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Johnny Holliday, whose résumé reveals an allergy to downtime, began rehearsals last Monday for big openings in two of the performance realms in which he traffics. The term “break a leg” is familiar to either.
Sports fans think of Holliday as one of their own. And much of what he’s done over his career has reeked of testosterone. The onetime star quarterback and pitcher of North Miami High School (back when he was known as Johnny Bobbittno, not that one) has served as a public-address announcer for the Cleveland Browns, the Oakland Raiders, the San Francisco Warriors, and the short-lived Washington Capitols of the ABA, and he’s had various speaking roles with the Orioles, Senators, Federals, and Wizards. He’s also covered every Olympiad since 1984 for ABC Radio.
But it’s Holliday’s tenure as the voice of University of Maryland athletics that’s left the biggest imprint locally. He’s called Terrapin football and basketball games since 1979. So he was the guy who delivered all the good news as the gridiron Terps recovered from a 31-0 halftime deficit to beat Miami in 1984 in the greatest comeback in NCAA history, and again this spring, as the hoop Terps took followers along for the ride to the school’s first Final Four appearance.
Because another season’s never too far away for Holliday, he spends far more time looking forward than back. He prepared all last week for the Terps’ football opener, against North Carolina. After getting home from the early morning tapings of his nationally aired sports segments for ABC, he’d break out the depth charts, go over last year’s statistics for the team’s returning stars, and practice pronunciations of new coach Ralph Friedgen’s inaugural squad (kicker Vedad Siljkovic = vuh-DAD SILL-kuh-vick).
Holliday’s broadcasting career away from the playing fields prepared him to deal with events far more momentous than a regular-season Terps game.
He was, for example, a rock ‘n’ roll jockey at WINS in New York when the Beatles arrived in America, in February 1964, and he even got the Fabs to tape a promo for his show. And Holliday, who suffers from both terminal niceness and the same eternal-youth bug that Dick Clark can’t seem to shake, was a top jock at KYA in San Francisco in August 1966, when the Beatles came through town to play Candlestick Park, a gig that he co-hosted. Last Wednesday, he commemorated the 35th anniversary of that show, which history records as their last concert appearance, by admitting that he missed the moment.
“It was really a ho-hum deal at the time,” he tells me. “The show wasn’t even a sellout, not even close, and nobody in the stadium had any idea that this was it for the Beatles. I didn’t save anything from that day, nothing at all. But if I knew then what I know now, well, I would’ve ripped the shirt off Paul’s back.”
He’s also had a K-tel album in his name, gone on tour with the Monkees in their heyday (“I really thought that phenomenon was as big as the Beatles,” he says), and hung out with essentially every name act that needed some publicity for a San Francisco stop during the height of Haight-Ashbury’s puissance.
“My manager at KYA put in an open-door policy for any band that wanted to go on the air,” he says. “So it was nothing for Janis Joplin or Grace Slick or any big star to just walk in and spend the day with us. I look back now and see that I was a part of history, but I didn’t keep any mementos from all that flower-power stuff. Nothing at all. Hard to believe, huh?”
Since moving to D.C. in 1969 to join WWDC-AM and keep his radio career going, Holliday has also survived a plane crash (in 1975, while traveling with his daughter on his way back from a charity mission in North Carolina) and a year living with two of the strongest personalities in sportsRick Barry and Larry Brownin the same Montgomery County apartment during the Capitols’ one season here. (Barry and Brown were the team’s stars, Holliday its announcer.)
Even after all those brushes with greatness and tragedy, Holliday swears he got the jitters before calling the Terps’ first kickoff of 2001. As he does every season.
“You really gotta rehearse going into a season, football or basketball or whatever,” he says. “You want to make sure that your information comes off automatically, but it can’t sound automatic. You want to remember your lines for when you need them.”
Holliday has plenty of practice remembering lines and conquering opening-day jitters. His sporting fans might be surprised to learn about his off-air passions: Their favorite play-by-play man is also a real song and dance guy, a dedicated thespian, and the star of dozens of musicals. Most of his productions have been staged at local dinner theaters.
But at the end of the month, The Music Man, which is scheduled as the first stage production to be held at the new $130 million Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center in College Park, should be ready for previews, with Holliday in the lead role of traveling salesman Harold Hill. Nightly three-hour rehearsals for the cast began a week ago.
His clip file shows that he’s broken more legs than the Sopranos. Richard Coe, the Washington Post’s main theater critic for four decades and the guy credited with bringing D.C. stages into the major leagues, took a shine to Holliday.
“In voice and movement he’s in humorous control,” wrote Coe of Holliday’s work in The Apple Tree in April 1977.
Coe, who died in 1995 at 81, had a reputation among actors as an easy touch, but even critics known to wield a far sharper pen have fallen for Holliday’s charms.
“He is curiously reminiscent of Donald O’Connor,” wrote former Post critic David Richards of Holliday after catching him at the Harlequin Dinner Theatre’s production of Bye Bye Birdie in May 1982.
Richards also gave Holliday two big thumbs up for a 1987 “pistol-driven” performance in 42nd Street: “Holliday will have you marveling at how much is up there on stage….Holliday’s sonorous, seasoned delivery makes Julian formidable and effective.”
Richards, it should be noted, has since become a theater critic for the New York Times.
“For some reason, [Coe and Richards] never slammed me,” Holliday says. “I don’t know how I escaped their wrath. I guess I was always in good shows, surrounded by good people.”
Holliday predicts that The Music Man will hit its mark, and, being as generous with his praise of others as was Coe, that Friedgen will, theatrically speaking, break a leg during his rookie season. No matter how things turn out, Holliday promises that by year’s end he’ll have keepsakes from any game that seemed even remotely noteworthy.
“I learned from my mistakes with the Beatles and rock ‘n’ roll,” he says. “I make darn sure I save stuff now. You just never know.” Dave McKenna