Born in Burbank, California. Norm Johnson grew up in Hollywood, California. Mother was Max Factor’s right hand for movie makeup, and owned three beauty salons in Los Angeles and Hollywood. Norm moved to San Diego upon the death of his mother in 1946, to live with his mother’s sister, Ethel and her husband Leonard Olson. When he turned 17, in 1950, Johnson enlisted in the United States Air Force. He eventually became an investigator in the Air Police (now referred to as APIS), and was sent to Japan in June, 1950 (Korean War broke out). Upon arrival in Japan, he immediately signed up to continue his studying (which he had begun as a youngster in San Diego) in the Martial Arts at the Kodakan Institute in Tokyo, where he became a third degree black belt.
In October 1950, an Army officer, who was also training at the Kodakan, asked Johnson what he did in the Air Force, and where he was stationed (APIS based at Tachikawa AFB). In November, 1951, Norm received orders to report to the American Embassy where he would join an elite group of 16 mixed service members, all experts in the Martial Arts, to become personal bodyguards for General Douglas MacArthur and his family. At the time there were about 200 members of the Honor Guard (mostly veterans of WWII), who guarded the Command headquarters, living quarters for the General, and the immediate family. Johnson’s Elite guards were selected to guard the family, and to escort the General, or his family, to formal receptions in Tokyo, or when he met formally with political delegations from various countries involved in the war, or with the Emperor. The Elite’s were always in the background without any weapon: The General liked his personal guards to know the Martial Arts, because he felt the reaction time was quicker, than pulling out a gun from a holster. Johnson served at the Embassy until President Harry Truman fired the General in April, 1951. He returned to work as an investigator and worked on numerous cases involving narcotics, illegal trade of script (used by armed forces as money), and the printing of phony script.
On Dec. 17, 1953, he was discharged in San Francisco, and returned to live with his family in San Diego. Johnson would go back and forth to Hollywood to enter dance contests. In 1955, around March, Norm met James Dean while racing a Porsche for a sponsor in Palm Springs, and the two racers became good friends. Whenever he was in Hollywood, Norm would stay at his place just above Hollywood Blvd. Norm met Elvis on the set of Jailhouse Rock in 1957, when he was selected to be one of the dancers in the Jailhouse scene. After filming sometimes, Elvis would discuss his interest in the Martial Arts, and would also ask some of us to join him in a touch football game, along with a few other actors, including Jane Mansfield, Mickey Hargatey, Nick Adams, Terry Moore, etc. at a Beverly Hills Park. After the film was finished, the two remained friends. In 1959, Johnson was hired to work in the public relations department, for former Heavyweight Champion of the World, Joe Louis.
Joe was just getting licensed to promote boxing events in Los Angeles. The first fight was with Cassius Clay (now known as Ali) at the time in a six-round fight (which for some odd reason is never mentioned in his record book). He won easily. United World Enterprise went on to promote two more of Ali’s biggest west coast fights, one with Light Heavyweight Champion, Archie Moore. He remained with Louis until the biggest event ever promoted at Dodger Stadium—three titles were on the block: Davey Moore, featherweight champion, fought Sugar Ramos and lost his title. After the fight Moore was taken to a hospital, where he died the next day. Louis gave up the fight business! I went to work for Copley News Service as a reporter and sports writer.
In 1964, Johnson covered a fight at the Olympic Auditorium, in downtown Los Angeles, when a riot broke out over a decision. His story was selected as the Best on the Spot News Story of the year by Copley Newspapers, Associated Press and United Press International for Southern California. On August 11, 1965, Norm was in the press box at Dodger Stadium, covering a baseball game (not sure if it was the Dodgers or Angels), and had a friend from the Los Angeles Police Department as a guest. They had come to the game in Norm’s car, when his friend got a phone call, and was told that there was some kind of disturbance in Watts, and they needed a few senior officers to report to the area. Norm agreed to drive him to the area. Long story short both men were attacked by rocks, etc., as they drove down Main Street towards Century Blvd. The windows were broken and the windshield was in bad shape. The Lt. shot his gun in the air, and we were clear, and they sped towards Century. They spotted a crowd around a phone booth on the corner, and saw a reporter Johnson knew in the booth. The car plowed through the crowd, and the reporter from UPI, jumped on the hood. All three were bleeding and Johnson also had glass in his eyes. They sped to a police sub-station at 77th street, where they were treated. Norm, while lying on a gurney, and the nurse was taking glass from his face, called in his first person account of the riot. The headline, the next morning read, “I Drove Through Hell Last Night…” It won every award available and was nominated for a Pulitzer—but did not win!
In November 1965, Norm was hired personally by, Hank Greenspun, to move to Las Vegas, as Assistant Sports Editor for the Las Vegas Sun, and featured columnist. He covered the UNLV basketball team in 65-66, and did major stories on its first major star, Elbert Miller.
In early 1967, he was hired by the Mint Hotel to be director of publicity for the hotel. In 1967, Johnson created the world famous Mint 400 Off-Road Race. Everyone knows about the race pretty much. In 1969 Norm was promoted to the Thunderbird Hotel as Dir. Public Relations and Advertising. He remained a consultant to Mint 400, which was then under the guidance of Mel Larson, and later in the ‘70s by K.J. Howe.
Around 1986 Rodger Ward, a two time Indy 500 Champion, was involved in putting together the first of two high speed open road racing events in Northern Nevada, which involved renting highway 318 from the State of Nevada for 100 miles, so they could have two races a year called, The Silver State Classic and the Challenge, in Ely, NV. Rodger asked Norm to assist him in getting permits, promoting and publicizing the event, which he did for the next 10 years. He also raced for more than 20 plus years. Rodger and Norm also created the Pony Express 100, which raced from Battle Mountain. The Ely race remains today, and is the headquarters for the Silver State Open Road Races, which ends in Hiko. Top speeds in excess of 220 mph. Johnson has numerous top three finishes, with a couple of wins, and has finished every race entered.
Norm’s racing began when he was 14 growing up in Los Angeles and attending Washington High School, and later Reise High School. The first race track was at an old dirt track in Gardenia speedway along with such luminaries as Parnelli Jones, and Ed Haddad. The owner was A.J. Agajanian.
Norm has raced off road competing in the Baja 1000, Baja 500, San Felipe 350, Mint 400, and other major west coast events, including the SCORE Race of Champions at the Riverside Speedway, finishing in the top three several times, including a win in the San Felipe 350, and taking third in the Mint 400 one year. Johnson was well known as a driver who finished the races, come hell or high water. In the 1976 Baja 1000 (he finished third a couple of times), Norm lost all his headlights, but finished driving through most of the night with no headlights by using a flashlight, and following other race cars through certain areas. He would get behind, stop and wait for another car to come by, jump in and follow until he had to stop and wait for another car. When daylight came he was able to race at top speed, finishing third in his class that year.
Over the years Norm has done publicity and management duties for at least 50 or more entertainers including: Robert Goulet, Lola Falana, Wayne Newton, Freddie Bell, Mary Wilson of the Supremes, Charlie Daniels, Fred Travalena, Ray Romano, Gallagher, Esteban, Jack Jones, and the list goes on, and on. Currently, the 84-year-old Johnson (who really doesn’t look it), is working with several entertainers when they perform in Las Vegas. His good friend, Deana Martin (daughter of another friend Dean Martin) is one of those who appears in Vegas twice a year. Another of those clients is Mary Wilson (who lives in Las Vegas). Norm continues to write his weekly entertainment column, “It’s the Norm” which is in syndication and on the Internet. He is also the publicist for the Laugh Factory inside the Tropicana Hotel, working very closely with its co-owner, Harry Basil.
His proudest moments are having three great daughters, Robin, Denise and Lisa, five grandkids and at last count eight great-grandkids.