Joe Browning: Richard Benjamin’s Funny Vaudeville Uncle

Just a few fragments on vaudeville comedian Joe Browning. The movie actor and director Richard Benjamin is Browning’s nephew. Benjamin had occasion to talk about his uncle a little in print, mostly in connection with the movie The Sunshine Boys, in which Benjamin played the nephew and agent of the character played by Walter Matthau (which is not based on Browning, btw).

Here’s Benjamin on the topic of his uncle on the web site CinemaRetro: “…I went to see my uncle, who lived at the Beacon Hotel on Broadway and 74th Street, which was a block away from where we were shooting The Sunshine Boys. He had a one bedroom suite in his hotel. There was a trunk in the middle of the living room, right as you walked in. It was a big steamer trunk with his initials on it: “JB”, and the “J” and the “B” were intertwined, you know the way they would do that? He was ready to go! If he got a call, he was ready.”

Here’s one in The Chicago Tribune (August, 1994): “”I don’t know if this influenced me or not, but my uncle was in vaudeville. His name was Joe Browning. I saw him perform at the Palace Theater in New York, when I was, like, 5 years old. He was a stand-up comedian. Later, when I did The Sunshine Boys, I asked George Burns if he knew my uncle. `Well,’ he said, `not only did I know your uncle, but first of all, I know his whole act, and second of all, Gracie and I were on the bottom of the bill. Your uncle was a headliner.’ ”

Benjamin was born in 1938, so this gig at the Palace must have been circa 1943, during one of that theatre’s periodic vaudeville revivals. It would have been at or near the end of Browning’s career.

About the earlier years, I have gathered some tidbits.

In 1908, He played Miner’s 8th Ave, singing in a quartet that also included Willard Terre, Frank Carlton, and Al Lavan. A report of the day said they did a minstrel number singing “Rainbow,” “Childhood,” “O’Brien Had No Place to Go” and “Rosy Rambler”.

Sometime later that year he formed a comedy duo with Lavan, a partnership which lasted 1-2 years. In 1908, Browning and Lavan are recording as having performed song parodies at one venue. In 1909, the Dramatic Mirror tells us they performed a sketch called “Nearly a Soldier”, with Browning playing a recruiting officer, Lavan a “Hebrew” who applies for work as a soldier. This sketch got good reviews, but the team broke up soon after that for whatever reason.

Then Browning partnered with one Henry Lewis from around 1910 to 1915, with one interval circa 1911 where they broke apart for a time, each performing as singles.  (Lewis also teamed for a time with Sam Shannon). Just about every review of Browning and Lewis in Variety describes them as mediocre. In 1915, the last reference to the team, they did an act called “The Explorers” featuring crosstalk and songs in front of jungle backdrop.

After this, Browning developed a solo act as a monologist, playing an absurd, hypocritical preacher, and this was his most successful routine. Here is a picture of him in costume from the Sobels’ Pictorial History of Vaudeville:

I can’t be certain if that was all he did however. I find references to him performing as a single starting in the late teens, and they don’t always say the reverend routine is what he’s doing. The references are often much vaguer, saying he performed some “merry quips”or simply a monologue. But the preacher bit was popular enough that it was captured in other media. He performed it in a Vitaphone short called The Reformer in 1927. He made a record album of the bit under the same title the following year; listen to that here. Also he in 1928 he made this record of a funny song called “Hallelujah” , presumably from the same routine. Listen to that here.  He wrote both numbers.

Browning also wrote sketches and plays that were performed by others, such as “Seminary Mary”, performed by Gladys Clark and Henry Bergman in vaudeville in 1923. Browning himself made it to headliner status, and got as far as Broadway just once in a Shubert revue called The Midnight Rounders of 1921, along with Florence Moore, Dora Duby, Dooley and Sales, and my own distant relative Helen Herendeen, among others.

In 1935 Browning performed a comedy monologue in the 1935 film short, Meet the Professor, which also features Bernice Clair, Earl “Snake Hips” Tucker, Helen Tucker, and the Columbia University Band. A review said he plays the Dean of a college; I’m imagining a bit not unlike the preacher.

If you give those records at the links above a play, and also take into consideration that Browning did a bit about an army recruiter, you might agree with my feeling that his sensibility is surprisingly satirical for his day. The twenties were one of the most conservative decades of the 20th century in many ways. Browning’s character is a sinning hypocrite, in an age when religious fundamentalism ran amok and the KKK was on the rise. If, like his nephew, Browning was a Jew, this was dangerous stuff to be playing around with. But one also gets the sense that he was absurd and nonsensical, in the vein of the Marx Brothers, and he just may have been able to shoot his volleys over the heads of some of the people in the audience. And, I’d have to do more research — but perhaps he stuck to the big cities.

I’m still missing some major pieces here. Was Joe Browning his real name? When was he born, when did he die, etc? When we uncover those facts, we’ll share ’em.

To find out more about vaudeville and headliners like Joe Browningconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous