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How Ruthless Is Bob Johnson?

While I continue to search for Jon Chait's great Bob Johnson piece from a few years ago--which, surprise surprise, doesn't appear to be in our online archives--I thought I'd file an online placeholder with my own Johnson story.

Back in the '80s, when I was growing up in D.C., I took piano lessons from Johnson's wife, Sheila. This was before the Johnsons founded Black Entertainment Television, and, thus, before they were billionaires. Sheila, or Mrs. Johnson as I knew her, taught her music lessons from the basement of their modest ranch home on Brandywine Street, just off Connecticut Avenue. Once a week, I'd sit in that basement for an hour and struggle through the basic chords.

I wasn't a very good piano student, but I wasn't an abysmal one either, and every once in a while Mrs. Johnson would invite me to perform in a recital she'd organized. One was on a dinner boat that cruised up and down the Potomac; another was in a mansion nestled in Rock Creek Park. But for my third recital, she'd arranged for my grandest venue yet: the Old Post Office Pavilion on Pennsylvania Avenue. And to suit the grandness of the location, the music she chose for me to play for the occassion was the theme from the TV show Dynasty. (Like I said earlier, this was the '80s.)

For months leading up to the Old Post Office recital, I practiced piano like I'd never practiced before. The Dynasty theme was the longest and most complicated song I'd ever played. One of the trickiest parts came at the end of the first page of sheet music and involved a chord that required me to use both of my hands, thus making it impossible for me to turn the page. So Mrs. Johnson and I decided that I would simply memorize the first page so that I could begin the recital with my music book opened to the second page. And after a lot of work, I committed that first page of music to memory. I mean, I could have played it in my sleep.

But, on the day of the actual recital, I choked. Up on the stage in the Old Post Office's food court, I drew a complete blank and couldn't remember one note from that first page. After what seemed like an eternity of my sitting in front of the piano completely frozen, Mrs. Johnson came and sat on the bench next to me. She turned the sheet music to the first page and then, when the time came, she turned the sheet music to the second page for me while both of my hands played that complicated chord. As I remember it, except for the fact that Mrs. Johnson had to sit on the bench next to me, I played the song without a hitch. And when I finished, I think a few of the tourists even took a break from their Chili In a Bag and Walkaway Sundaes (remember, it was the '80s) to give me a little round of applause. 

But Mrs. Johnson wasn't pleased. A few days after the Old Post Office recital, she called my parents to tell them that I'd have to seek piano lessons elsewhere. The reason she gave was that she'd decided to stop teaching piano in order to concentrate on strings, but the timing of that decision was certainly suspicious. I never did find another piano teacher, but, aside from some mild PTSD whenever I went near the Old Post Office Pavillion, I emerged from the whole episode unscathed. I was actually grateful for Mrs. Johnson's decision, seeing as how piano lessons had been my mom's idea in the first place.

But, looking back on it all now, though, I should have recognized the episode as an early sign that the Johnsons were destined for fortune and fame. I mean, you have to be pretty ruthless to fire a piano student over one lousy recital. I have little doubt that the Johnsons demonstrated similar ruthlessness in climbing to the top of the basic cable heap with B.E.T. And I'd imagine that Bob Johnson was just being his old ruthless self yesterday when he attacked Barack Obama. To the Johnsons, piano lessons and politics ain't beanbag.

P.S. Alas, this shaggy dog story turns out to be even shaggier than it originally seemed, when you consider that Sheila Johnson, who's now divorced from Bob, is supporting Obama. Then again, maybe she'll now do something ruthless on Obama's behalf.

--Jason Zengerle