Before Jonathan Winters was a star, he was terrorizing teachers in Springfield

Throughout a 56-year career that included countless appearances on late-night TV, a starring role among the all-stars of “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” and close to a dozen Grammy-nominated comedy albums, Springfield-raised comedy great Jonathan Winters has remained someone whom the Dayton region can be proud to call its own.

Winters was born in Dayton on Nov. 11, 1925 and moved to Springfield in 1932. His mother, Alice Bahman, hosted a talk show locally on WIZE radio and appeared often in Springfield Civic Theatre plays.

She brought 7-year-old Johnny to Springfield from Dayton after the divorce from her husband.

At an early age, Winters showcased a talent for making people laugh.

Addison “Skip” Beckley, of Springfield, once recalled Winters’ classroom antics at Elmwood School on Springfield’s east side in an interview with this news outlet.

While their teacher would turn to the blackboard, “Johnny would instantly turn around and do this pantomime of Al Capone,” Beckley. “Of course, the class would erupt in laughter, she’d wheel around, and he would wheel around at the same time and look innocent.”

A 1954 Dayton Daily News story tells the story of how “The school teachers in Dayton used to tell young Jonathan Winters to stop making noises or he’d never amount to anything.”

In 1943, Winters dropped out of Springfield High School at age 17 to join the Marines and serve in the Pacific during World War II.

After serving in the military, Winters studied at Kenyon College in Ohio for a year before transferring to the Dayton Art Institute. Winters attended art school alumni reunions at the DAI and also donated one of his works to the museum in 1993.

According to a 1955 Springfield News-Sun article, Winters claimed that at one point he needed a watch and entered a talent show to win one. He did win the watch, and his performance opened the door for him to become a radio disc jockey. Winters first became a DJ on WING in 1946. From there, he went to WBNS-TV in Columbus.

Credit: File

Credit: File

“I was the cheery voice at 6 to 8 a.m.,” he once recalled in an interview. “I was a lot of cherry voices, in fact.”

His marriage in 1948 to Dayton native Eileen Schauder would give him the support system he needed to go on to conquer the New York comedy scene. The wedding was held at Christ Episcopal Church in Dayton.

The couple had a son, Jonathan “Jay” Winters IV, in 1950. The family moved to New York in 1953 so that he could pursue his entertainment career. He remained proud to be from Ohio, telling the News-Sun in 2011 that he carried a buckeye in his pocket wherever he went.

In his final interview with the Springfield News-Sun, the 85-year-old Winters said, “At my age, guys who were in World War II, a thousand a day are dying. And that’s kind of scary. But I had a hell of a roll. I’ve had a great career, a great time. Had a lot of problems — who the hell hasn’t? — and overcame almost all of them. I’ve met some great people, traveled around the world. My God. A lot of people never get across town.”

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