"I am just back from a weekend at Joe Cook's with Connelly, Ross, Chasen, etc. Very good time. Dinner every night at midnight, barbecued spare-ribs and the like, with a show before dinner in Joe's personal opera house. It seats nine people, including the chair in the box. I had that seat. It is the only seat that has opera glasses attached to it. It was not a restful week-end, as so many of the seats exploded when you sat down on them, but I had a good time."
(Alexander Woolcott in a letter to Harpo Marx, October 3, 1932)
Chances are, if you are reading this weblog, that you will know at least a couple of the above referenced names. Certainly Harpo Marx's still thuds resoundingly when dropped. Woolcott lives on primarily as the inspiration for the main character in George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart's still very funny (and very often revived) "The Man Who Came To Dinner." If you've gotten that far, you probably can infer that Ross is Harold Ross, the founder of the New Yorker magazine and Chasen is Dave Chasen, the founder of the now defunct but once famous Hollywood eatery "Chasen's." Even Connelly might still be a last name that a couple of people out there can provide a first name for--Marc, in this case, author of the Pulitzer Prize winning (and the almost certain to never be revived again) "The Green Pastures"--the bible in blackface, for those who haven't seen or read it.
Which leaves Joe Cook as the only true obscurity among the group. And it was his rather luxe sounding house that they were partying at...
So who was this ghost of the gay white way, Joe Cook, this performer of such note in the early thirties that the elite of New York came when summoned to his personal 26 acre New Jersey playground, named "Sleepless Hollow"? Cook was, for more than a minute but less than a decade, Broadway Comedy Royalty--a performer so beloved and now so utterly forgotten that it makes you wonder what, exactly, we would now know about the Marx Brothers had they not bothered to become movie stars. At his peak--which happened to be in the depths of the depression--he commanded a four-thousand dollar a week Broadway fee. When he went to Hollywood to film his hit show "Rain Or Shine", he was paid a stunning one-hundred grand. (I can't do the relative math, but in 1930 dollars that has got to be close to like...ten million? More?) At "Sleepless Hollow", in addition to the opera house with the exploding chairs that left Woolcott a tad bemused, there was also a saloon, a tiny objects museum and a nine-hole golf course.
Born Joe Lopez in Evansville Indiana in 1890, Lopez/Cook was an orphan who joined the circus and who somehow parlayed his big-top skills and talent into a Broadway debut in the Earl Carroll Vanities of 1923. (Just how this road of circus to vaudeville to Broadway was circumnavigated should make arresting reading--but you won't read it here; try as I have, I've found incredibly little about Cook in the usual sources and what material there is focuses on his Broadway years. Anyone with additional information, speak up...) It can be safely assumed, though, that Cook's prodigious talents and energy helped push him along into the big time. A 1909 advertisement for Cook reads: "Master of all trades. Introducing in a 15-minute act, juggling, unicycling, magic, hand balancing, ragtime piano and violin playing, dancing, globe rolling, wire-walking, talking and cartooning. Something original in each line -- Some Entertainment." A great many of these talents are evidenced in the clip I've posted below. But clearly--as said clip supports--it was Cook's incredible prowess as a juggler that made him a headliner--and which links him to two other "jugglers-gone-Broadway": Fred Allen and W.C. Fields.
In the late twenties, Cook starred in a vehicle designed specifically to feature his various and sundry circus-based talents. "Rain Or Shine" was a musical sensation of the 1928-29 season and propelled Cook to Hollywood--where Frank Capra, not yet on the A-list but a respectable up-and-comer, shot an early talkie version of the show, sans music. In Capra's occasionally fanciful autobiography, he claims credit for "throwing out the songs because they were lousy songs"--though in truth, by the time they got around to making "Rain Or Shine" the market was saturated with musicals and the public was beginning to weary of them. Credit Capra, at least, with forcing the film to be made instead of abandoned. For without the movie of "Rain Or Shine", we would have precious little on celluloid by which to examine Cook and his shenanigans. And like most period shenanigans, they are a little hard to fathom the appeal of. From the below clip, Cook's remarkable dexterity as a circus comedian is certainly evident--though it may be hard to see quite why he was embraced by the intelligentsia. Was this the "Harpo Complex" in action? The adulation by the sophisticated of the nearly retarded? Perhaps there was something of this in the air. Cook's foil in the below clip by the way is Dave Chasen--founder of the above mentioned restaurant which is still standing on the corner of Doheny and Beverly in West Hollywood. (Only now it is a Bristol Farms Market--where I often shop for good meat and wine)...
After the success of the film version of "Rain Or Shine", Cook returned to Broadway, where he had a huge hit in the 1930-31 season with "Fine And Dandy". But perhaps Broadway wasn't enough for him--seeing the Marx Brothers and their big-screen success, he may have felt that greener pastures (ahem) awaited him. Alas, what he found upon arriving in Hollywood was that his big moment in that fickle town had passed; the best he could do was get a deal for some short subjects at Educational Pictures, the bottom of the rung in terms of money, talent and distribution. These not-seen-or-heard-from-in-years shorts (who knows if they're lost or simply misplaced) have titles like "Give 'Im Air" and "A Nose For News"...which makes you wonder how much energy anybody was really putting into Joe Cook's screen career. One more feature--the unpromising sounding "Arizona Mahoney"--and he was back in New York...still a Broadway star but no longer a sensation. The thirties wore on and Red Skelton and Danny Kaye and the like stepped in to fill the shoes of the previous generation's purveyors of wack. His last stage appearence was in Broadway's first ice spectacular--"It Happened On Ice". In 1942 Cook was stricken with Parkinson's disease--which patiently waited seventeen long years to take him out. By the time he died in 1959, the wonder wasn't that he'd passed away--it was that he'd been alive all this time.
"Rain Or Shine" exists and is enjoyable on several levels. Capra's direction, as always, is a cut above the standards of the period--fast paced, inventive, endearingly sloppy (Capra never met a set of shadows that he left unmatched) and filled with the buoyant energy often to be found when Capra went on location. Cook and Chasen are terrific--though, as I said, the humor remains a bit untranslatable. And if some of the plot feels a little icky--the set-up for the below scene is that the performers in Joe's circus have "gone on strike"...with the result that Joe performs a one-man show for the audience, essentially scabbing and effectively breaking a labor union's contract...well, so what? These were still innocent times. (Or perhaps they were darker times then we care to remember. Lynching, after all, was still something that...happened regularly. Compared with that, what's a little strike breaking?)
I'm not sure where to place Joe Cook--in the first rank of those who shouldn't have been so quickly forgotten, or in the second rank of those who were--for whatever reason--a bit more popular than now seems reasonable? Cook's brand of zany was clearly specific to his time--perhaps the "circus" atmosphere that surrounded him lent him an air of the low-down that was fashionably appealing to the high-hats. And though big-time show-biz in general forgot completely about him once his disease forced him from the limelight, he remained alive in the minds of the magicians and jugglers and acrobats from whose culture he sprang. In 1954, according to a Juggling magazine, his wife, Alice Cook, ordered six special juggling balls and wrote, "As Joe is going to be 65 this March 29 I would like to surprise him with six new balls to work with. Despite his Parkinsons and the fact that he has trouble even handling his food alone, believe it or not, he can still juggle the balls."