A few years ago I had the privilege to drive out to Kansas to visit an unusual museum, The Martin and Osa Johnson Safari Museum of Chanute, Kansas. What?! A "safari" museum in the middle of the United States? Yep. You see, a couple from Chanute caught the safari bug long before safaris were popular. Their thirst for travel was unquenchable and their hunger for adventure, insatiable.
Martin and Osa Johnson, American adventurers and documentary filmmakers, made their first expedition into Africa from 1921 to 1922. That excursion resulted in their film Trailing Wild African Animals (1923). Their second, and longest, trip, from 1924 to 1927, the Johnsons spent most of their time by a lake they named Lake Paradise in Northern Kenya. The movies Martin's Safari (1928), Osa's Four Years in Paradise (1941), and Simba: King of the Beasts (1928) were made from footage captured during this safari. And, in 1925, the couple would meet a Duke and Duchess while on safari in Kenya who would later become King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. Their third trip, from 1927 to 1928, was a tour of the Nile with friend and supporter, George Eastman, founder of Eastman Kodak. This trip would produce the couple's first "talkie", Across the World with Mr. and Mrs. Johnson, narrated by Martin himself.
In 1932 the Johnsons learned to fly at the Chanute Municipal Airport. Once they had their pilot's licenses, they purchased two Sikorsky amphibious planes, a S-39-CS "Spirit of Africa", painted with giraffe spots and a S-38-BS "Osa's Ark", painted with zebra stripes. On their fifth African trip, from 1933 to 1934, the Johnsons flew the length of Africa getting now classic aerial scenes of large herds of elephants, giraffes, and other animals moving across the plains of Africa. They were the first pilots to fly over Mt. Kilimanjaro and Mt. Kenya in Africa and film them from the air. The 1935 feature film Baboona was made from this footage. On January 3, 1935 Baboona was shown on an Eastern Air Lines plane becoming the first sound movie shown during flight.
In 1935, the Johnsons were featured on Wheaties cereal boxes as "Champions of Sports." Osa Johnson was the second female to appear on the box and she and Martin were the first married couple selected for this honor.
The Johnsons would make public appearances sharing the footage of their travels until a plane crash in California in 1937 would claim Martin's life and injure Osa severely. She recovered from those injuries. Her autobiography, I Married Adventure was the best-selling non-fiction book of 1940. After a life of adventure and travel, Osa died of a heart attack in New York in 1953.
The Martin and Osa Johnson Safari Museum, created in 1961, still contains the couples' manuscripts, photographs, films, articles, books and personal belongings. The museum shares the beautiful old railroad depot with the Chanute Public Library.
Martin and Osa were true pioneers in the African documentary field. Others would follow in their footsteps; Bernhard Grzimek, Hugo van Lawick, Alan Root, just to name a few. They were successful in sharing the spirit of adventure with all of us, and, for that we are thankful.