“Cohen on the Telephone” is one of those classic vaudeville routines, performed by so many it can seem almost like a work of folk art. It was the first comedy record to sell over a million copies and may be the most famous piece of Hebrew dialect humor. It clearly seems adapted in conception at least from the so-called Dutch comedy of Weber and Fields. It’s simple premise: a man named Cohen is trying to talk to his landlord on the phone to get something fixed, but due to language difficulties and a bad connection he keeps being misheard, making possible all manner of hysterical puns and malaprops. Monroe Silver, George Thompson, and Julius Tannen all recorded versions of the routine. George Jessel’s famous call to his mama also seems to have evolved out of it. Today’s the birthday of the man who originated it, and investigation into him has led to some surprising places.
The man of whom we speak was Joe Hayman (1876-1957). Originally from Philadelphia, Joe’s real last name was Hyman, and his older brother Jacob Hyman was one of Harry Houdini’s first partners in his magic act! Hyman and Houdini had met while working at a necktie factory. They performed as the Brothers Houdini; Jacob used the professional name J.H. Houdini as late as 1903. This, though he had parted ways with the actual Houdini in 1893. Jacob’s replacement in Houdini’s act for a time was none other than his little brother Joe Hyman.
A few years later, with an “a” added to his name, he became better known as a comedian in a two act with his wife Mildred “Mil” Franklin, billed as Hayman and Franklin. This act was popular both in American vaudeville and British music hall. In 1913 Hayman recorded the original version of “Cohen on the Telephone”. It was so popular there were many follow-ups generated and recorded (i.e. “Cohen Calls the Gas Company” etc), and he also did other routines such as “Abe Levi’s Wedding Day”. A book version of many of his routines was published in 1927.
Next Hayman broke into films. With Gordon Bostock, he co-wrote two comedy shorts starring Charles Kemper, Beach Babies and His Operation, both in 1929. In the ’30s, he and Franklin moved to England. While there he appeared in numerous British films throughout the decade as a Yiddish character comedian. These include The Lucky Number (1932), Kiss Me Goodbye (1933), Without You (1934), Borrowed Clothes (1934), Lipsky’s Christmas Dinner (1934), What the Puppy Said (1936), Terror on Tiptoe (1936), Once in a Lifetime (1937), and On Velvet (1938).
By the ’50s, the Haymans had settled in Los Angeles. Franklin passed away in 1954; Hayman three years later.
As a sidebar: there was a third performing Hyman brother in vaudeville. Bob Hyman was a successful quick-change artist who used the professional name Robert Fulgora.
To learn more about vaudeville, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic film comedy, please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube