Robert John Wildhack: Sketches, Sneezes and Snores

As I mentioned in my recent post on Booth Tarkington, a century ago the midwest had a strong, distinctive regional literary voice. Within it, you can even identify sub-groups, to wit, Indiana humor is most definitely a thing. It’s a subtle, delicate thing, not as loud or obvious as, say, New York humor, or Southern (i.e. hillbilly) humor. It comes closest, I suppose, to Yankee (New England) humor. It is bone dry, quiet, deadpan, rural, plain and unpretentious. And the good news is that it is not dead. Two (relatively) modern exponents of the style I can think of are David Letterman and Kurt Vonnegut. Some more historical examples include Tarkington, James Whitcomb Riley, George Ade, Charles Butterworth, Herb Shriner, Joe Cook, Marjorie Main, and Red Skelton. And now I’ve another to add to the list!

I discovered the existence of Robert John Wildhack (1881-1941) by way of his appearance in the film Broadway Melody of 1936. He was clearly a non-actor, transplanting an apparently well-known bit he had done in other media. That always makes me smell vaudeville! When I first learned his name, I immediately recalled a character from Slaughterhouse Five, Montana Wildhack — clearly a Vonnegut nod to his fellow Hoosier humorist,

Interestingly, Robert Wildhack was a bit of a (pop) renaissiance man. He was originally a popular and successful illustrator, starting in the 1910s. Wildhack did illustrations (often cover art) for such national magazines as Collier’s, Scribner’s, Life, etc. He had a very distinctive, modern style that seemed to favor reducing subjects to big blocks of unshaded color, an effect not unlike paper cut-outs. Writing about this aspect of his career is someone else’s look-out (very good post on him here) but here are some examples I like:

But as we mentioned, Wildhack was also a performer. He had sung in quartets as a youth, and had a series of routines he performed in vaudeville. Basically these were comical lectures in which he illustrated various type of “Sound Phenomena”. His most popular were Snores and Sneezes (demonstrating the various types) and he also did routines under the rubric “Unnatural History”. He made several comedy records of these routines around the mid-teens, and later had his own radio show where he revived them. He was featured in the Broadway show Life Begins at 8:40 (1934-35), which led to appearances in the films Broadway Melody of 1936, Broadway Melody of 1938, and Back Door to Heaven (1939), in which he had a small supporting role. Unfortunately he died in 1940 at the age of 59, preventing us from knowing if his film career would have blossomed into more, or if he would have brought his talents to television. As it is, though, we have a pretty good record of what he was known for.

For more on vaudeville, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy read  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.