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My Uncle's Hilarious (and effective) Fight Against Racism in the 30s

From left to right, back row: Jeanne and her husband Uncle JC, Ole Olsen and his wife Lillian, my sister Shanda, my dad and mom, Bill and Moya Lear. Front row, my brother John, Aunt Joy, my brother David, and Uncle JC’s daughter, Nanette.

I have never been so proud of being part of my family.

But not because my father, William P. Lear, built the Learjet. Or because my maternal grandfather, Ole Olsen, (we all knew him as Big John), was a world renowned comedian. His Vaudeville show “Hellzapoppin” was the longest running show on Broadway at the time, running for over 1014 nights, from 1938 to 1941. Nothing had run over 500 performances before that. All those accomplishments pale in comparison to my uncle JC’s creative subversion of the racism embedded in the country at that time.

It was October of 1945. My grandfather’s comedy had made him very wealthy, and he traveled incessantly. He had a car dealer friend in Washington DC who gave him a great price for a Cadillac. Big John (the Olsen of Olsen & Johnson) bought it on the spot. As he was due in Southern California to make a movie, he gave the job of transporting the car West to his son, JC. He sent his valet, Elmer, to accompany JC and Elmer brought a friend.

The first obstacle was where to eat. Both Elmer and his friend were black, so when JC stopped for their first meal, he discovered that he could enter but Elmer and his friend could not. He was outraged. Checking into a motel proved equally problematic.

He wasn’t having any of this. He drove to the nearest haberdasher’s and bought a chauffeur’s hat and two fezzes. At the next motel, the three of them entered the lobby, and JC, in his chauffeur’s hat, explained to the manager that he was driving His Royal Highness and the Prime Minister to San Francisco for the formation of the United Nations, and did they have rooms for them. “Of course!” said the manager, flustered and honored. JC turned to Elmer and spoke in respectful African sounding jibberish. Elmer and his friend looked around for a moment with great dignity and reserve, nodded that this would be acceptable, and JC proceeded to take of their bags, and making sure they had every comfort before checking into his own room.

They worked their way across the whole country and the black Cadillac arrived in San Francisco without incident — JC, Elmer and his friend having shared a unique and delicious little piece of subversion in the process.

Like I said, I have never been so proud to be part of my family.


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