|An early Penner promo card
Although several articles highlight Joe Penner’s
early stage career, the vast majority appeared in fan magazines following his rise to stardom in late 1933. These often bear
the marks of the studio flack (i.e.: the hyperbole of Hollywood) and all too frequently repeat the same Horatio Alger tales
popular with the publicists of the day.
A look into period newspapers and
journals provides a more accurate picture. Brief notices or show advertisements often provide answers to the “where,”
“who” and “when” questions of cast, theater and dates. It is through tidbits such as these, appearing
in papers large and small, that I’ve compiled the following narrative timeline.
One fact is certain. Penner appears to have been consistently employed in an occupation that breeds unemployment,
and, although he was rarely a favorite of the critics, he was a popular and featured performer earlier than most people realize.
My research continues, but what follows is a survey of Penner’s stage work from his first tab show role in 1923 to his
initial appearance on the Rudy Vallee radio program on July 13, 1933.
|In Publix's "Rustic Fancies"
By all accounts, Josef Pinter (his real name) entered professional show business in 1923. Ten years later, he was a nationwide
“overnight” sensation. And although it is his radio shows and films that survive today, the vast majority of that
first decade was spent on stage in various carnivals, burlesque houses and theaters throughout the United States.
Like many children of his generation, Pinter’s first taste of show business was his participation in a Charlie Chaplin
impersonation contest. Then, following an inauspicious beginning as a mind reader’s assistant in 1923, he landed a job
as a second comedian in an “tab show” playing at the Gratiot Theater in Detroit at a whopping $35 a week.
Tab (short for musical “tabloid”) shows were either drastically cut-down versions of Broadway musical comedies
or revues. They were most popular from the early 1900s to the 1930s when they frequently played in movie houses between showings
of silent films. Other tabs toured small towns and played circuses and carnivals. Casts were often made up of a chorus line
of girls, a couple of comedians and at least one male singer.
He soon left the tab world, changed his last name
to Penner, and was booked as a comedian on the Mutual Wheel burlesque circuit. Comedy is all about timing, but sometimes so
are comedy careers. The Mutual circuit was just getting started (it was founded in 1922 to compete with the more established
Columbia and American wheels), and was adding “talent” of all shapes and sizes.
|An early Penner fan photo
Author Jane Briggeman explained the “Wheel Circuit” in her book Burlesque:
Legendary Stars of the Stage
“The wheel or circuit system, a practice
employed by traveling burlesque companies, endured until the end of burlesque. Every show was assigned a specific tour, from
theater to theater, that consisted of a set number of weeks. Each production was followed by a similar troupe in rotation.
This procedure was an enormous help to the performers, because they were guaranteed steady work for the entire season,
extending up to forty weeks a year. This system also reduced the chance of a troupe being left stranded and depleted of funds
in some isolated part of the country, which often happened in theatrical life.”
Ralph Allen, author
of Sugar Babies
, had this to add about the world of burlesque that Penner experienced:
“Conversations in burlesque scenes always left room for innocent interpretations.
The audience, not the actors, had the dirty minds…When the comic was king, there was no such thing as striptease…Burlesque’s
celebration of disorder was contained in an orderly structure, and so its anarchy seemed always exhilarating, never threatening.”
Mutual eventually merged with Columbia in 1927 and formed the United Burlesque Association. In 1931,
wheel burlesque in America effectively came to an end when Mutual ceased operation as a circuit, and its remaining theaters
succumbed to stock productions.
By the mid 1920s, Penner had moved to vaudeville (for Paramount-Publix) and the
New York stage when he was cast in the 1925-26 edition of the Greenwich Village Follies.
He’d been spotted by a Broadway scout during one of his Mutual performances, and was signed at $375 a week. GVF opened on December 24, 1925, and ran for a healthy 180 performances.
Although he was earning
very good money for the first time in his career, Penner’s run with the show provided an even more long-term “contract.”
That fall, he began dating Eleanor Mae Vogt, a dancer in the show. The two married on November 8, 1928 in a small chapel at
the Christ Episcopal Church in New Jersey.
After the GVF
closed, Penner returned to Mutual in the Band Box Revue in 1927-28, and spent most
of 1928-29 appearing at nightclubs and Paramount-Publix stage reviews up and down the Eastern Coast.
|In Publix's "Honeymoon Cruise"
It was during one of these appearances that Penner first uttered the phrase, “Wanna buy a duck?” And despite
all reports that attest this occurred in early 1931 (including a article attributed to Penner in the November 19, 1934 issue
of The Saturday Evening Post
), I’ve come across some information that proves
it came at least a year before that.
According to the “Plays and Photoplays” section of the August
29, 1930 The Jewish Criterion
(published for the Jewish community in Pittsburgh, and
viewable online from the Carnegie-Mellon University Library collection) Penner had clearly uttered the line much earlier.
In a description of entertainment appearing at Pittsburgh’s Enright Theater (which also included the Olsen & Johnson
film Oh, Sailor Behave
and singer Dick Powell live on stage), we find this brief but
“Joe Penner, the ‘wanna buy a duck?’ comedian,
is also being featured in a return engagement by popular demand.”
Since the appearance was a “popular
demand, return engagement," he'd obviously been there before. The ad also refers to him as the "duck" comedian,
a phrase used so patrons would quickly recall the act. So the line was clearly in his act on his previous trip. Given the
nature of the touring circuit of the day, Penner's previous visit would have been at least 10-12 weeks before the August
appearance. It may still have happened on stage at a Publix theater in Birmingham, Alabama (as reported), but I’d suggest
that the line dates to at least the spring of 1930, perhaps earlier.
Glad we cleared that up.
whenever it occurred, the comedian’s popularity was finally surging. According to a 1929 New
York Times account, Paramount-Publix thought enough of Penner to include him in a small group of stage performers selected
to appear on a national radio show. (He also inked a deal around this time with Warner Brothers Vitaphone to appear in a series
of filmed comedy shorts, which will be covered elsewhere on this site)
This, from the September 15th issue:
“Celebrities in the world of filmdom, radio and musical comedy and three
orchestras are included in the opening program of the Paramount-Publix radio hour to be broadcast over a coast-to-coast network
linked with WABC at 10 o’clock on Saturday night.
The artists scheduled to be heard during the inaugural
program include: Jeanne Eagels, Clive Brook, Victor Schertzinger, Charles Ruggles, Mr. and Mrs. Jesse Crawford, Charles “Buddy”
Rogers, Nancy Carroll, Jack Oakie, Helen Kane, Frederic March, Paul Ash, Joe Penner and the Four Merrymakers…
Following an organ recital by Mr. and Mrs. Jesse Crawford, the program will be switched to Indianapolis where Joe Penner,
comedian, will entertain...”
Throughout 1930, Penner’s name appeared in the NYT
with something approaching regularity. Highlights include Penner’s May 28 casting in the new Errol Carroll Vanities
, and, on July 14, it was reported that Penner was among the principals
in Tattle Tales
, an Alexander Leftwich revue which “will open tomorrow night
at the Wilbur Theater in Boston.”
That fall, Penner was back on the Great White Way.
September 30, 1930 issue of the NYT:
Vanderbilt Revue is booked to open in Wilmington on October 18 and subsequently play in Newark before coming to Broadway
late next month. Joe Penner is a recent addition to the cast, which includes Lulu McConnnell, Nana Bryant and Paul Everton.”
Unfortunately, the show suffered a severe blow when the star, Ruby Keeler Jolson, left the cast just prior to
the Wilmington tryout in “a disagreement over how her role should be played.” The cast continued to change right
up to the Broadway opening.
One of the performers added during this period was a young announcer, Richard “Dick”
Lane, who would later become a Penner co-star on both radio and film. Also added was the ill-fated torch singer Evelyn Hoey,
who died of a (reportedly) self-inflicted gunshot wound under mysterious circumstances five years later.
26, the Times
quoted the review from The Newark Evening
in the “Heading for Broadway” section:
“(The Vanderbilt Revue) has a lively aggregation of good-looking chorusines, a large retinue of fleet-footed
dancers…and for its main comedy props it has the imbecilically humorous Joe Penner and the hefty and loquacious Lulu
Penner’s humorous investitures are chiefly his moronic, stuttering patter, his ability to twitch
his limbs epileptically in those humorous dances in which his unruly cigar and unsteady headgear play no minor part. But he
also fits well into a number of sketches which are the mainstay of the piece…”
On November 5th,
the show opened. The next day, the Times
“As a collection of fast-moving vaudeville specialties, The Vanderbilt Revue,
which arrived last night at, curiously enough, at the Vanderbilt Theater, is generally a pleasant entertainment. Sometimes
it rises above that designation; often it sinks far below it…
“As one of Miss McConnell’s assistants,
a St. Vitus comic by the name of Joe Penner works hard and gets little.”
The show closed after thirteen
|Another "Honeymoon Cruise" promo shot
Penner returned to Publix performances until the following spring, when he was once again summoned to the Big Apple.
In June, the Times
reported that he’d had been “engaged by Schwab &
Mandel to appear in their next operetta, Always Young
A couple of days
later, he was added to a list of “prominent players” who “will appear in the Friars’
, to be held next Sunday evening at the New Amsterdam Theatre.” Others included the Howard brothers, Ted
Lewis and his orchestra, Rudy Vallee (who would give Penner a huge boost two years later), Al Trahan, and Joe Frisco.
By August, rehearsals began for Always Young
. By September, the title of the musical
had been changed to East Wind
. In October, East Wind
opened a trial run at the Nixon Theater in Pittsburgh. Quoting the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
said the show included…”funning by Joe Penner…It is all
due at the Manhattan Theatre on Oct. 26.”
On October 28th, J. Brooks Atkinson of the NYT
offered his review of that "funning":
Joe Penner can wiggle his scalp, which is one of nature’s most lavish gifts, he is hardly funny enough to fill a dull
book with guffaws.”
With another viewpoint, here’s what Time
magazine had to say on November 9, 1931:
Wind's velocity is exceedingly low except for the sporadic appearance of a funnyman named Joe Penner. Mr. Penner
bounces around, ogles like a monstrous, puckish infant. He sells a bleached elephant to some unsuspecting Indo-Chinese, is
thereafter terrorized by the victims of his chicane.
In 1923 Joe Penner labored in the Ford plant at Detroit. Hard
times threw him out of work so he began trouping with burlesque shows. He appeared for the first time on a legitimate Broadway
stage last year in the short-lived Vanderbilt Review. Like most old-time burlesquers (such as W. C. Fields, Bobby Clark, Joe
Cook) he uses an ably manipulated cigar as his chief prop.”
By early 1932, Joe Penner was cast in the
road company of Follow Thru
, which had been one of the big hits of the 1929-30 Broadway
season with more than 400 performances. The NYT
“Follow Thru will begin its tour in Newark on March 18 with a cast of
Broadway players including Joe Penner…After the Newark engagement the condensed musical comedy will go to Buffalo,
Detroit, Chicago and perhaps other cities, depending on the success of its reception.”
Penner finally appeared at The Palace, New York’s Vaudeville mecca.
On July 1, the Times
reported, “Joe Penner and Lulu McConnell will be seen in comedy sketches on the new bill opening
tomorrow at the Palace.”
Three days later, this:
Palace, where straight vaudeville continues its rather uncertain course, the management has decided to celebrate the holiday
with a generous helping of comedy relief, which is not a bad idea…
Joe Penner, whose methods of coaxing
laughter still seem highly synthetic, indulges in some nonsense with Max Hoffman, Jr., who, rather surprisingly, is working
as a “stooge.” Judging by the applause which followed Mr. Penner’s appearance on Saturday night, a number
of the paying customers find him really funny.”
A little more than a week later, Penner joined Vallee
on stage for a radio broadcast, which changed the trajectory of his career.
To hear a clip from that first Rudy Vallee show, click HERE
To hear Penner's story told by the funny man himself, click HERE