Turn the Ordinary into the Extraordinary

By Annette Cashatt

Let’s pretend we’re in a psychiatrist’s office and I’m the doctor (worrisome situation already…). We’re doing the little game where I say one word and you respond with the first phrase that comes to mind. I say peanut butter, you say jelly. I say high-school, you begin a tirade about that 10th grade teacher who never liked you and the bully down the hall. I say insurance investigator, you say…Johnny Dollar. I hope you say Johnny Dollar, anyway.

The radio program, Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar, began in 1949 and had a wonderful run up until it stopped in 1962. In that 12 year run, the audience came to associate insurance with something more than just paperwork: adventure, excitement, mystery. CBS radio described it as “the transcribed adventures of the man with the action-packed expense account — America’s fabulous freelance insurance investigator.” Johnny Dollar was fabulous, a certain James Bond mystique if you will in the insurance world.

He was popular with the ladies, but never used them (well, practically never). He knew how to use a gun and stood up for himself when he went to head-to-head with the criminals. He would investigate about anything: car insurance/auto insurance, boat insurance, business insurance, homeowner insurance, commercial/business insurance, and life insurance. Anything that could involve potential fraud and was worth a pretty penny meant that Johnny Dollar was sure to be there. In short, Johnny Dollar was one of the last hard boiled detectives (insurance detective, but still a detective).
He had many notable insurance cases, but one of the most significant features of Johnny Dollar was the style in which the show was executed. It often began with an item from his expense account (which involves unbelievable prices by today’s standards; he once paid twenty cents for a taxi-ride!). As the story continued, we heard all the details of the case laid out before us. When members of the opposite sex were involved, Jonny would size them up, noting those who could be friends and those who he felt were predators. He would do the exact same with the men. His expense account included every little detail; drinks so he could casually get to know a suspect, repairs to clothing ripped during a fight, gifts to woo a female into trusting him, and so much more. He could find out whether the Molly Kay was sunk for boat insurance and business insurance fraud faster than you could blink. He could figure out who was conning an old couple into a twisted life insurance scheme before the half hour was up.

Nowadays, radio dramas are a thing of the past. But Johnny Dollar helped pave the way for insurance investigators, mystery dramas, and even feminism. While some of Johnny’s interactions with women were questionable, he still relied on them. There were times he trusted them with his life and he readily acknowledged a woman was just as capable as a man of committing insurance fraud. One of his dearest friends was a single woman who also had powerful ties that assisted him more than once. Often the women Johnny met had power, intelligence, and spoke their mind freely. Beyond feminism, Johnny started a trend of playing with how a story if told; using an expense account, or a journal, as catalysts in a story was encouraged by the drama program.

So, going back to our psychiatrist’s analogy, I say this: Take some inspiration from Johnny. If you’re looking for a pick me up, do what Johnny did and find some adventure in life, whether you’re in Charlottesville or Timbuktu. He would take an ordinary expense account and turn it into a creative, beautiful description of his life’s work. He created his own path and was not afraid of turning an ordinary insurance investigator job into something spectacular. He put his whole effort into doing the job and doing it right.

Vintage Picture of Plane/Man from Public Domain
Vintage Picture of Plane/Man from Public Domain

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