provide Milwaukee with first class entertainers who range from Broadway plays like Cats to international performers like River Dance; from musical performances that range from gospel to rhythm and blues.
During that same timeframe Van opens and manages Mr. V’s restaurant. Mr. V’s was in the Best Western Hotel at Third and Wisconsin Avenue. Van will continue to provide named comedy and R&B entertainment for Milwaukee at this location, as well.
In years prior to its current management, Van was responsible for securing talent for the African World Festival at the request of Bethena Webber and Joe Davis.
With the passing of the owner of The Riverside Theatre around 2004, Van began to transition toward his ‘much-disserved’ retirement. Presently, Van serves as the Marketing Director for Eisenberg Riley & Zimmerman SC. His work keeps his in our community through a variety of projects.
The Dedication of the Memorial in Washington, DC will be yet another time that the two brothers will indeed rejoice in one of their successes.