Today is the birthday of Joe E. Lewis (Joseph Klewan, 1902-1971). He 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).
Still people knew who Lewis was well enough in 1958, when he was prominent enough to appear in this episode of What’s My Line?
To find out more about the variety arts past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
And don’t miss my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc