Dumke and East: The Mirthquakers

Today we tell of the vaudeville, radio and movie team of Ed East (1894-1952) and Ralph Dumke (1899-1964) as well as their later individual solo careers.

We now have yet a couple of new entries for our long list of Hooiser comedians, humorists, and writers that includes Booth Tarkington, James Whitcomb RileyGeorge AdeRobert John Wildhack, Charles ButterworthHerb Shriner, Joe CookMarjorie MainRed Skelton. and later David Letterman and Kurt Vonnegut. Say, what do they put in the milk there?

Anyhow, East was from Bloomington, Dumke was from South Bend. Both had attended college; East had been a pianist in dance bands; Dumke had played varsity football at Notre Dame. They met as musicians in the Indiana-based Charlie Davis Orchestra and formed a a vaudeville comedy team called The Mirthquakers around 1922, becoming popular on the Keith-Orpheum Circuit. By the late ’20s the pair were also appearing on radio, which was only then gathering steam as a cultural force, the big networks having been founded in 1926 and 1927. Their greatest fame came from a 15 minute regular variety show called Sisters of the Skillet (later The Quality Twins) which they performed on NBC from 1930 through 1937, and in the film shorts Sea Sore (1934), Practically Perfect (1937), Holding the Bag (1937), Stars in Stripes (1938), Arcade Varieties (1939) and Gals and Gallons (1939). Their biggest live date was no doubt their appearance on the legendary all-star bill at the 1932 opening of Radio City Music Hall.

By the end of the ’30s, with vaudeville played out, it became easier for East and Dumke to pursue opportunities independently. East remained focused on radio for the next several years, hosting the quiz shows Askit Basket and Name It, It’s Yours in 1938. In 1939 he teamed with his wife as Ed East and Polly. They co-hosted the radio show Breakfast in Bedlam, later renamed Ladies, Be Seated through 1945, and appeared in a film short called The Kitchen Quiz, No. 2 (1941). East joined ASCAP in 1942, and penned such tunes as “The Swing Waltz”, “What Is Love?,” “Twilight in Granada,” “Pig Latin Song,” “Nettie, Nitwit of the Network,” “What a Beautiful Morning,” and “Good Evening”. He also dipped in movies. He essentially played himself as a radio announcer in Jiggs and Maggie in Jackpot Jitters (1949), and supporting roles in The Baron of Arizona (1950), Wyoming Mail (1950), Mrs. O’Malley and Mr. Malone (1950), and Stop That Cab (1951).

Ralph Dumke’s solo career was the more significant of the two by far. He continued briefly on radio on shows like NBC’s Hook ‘n’ Ladder Follies, but in 1942 he landed his first Broadway role in the show By Jupiter, precipitating a major career shift. By Jupiter was followed by a revival of The Merry Widow (1943), then Helen Goes to Troy (1944), The Maid as Mistress/The Secret of Suzanne (1944), Sadie Thompson (1944), Mr. Straus Goes to Boston (1945) and a 1946 revival of Show Boat, in which he landed the plum role of Cap’n Andy. His popularity in that role resulted in his thinly veiled appropriation of it in a short lived TV variety show called Captain Billy’s Mississippi Music Hall (1948).

After this, Dumke relocated to Hollywood, where he became a character actor in films and TV, starting with the part of Tiny in All the King’s Men (1949). His nearly 100 screen credits include roles in such films as The Breaking Point (1950) with John Garfield, Lili (1953), The War of the Worlds (1953), Daddy Long Legs (1955), The Desperate Hours (1955), Artists and Models (1955), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), Francis in the Haunted House (1956), The Solid Gold Cadillac (1956), The Buster Keaton Story (1956), and Elmer Gantry (1960), as well as TV work on shows like My Little Margie, The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, The Mickey Mouse Club, The Ed Wynn Show, Perry Mason, and many others. His last screen appearance was a 1961 episode of The Andy Griffith Show.

For more on vaudeville and show biz history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.