Adventure brought to life

Register City Editor

Register/Bob Johnson
Jacquelyn Borgeson, curator of the Osa and Martin Johnson Museum in Chanute, told about the adventurers here Tuesday.

Jacquelyn Borgeson took 40 Allen Countians by the hand and led them through the adventure-filled lives of Osa and Martin Johnson at the spring meeting of the Allen County Historical Society Tuesday evening.
Borgeson, curator of the Osa and Martin Johnson Museum in Chanute, accentuated her presentation with personal notes about places where the Johnsons filmed cannibals and wildlife: she has visited many of them herself as representative and researcher for the museum.
Martin Johnson lived on the edge from early life, pulling pranks in high school that got attention — and reprimand.
He quickly decided working in his father’s Independence jewelry shop wasn’t for him, although it did help him hone photographic skills that piqued his interest as a youngster.
When opportunity arose in 1907 for a round-the-world trip with Jack London on his ship, the Snark, Johnson was ready in a flash to sign on. He was the only crew member to complete the two-year journey; illness befell London and others fell to the wayside.
In 1910, after returning to workday life in Kansas, Johnson met Osa and a few weeks later asked her to marry him. She, a 16-year-old with romantic thoughts, suggested a June wedding. He proposed “right now.” They were married in Independence, where she lied about her age to meet Kansas’ 18-year-old marriage requirement. They made it official hours later at Union Station in Kansas City, on the Missouri side where 16 was the age of accountability.
The Johnsons turned to vaudeville, to the chagrin of both sets of parents, to earn money to film cannibals in the South Pacific.
They were booted from the stage in their first try, at Humboldt, but persevered and over seven years accumulated $4,000 to buy equipment and pay for passage.
Cannibals on Borneo weren’t altogether cooperative, and the Johnsons escaped the island with just one reel of film, nothing else.
That was enough. Americans hadn’t seen cannibals on film before and the show the Johnsons put together was a hit and launched their careers.
They returned to the South Pacific, to film elephants and flying snakes on British North Borneo, and by 1921 were on their way to Africa, supported by his father, who sold the jewelry store in Independence.
The Johnson films became a staple in U.S. movie houses.
In the mid-1920s the Johnsons, on hearing of a special lake in the north African desert that drew animals from many miles, were again on the dark continent, to a place they named Lake Paradise.
On their fourth African safari, the Johnsons carried sound cameras and recorded for the first time indigenous languages. Some of those sound films are studied yet today.
“It’s the only recording of some African languages,” Borgeson said.
The couple visited Borneo again in 1935, and were shocked by devastation of the island brought about by extensive logging operations.
Martin Johnson died in 1937 in an airline crash near Newhall, Calif. Osa, after a long recovery from the crash, wrote most of the 20 books about their adventures, including the most famous, “I Married Adventure.”

BORGESON said Osa Johnson also was the financial wizard of the team, attracting corporate sponsorships for their adventures.
The Johnsons made 35 films and 23 still exist intact.
“Altogether they exposed about a million feet of film and 140 miles (about three-quarters of the original) remains,” Borgeson said.
Their oldest film, “Simba,” was made in 1921; the last in the mid-1930s.
“The Johnsons never feared for themselves in all of their adventures,” Borgeson said. “Martin often said he felt safer in the jungle than he did in civilization.”
The Osa and Martin Johnson Museum in Chanute opened in 1961 and moved to the old Santa Fe depot, which it shares with the Chanute Public Library. The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sundays from 1 to 5 p.m.