On the House | Marking two decades of no-frills home how-to
By Al Heavens
I'd always assumed that Dean Johnson's TV persona was the same as his
real-life personality: the knowledgeable next-door neighbor who helps
you drywall the family room and will accept nothing more than a beer
for his work.
And after spending part of a day with the Hometime host, including
dinner at which we had to forgo the beer for a couple of glasses of
wine, my assumption proved more than correct.
Come January, it will be 20 years that Johnson, 53, has been hosting
the show, a coproduction of his company, Hometime Video, and WHYY-TV
(Channel 12). Its ratings have never approached those of This Old
House in that show's heyday. Neither has Johnson succumbed to the
screaming-meemie syndrome of such shows as Trading Spaces and Extreme
Makeover: Home Edition.
Instead, Hometime has preferred to stay just below the radar, sticking
mostly to its home base of Minneapolis-St. Paul; staying away, for the
most part, from This Old House's multimillion-dollar makeovers; and
regularly participating in Habitat for Humanity projects instead of
sobby giveaways designed to boost ratings.
But Johnson is too nice a guy to criticize the other shows.
"Russ Morash [This Old House's producer emeritus] always maintained
that his was not a how-to show," Johnson said.
Hometime is a how-to show, however. Like the 24-hour convenience
store, it's there when you need it.
"I know most people haven't been watching us every week for the last
20 years," Johnson said. "But we do know that when they are interested
in what we are doing, they tune in."
Then there are the Hometime videos, which Johnson acknowledges are
very popular. I learned to tile from one of them, watched many, many
Of course, as Johnson also acknowledges, these videos deal with
standard situations. When I had to install and grout tile under an
impossible-to-move cast-iron tub, I was pretty much on my own.
"I'll have to look at that video again," Johnson said, "just to see if
it has to be updated."
Of course, he was saying this as he laid 12-by-12 tiles in a Habitat
kitchen in North Philadelphia, his notched trowel creating perfect
swirls of adhesive, and every tile perfectly spaced.
(The aforementioned bathroom-tiling project was my first, and
noticeably flawed. My next project was the bathroom at my
brother-in-law's house, and it looked so good that his general
contractor offered me a couple of other jobs. My brother-in-law would
have had to come, too, however, to stand over me and tell me whether
the tile was straight.)
I learned to drywall by watching a show called Do It Yourself, which I
thought Johnson also had been involved in.
"Wow, what a memory!" he exclaimed. He added that he was not in the
show - it was Avian Rogers, who was briefly his Hometime cohost when
the show began in 1986.
Was Rogers the first of his TV "wives?"
"We now refer to them as partners," Johnson said.
The latest is Miriam Johnson (no relation). The others were, in order,
Peggy Knapp, JoAnne Liebeler, Susanne Egli and Robin Hartl.
As we sat in an Old City restaurant, his real wife, Kathi, was seated
across the table from us. She's probably used to the "wives" stuff, so
I didn't ask her about it.
"JoAnne [Liebeler] can be really exuberant early in the morning," I
"How do you know this?" Johnson asked, a puzzled look on his face.
I quickly explained that she had hosted a 7:30 a.m. function at the
International Builders Show a few years back and didn't really need
"JoJo is a lot of fun," he said.
Liebeler and the rest of the Hometime cohosts had been featured in a
five-minute bloopers clip earlier in the evening at Channel 12.
"We've sold some to NBC for its 'Bloopers' show," Johnson said, adding
that a lot of the outtakes on other shows and at the end of movies
look contrived. "Even after 20 years, we don't have enough for an
Will there be a big 20th anniversary Hometime celebration in January?
"We're not planning one," Johnson said, sort of surprised that anyone
would suggest it. "We're just going to continue doing what we've been
Which, I guess, is celebration enough.
On the House | ONLINE EXTRA
Alan J. Heavens answers questions about real estate and home
improvement in an online forum at http://go.philly.com/askheavens .
Join him for a live discussion at 3 p.m. Tuesdays on the PhillyTalk
link at philly.com.
Tom Watson - WoodDorker