Walter O’Keefe and His “Flying Trapeze”

Walter O’Keefe (1900-1983) had a hand in nearly every form and corner of show business, and though almost completely forgotten in our time, was very well known in his.

Irish-American O’Keefe was born and raised in Hartford and graduated cum laude from Notre Dame in 1921. Rather unusually for a guy with a college degree (and honors, no less), he chose to go into vaudeville, touring the midwest for several years. By the mid ’20s he was in New York, where his skills as a comedian, singer, and songwriter got him employment on Broadway, in films and on radio. He made his biggest splash when he dusted off the 1867 music hall song “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze” (about Jules Leotard) and created his own version, which he recorded in 1932, Becoming a big hit two years later. He also performed it in George White’s Scandals (1935-36). Other Broadway shows he contributed to included Just a MInute (1928), and The Third Little Show (1931). During the same years he appeared in the films The Sophomore (1929) with Eddie Quillan and Sally O’Neil, Red Hot Rhythm (1929) with Alan Hale,  and two 1931 shorts in which he starred, Night Club Revels, and The Smart Set Up. Later he had a supporting role in Prison Shadows (1936). He also wrote the songs for the 1930 Claudia Dell musical Sweet Kitty Bellairs. 

O’Keefe was a familiar presence on radio, often substituting for such stars of the medium as Walter Winchell, Edgar Bergen, and Garry Moore, and hosting the game show Double or Nothing. In 1937 he launched a nationally syndicated newspaper humor column. His last Broadway show was The Top Notchers (1942), with Gracie Fields, A. Robins, Paul and Grace Hartman, and a young Zero Mostel. In the early television era, he guest hosted on The Milton Berle Show and The All Star Revue, and subbed for Herb Shriner on the game show Two for the Money. He hosted the very first Emmy Awards in 1949. O’Keefe’s last credit was a bit part on Police Woman in 1976.

To learn more about vaudeville, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,