About 125 people packed a room at the Bay County Historical Museum in downtown Bay City to hear Johnson's program — part of the Bay County Historical Society's monthly Second Saturday series. Johnson sought to dispel some of the myths surrounding the most successful female recording artist of all time, Madonna Louise Ciccone, during his presentation titled "The Madonna Controversy."
Born in Bay City at the former Mercy Hospital, Madonna was inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame on March 10, 2008, and is expected to be inducted into the Songwriters' Hall of Fame later this year. She topped Forbes list of top-earning celebrities and her net worth is estimated to be between $850 million and $1 billion.
"Not bad for a girl who played on Smith Street," Johnson quipped.
Johnson acknowledges the negative feelings many Bay City residents have for the Queen of Pop, and said he hopes to remedy such attitudes through his presentation. He said folks on Saturday, Feb. 8, were excited to learn more about Madonna.
Here are five things, according to Johnson, that you might not know:
1. Madonna has great affection for Bay City— Johnson says Madonna's infamous "smelly little town in northern Michigan" comment was taken out of context. The Material Girl said that during a 1987 interview with NBC's Jane Pauly, when asked about her hometown. Folks back home reacted negatively to the comment, but may have missed how Madonna answered Pauly's follow-up question on whether she fosters affection or great disdain for Bay City. “I have great affection for Bay City,” Madonna replied.
As for that alleged stench, Johnson said Madonna's grandmother's house at 1204 Smith St. in the Banks District, was quite close to a Dow Chemical plant on Patterson Avenue. He said Madonna's grandmother, Elsie Mae Fortin, and her father, Silvio Anthony "Tony" Ciccone, had a running joke about whose town was smellier.
"Thank goodness for the technology that makes this possible," Johnson said about the YouTube video clarifying the issue. "It's not often you get to correct a wrong 26 years later."
2. Madonna didn't pose for pornographic photos for Penthouse or Playboy
— She did, however, model nude for body studies for art students, Johnson said. She did this to earn a little extra money while also working as a waitress at Dunkin' Donuts and taking gigs as a singer and dancer in New York after dropping out of the University of Michigan, where she had been awarded a dance scholarship. She was 18-19 at the time of the photos and had signed a model release allowing the photographer to sell or use the photographs. When her music career began to take off, he sold them to Penthouse and Playboy.
"There was a lot of money to be made, and nobody seemed to care much about Madonna, her family or her career," said Johnson. He added that a local store owner that carried such magazines was quoted in The Bay City Times saying that he had looked at the photos, and they were "very mild." He added that Madonna in the photos looked nothing like she did when they were published: she had dark hair and appeared to be about 18.
3. Madonna did not refuse to accept a key from the city of Bay City
— It was never offered to her after the nude — not pornographic, said Johnson — photos of her were published.
Former Bay City Mayor Tim Sullivan claimed it would be in "poor taste" to present her such an accolade after the incident. Mayoral opponent Patrick Ryon disagreed with that decision, and the issue became part of a political debate.
The Detroit Free Press, upon hearing of it, wrote in an editorial: "the vacillating mayor of Bay City has created a political problem for himself over the Madonna issue." It went on to say that he failed to understand her mystique, "making him more naive than the average 13-year-old in Bay City".
Johnson said Sullivan's sister once told him that the real reason Sullivan did not offer the key to the city to Madonna is because he felt she was an inappropriate role model.
4. Both Madonna and her mother, with whom she shares a name, have a myriad of experiences in Bay City— Madonna Louise Fortin went to Visitation Grade School, St. Joseph High School, Bay City Junior College and was married at Our Lady of the Visitation Catholic Church. She died of breast cancer in 1963, and she is buried at Calvary Cemetery in Kawkawlin, which is featured in Madonna's documentary, "Truth or Dare."
There are photos of Madonna as a child playing at Tony's Park near the State Recreation Area. Johnson said other favorites were coney dogs from Cara's Red Lion, candy from St. Laurent's Bros., and swimming at the state park.
"Bay City became a special refuge for Madonna," he said, adding that her extended trips to Bay City were inspiration for her song, "This Used to be my Playground."
5. There is currently nothing marking Bay City as the birthplace of Madonna, but some residents are seeking to change that— Citing the success of Liverpool as the birthplace of the Beatles and Tupulo, Miss., as the birthplace of Elvis Presley, Johnson suggests Bay City capitalize on the draw that such a distinction would bring.
"The most interesting thing about Bay City to people around the world is that it's the birthplace of Madonna," he said.
Johnson hopes that the city will add a sign reading "Birthplace of Madonna" to the town's welcome signs or name one of the new streets surrounding the Uptown development after the singer, her mother or both Madonnas as a token of goodwill.
Upon making these suggestions, the audience applauded loudly.
Bay City Commissioner Chris Girard, 6th Ward, who attended with fellow Commissioner Kerice Basmadjian, 7th Ward, stood to announce he would introduce adding "Birthplace of Madonna" signage to the city welcome signs. He noted the Michigan Department of Transportation would need to be involved in such an action.
Johnson would like to see a museum display as well, noting that the Queen of Pop has more than 200 awards and trophies to her name.
"Where does she keep all those?" he asked. "Well, I can think of a place." He switched the slide being projected to a photo of the Bay County Historical Museum.
"If we call ourselves a cool city, why not do something that people around the world would think is cool?"