Today is the birthday of Joe E. Lewis (Joseph Klewan, 1902-1971). Lewis started out as an old school vaudeville singer/ comedian but rapidly evolved into a nightclub entertainer (although in the 1920s such venues were illegal and known as “speakeasies”). In 1927, Lewis’s career was nearly derailed when a gangster club owner literally had his throat cut for allegedly welching on a contract and going over to another club. This event, and Lewis’s courageous comeback became the basis for the book The Joker is Wild, later made into a film by Lewis’ pal Frank Sinatra in 1961. Lewis himself appeared in a handful of films in the 30s and 40s, and made occasional tv appearances on panel shows in the 50s, in addition to his frequent nightclub dates.
Much name confusion bedevils Lewis’s memory in the public mind, his moniker being too similar to boxer Joe Louis and comedians Joe E. Brown, Joe E. Ross and Jerry Lewis (Joseph Levitch, who originally billed himself as Joey Lewis, but changed it to avoid confusion with our subject). From 1946-48 he was married to actress and singer Martha Stewart.
To find out more about vaudeville, including influential comedians like Joe E. Lewis, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous