Almost completely unknown today, Joe Cook was called by New York Times theatre critic Brooks Atkinson nothing less than “the greatest man in the world”. Cook accurately billed himself variously as the “one man vaudeville show” and the “master of all trades.” His skills were listed as “juggling, unicycle riding, magic, hand balancing, ragtime piano and violin, dancing, globe rolling, wirewalking, talking and cartooning.” “Talking” in vaudeville jargon meant of course delivering comedy monologues. The one he is most famous for is known as the “Four Hawaiians” bit, and it goes like this:
I will now give an imitation of three Hawaiians. This is one (whistles) this is another (plays ukulele) and this is the third (marks time with his foot). I could imitate four Hawaiians just as easily, but I will tell you the reason why I don’t do it. You see, I bought a horse for $50 and it turned out to be a running horse. I was offered $15,000 for him and I took it. I built a house with the $15,000 and when it was finished a neighbor offered me $100,000 for it. He said my house stood right where he wanted to dig a well. So I took the $100,000 to accommodate him. I invested the $100,000 in peanuts and that year there was a peanut famine so I sold the peanuts for $350,000. Now why should a man with $350,000 bother to imitate 4 Hawaiians?
He was born Joseph Lopez in Evansville, Indiana in 1890. His parents died when he was three, and he took the name of his adopted parents, becoming Joseph Cook. Raised on a farm, young Joe’s dream home was with the traveling tent shows that would come through his county year after year. He started practicing juggling and acrobatics as a child, giving performances in the barn, with the support and encouragement, oddly enough, of his family. He wasn’t even a teenager yet before he was already touring the mid-west with medicine shows. At the ripe old age of 15, he made the jump to New York. A doctored photo showing him juggle 17 balls simultaneously helped him secure his first employment.
Cook’s rise was meteoric. After a brief stint with his brother as “The Juggling Kids” he made his solo debut at Proctor’s 125th Street in 1907. After only 3 months in small time,he was booked at Hammerstein’s Victoria. By 1909 he was headlining.
His style seems to have been a pastiche of possible comedy approaches. One bit cast him as the landlord of a really tiny house. After arguing with the really tiny tenant, he picked up the house and walked away. He developed great sight gags with props and enormous Rube Goldberg style inventions, such as an elaborate, needlessly complicated device for “calling the hired man to dinner.”
Cook’s success in vaudeville led to an even greater career as the star of Broadway book musicals and reviews. Hitchy Koo (1919), Earl Carroll’s Vanities (1923-26) Rain or Shine (1928), Fine and Dandy (1930), and Hold Your Horses (1933). Rain or Shine was filmed in 1930. He also appeared as the title character in the western Arizona Mahoney (1936) and in numerous comedy shorts for Educational Pictures. Cook’s stooge in later years was Dave Chasen, later to start a famous Hollywood restaurant and to become a key member of W.C. Fields’ inner circle.
In these vehicles Cook’s character seems to have been an average Joe who turned out to behave as insanely as the Marx Bros., Bobby Clark or Ed Wynn. By 1933, Broadway audiences were tiring of him, however, and Hold Your Horses flopped. Frequent radio shots kept him going through the 1930s. His last show was the first ice show It Happens on Ice (1941), but during its run the symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease began to overtake him and he was forced to retire. It took 17 years for the disease to finally finish him off, in 1959.
Cook’s great grandson is a chip off the old block. You can learn about him here.
In May, 2015 we went out to visit the Lake Hopatcong Historical Museum, which probably has the world’s biggest collection of Joe Cook materials (Cook had an estate nearby, whimsically named Sleepless Hollow, which we also visited). Here’s what we saw:
To learn about vaudeville, including major stars like Joe Cook, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.