Stars of Vaudeville #76: Ed Wynn
ED WYNN, “THE PERFECT FOOL”
In an age of grotesque comedians, Ed Wynn was one of the most outre, easily in a league with Groucho and Harpo Marx and Bobby Clark. Promoted as the “Perfect Fool” , his instantly recognizable get-up was almost that of a circus clown. His egg shaped body was covered in a too-tight jacket and baggy pants. A tiny derby topped his head. His eyebrows were highly arched, like a cartoon’s, and large round glasses framed his glassy, fishy eyes. His quavery voice, lisp and frequent use of the phrase “ya know” were almost certainly the basis of the vocal characterization of McDonald’s “Mayor McCheese” character. It can hardly be surprising that Wynn was quoted by his grandson as saying, “I never wanted to be a real person.”
Real or not, Jack Benny called him “the world’s greatest comedian”. George Burns said he was “the greatest of us all.” Critic John Mason Brown called him “the King of Nonsense and the Emperor of Idiocy.”
Isaiah Edwin Leopold was born in Philadelphia in 1886. His father was a middle class hatter who’d immigrated from Prague, a domineering character, who would have like to see his son follow in the family business. By 1901, the boy made his stage debut as Ed Wynn (an interpolation of his middle name). The next year, he partnered with Jack Lewis to form a team known variously as “Win and Lose, The Rah Rah Boys” and “The Freshman and the Sophomore.” This act, which satirized college students, aimed to be more intelligent than the Weber and Fields-style knockabout Wynn was accustomed to seeing on stage. (“Rah! rah! rah! who pays the bills? Ma and Pa!”)
Wynn performed in numerous vaudeville sketches and solo pieces over the years. Notable among these was “The Boy with the Funny Hats,” (based on cutting up he had done in his father’s shop as a youngster) and his 1913 sketch “The King’s Jester” which he debuted at the Palace. The premise of the latter sketch had Wynn as a court jester scheduled for execution unless he could make the King laugh. His many attempts leave the King stone-faced. Finally, in desperation, he whispers something into the King’s ear. The King laughs. Wynn says “I didn’t know you wanted THAT kind of joke!” and kicks the King in the rear. Blackout.
In the mid-teens he began to work in Broadway revues, starting with the Ziegfeld Follies in 1914. In the 1915 edition, there occurred one of the most notorious anecdotes in the annals of show business. While W.C. Fields was doing his famous poolroom routine, he noticed that he was getting laughs in all sorts of places where laughs shouldn’t be. He looked down and saw that Wynn had snuck under the pool table and was making faces at the audience. Horning in on another performer’s act is a big no-no, for starters. To doublecross Fields was suicide. Without acknowledging that he had seen Wynn, Fields waited for the right moment, and then cracked Wynn over the skull with his pool cue, knocking him out cold. The audience roared, thinking it was all just part of the act and Fields went on coolly with his routine.
Presumably Wynn learned his lesson that day, though it was soon to become moot – by the twenties, he was producing, directing, writing and starring in his own Broadway vehicles, proving that any resemblance between Wynn and an actual idiot was purely illusory. Wynn’s leadership in the Equity strike of 1919 made him persona non grata with Broadway producers. No one would hire him. Many a performer would have thrown up his hands. Wynn responded by putting on his own show Ed Wynn’s Carnival at the New Amsterdam theatre in 1920. It was an instant sell-out.
Audiences warmed to Wynn for a variety of reasons. His own taste in gags was surreal. (A typical Wynn invention is his “fool-proof alarm clock” – a lit candle stuck in one’s ear at bedtime.) At the same time there was warmth and a genuineness to his performances. He seemed almost maternal as he shepherded his performers around stage, and a fundamental sincerity underlay all of his preposterous pronouncements, which not only helped to make seem a literal idiot, but also served to make him likable. At no time did you get the idea that he thought he was above that character. He WAS that character. That quality of honesty was to serve him well when he began to take on dramatic roles in his later years.
The series of shows Wynn produced through the twenties and early thirties were Wynn’s highest realization as a performing artist. To this day, despite ample record of Wynn’s comic genius on film, radio and TV, one continues to think of this string of Broadway smashes as the pinnacle of Wynn’s career. Each was based around the familiar character Wynn had been developing in vaudeville. Among the most successful of these tailor-made starring vehicles were The Perfect Fool (1921), The Grab Bag (1924), Simple Simon (1930) and The Laugh Parade (1931). His last Broadway vehicle was a wartime effort to revive vaudeville, 1942’s Laugh, Town, Laugh.
From 1932-37 he played “The Fire Chief” on the eponymous radio program sponsored by Texaco. The show helped to make Wynn a household word throughout the nation. In 1949, the first television program bearing the name The Ed Wynn Show debuted on local a Los Angeles station. (This is the show where Buster Keaton’s comeback is said to have began).
Wynn then worked as one of four rotating hosts of NBC’s Four Star Revue, alternating the slot with Jack Carson, Danny Thomas, and Jimmy Durante. In the fifties, he began to stretch himself with dramatic roles in such productions as Rod Serling’s original TV version of Requiem for a Heavyweight (1956)and the 1959 film The Diary of Anne Frank. Wynn continued to play variations of his old character right through to the end however, notably in various Disney movies, such as Alice in Wonderland (voice over as the Mad Hatter), The Absent-Minded Professor, and Mary Poppins.
Wynn died in 1966, thankfully not long enough to see some of his most endearing mannerisms appropriated by an eight foot tall talking cheeseburger. Although, with his sense of humor, he might have been fine with that.
DISTINGUISHED PROGENY: Ed’s son Keenan Wynn was a well-known character actor in Hollywood from the 1940s through the 1970s. He started out as Van Johnson’s comic foil in romantic comedies. Younger viewers would recognize him in such films as Dr. Strangelove (“You know who you’re gonna have to answer to? The Coca Cola Company” ) and Nashville (“That’s my niece. She’s from California.”)
To find out more about these variety artists and the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.