Here’s a fortuitous find! I learned about Tom Howard only a few days ago when I saw him in Joe Cook’s Rain or Shine (1930). And got curious. He was one of the key people in the movie, 4th billed behind Cook, Louise Fazenda and William Collier., Jr. He was so funny and clearly a seasoned pro, yet I had never encountered him before. Who was he? (It turns out I had stumbled across him before but hadn’t remembered; we’ll get to that).
He was born Thomas J. Black in County Tyrone, Ireland on this day in 1885. He was a year old when his family came to America. In 1905 he changed his name to Tom Howard and went into vaudeville (I’m not sure if the name change was good or bad for him, since the business already had Willie and Eugene Howard, not to mention Moe, Curly and Shemp). After breaking in to show business on the grind of continuous vaudeville (where he might do a dozen shows a day) he moved up to the American and Columbia burlesque circuits.
In the 20s he appeared in two editions of The Greenwich Village Follies and the seminal Dixie to Broadway before the Joe Cook smash Rain or Shine which was a huge Broadway success before it was made into a film. In 1929 he began appearing in comedy shorts for Paramount. In 1932, he teamed up with comedian George Shelton in a series of comedy shorts for Paramount and Educational that ran through 1936. The pair also appeared in the 1934 Broadway show Keep Moving keep moving together.
But their biggest success was in radio. Starting in the mid ’30s they became regulars on the Rudy Vallee Fleishmann’s Yeast Hour. But his biggest legacy would prove to be the parody game show It Pays to be Ignorant, which he created, produced and starred in from 1942 through 1951 along with Shelton, Lulu McConnell, and Harry McNaughton. In addition to the long running radio hit, there were television versions in 1949 and 1951. His daughter Ruth Howell also wrote for the show, and his son Tom Howard, Jr was also a radio writer. Howard passed away in 1955.
To find out about 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.
To learn more about comedy film history please check out 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