Ray Day

A British film crew documents the life of a local legend

"Look! Johnnie's hurt!"

There's blood coming out of his ear!"

Hey, that's not right!"

British film director Ken Howard can hardly believe his luck.

"These lads can act."

What's more, Andy Dowell of Dallas Boy Scout Troop 288 bears a striking resemblance to a young Johnnie Ray.

This is a good thing because Troop 288, as a whole, bears little resemblance to Boy Scouts of 1938.

From the waist up, they could pass. At least to British audiences unaware of how Boy Scout uniforms have changed the past 63 years.

From the waist down, well, cotton Dockers and bright blue Hawaiian pants wreak havoc with any suspension of disbelief.

Not to fret, Howard said. When all the editing is done, it will all look like the 1938 Scout Jamboree in Dallas City Park where Ray lost at least a third of his hearing.

Viewers of Britain's "South Bank Show" won't even be able to tell that it's a headless straw dummy that hits the cold, wet ground. Not the 12-year-old actor.

Howard and sound engineer Ben Shorten came all the way to Dallas from London to visit the childhood haunts of Johnnie Ray.

The crooner and Dallas native, famous for the cry in his voice, was famous throughout the United States in the 1950s with hits such as "Cry" and "The Little White Cloud That Cried."

He has never lost popularity in Great Britain. The Nabob of Sob still holds the record for topping the bill at the London Palladium.

Howard has done award-winning documentaries on a number of performers, including Danny Kaye, John Lennon and Frank Sinatra.

"I'm fascinated by people who are confident enough to be performers," Howard said.

He has loved Johnnie Ray since seeing him perform at the Palladium. Howard was only 12 at the time. "I was the only boy in an audience of screaming girls."

Ray was impressive not only as an artist, Howard said, but also as a part of musical history.

"He was a link between the crooners and the black performers of the time," Howard said.

As such, as singer Tony Bennett has pointed out, Ray can rightly be considered one of the fathers of rock 'n' roll.

When Howard launched into his documentary of Ray, he contacted local historian Arlie Holt. What followed is what Holt called "Ray Day" Oct. 12 -- a packed agenda full of the places where Ray grew up.

It started with the Scout Jamboree and moved on to one of Ray's homes and schools. The afternoon was full of personal interviews with people who grew up with Ray.

They were interviewed, one by one, at the Polk County Museum -- against the museum's various displays.

The evening was the best, Holt said. Filmmakers met up with some fiddlers at Guthrie Park. Ray's father was a fiddler and his music played an important role in the singer's young life.

Musicians regularly jam at Guthrie Park. This was something special, Holt said. "I've never seen anything like it and I've been going to Guthrie Park since the beginning."

Re-enacting the Scout Jamboree was particularly pivotal, Howard said.

It all started when a bunch of Scouts coaxed Ray into a blanket toss.

During a particularly high flip, one of the Scouts lost his grip and Ray fell to the ground. A stick lodged in his ear and cost him much of his hearing.

Or so the story goes. Others disagree.

Walt and Zona Fisher of Dallas knew Ray at the time. They say Ray was wrestling with his sister and hit his head on a bedpost. That's how he lost his hearing.

Another source claims the culprit was a viral infection.

Glen Comuntzis, whose mother grew up with Ray, was told even another version.

"My godparents and mom have told us over the years that a teacher hit John with a ruler in the ear that caused his deafness in that ear," he said.

"Several other former students at Dallas High also have told that story to me while I was a kid growing up."

Holt knows that history is treacherous. "Who's to say what really happened?" he said.

"We can at least say the Scouting accident exacerbated an old condition."

Howard is sticking with the original Scout story. "I think Mr. Snuffy Smith here knows straight of the matter," Howard said. "He was there."

Indeed he was.

Jim "Snuffy" Smith is an artist in Salem. Back then, however, he was in the same Scout troop as Ray. From Smith's account, it looks like the accident might have not been quite an accident.

"It being Johnnie, we decided to have a little fun with him," Smith said.

After Ray fell, the Scouts stood around and laughed, he said. "We put one over on Johnnie."

The laughing stopped when it was clear that Ray was hurt. However, Ray was always considered "different." Smith was vague about what exactly that meant. At least on camera.

Off camera, Smith said Ray was a bit effeminate in his mannerisms which, in 1938, could cause an 11-year-old boy some problems.

Nonetheless, Smith said, Ray was universally admired for his musical prowess.

"If you had a piano in your house, he'd be in there playing the craziest stuff. You could tell he had a lot of talent even back then.

"He played jazz. He could go up and down that keyboard like nobody's business."

Ray remained close to his hometown even during the height of his fame.

He remained particularly close to the Smith family. Smith's mother, Hulda, was a local librarian for years and years. She held Ray as a baby and remained close to him throughout her life.

"He was the same Johnnie," Smith said. "He never did change. "Johnnie was proud of being from Dallas."

The re-creation of the Scout Jamboree was not precise, Smith said. It actually took place on a dry field across the river from where it was filmed.

However, there are houses there now.

All the same, Smith said Howard captured the spirit of the event. He's looking forward to the documentary. He'll have to wait awhile.

A finished copy will be sent to the Polk County Museum, but not until March or April.

Andy Dowell said he never heard of Johnnie Ray before seeing the singer's name and face in last week's Itemizer Observer. He's just excited that his first acting gig will be seen on television.

"It was really fun," he said.

Howard enjoyed it too. "These kids are just naturals," he said.

Howard became a filmmaker in his early 20s, landing a job as a director for the BBC. However, he and a friend were distracted by song writing.

They wrote the hit "Have I The Right" for the Honeycombs.

Such moonlighting didn't sit well with the BBC. "It was like being in a monastic order," Howard said.

Even though they wrote the song under the name Howard Blakely, they were forced to make a choice. Song writing or the BBC.

They chose song writing and went on to write hits such as "I've Lost You" for Elvis Presley.

It was his twin love for music and filmmaking that drew Howard into making documentaries about musicians.

"I just love all music," Howard said.

"I even love bagpipe music -- from a distance."


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