Ed Wynn had many names over the course of his life. From his childhood nickname ‘Izzy’ to his lasting title the ‘Perfect Fool’, Ed Wynn lived 79 years through good times and hard times. Ed Wynn was born Isaiah Edwin Leopold on November 9th, 1886 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania USA. On June 19th, 1966 he died, of esophageal cancer, in Beverly Hills, Los Angeles, California. Ed Wynn had three wives: Hilda Keenan, Frieda Mierse, and Dorothy Elizabeth Nesbitt. He had only one child, a son Keenan Wynn, with
his first wife. He also had two grandsons: Ned Wynn and Tracy Keenan Wynn, and three granddaughters. Ed Wynn was the younger son of Joseph and Minnie Leopold. His father, Joseph Leopold, was a Bohemian Jewish immigrant. Joseph met his wife Minnie after coming to America to start a new life. The two of them opened a millinery shop which supported their family comfortably. Joseph hoped that his two sons, Leon and Isaiah ‘Izzy’ Edwin, would eventually take over the professional and prosperous hat making business. For Izzy, though, a life of hat making was not in his future. Instead, Izzy entered the world of performance at the age of 14. He possessed the gift of laughter from as early as he could remember, writing, “I understood jokes way beyond the average young man’s comprehension…” With this instinctive foundation of humor, he began delighting audiences with his inventive act, one which utilized only a ladies hat and his imagination. His choice for a life of entertainment was far from his father’s wishes for his future. Only a few years later, still a teen, he renounced his family’s inheritance to “devote the rest of his life to theatricals as playwright and actor”. This announcement, made by the teenage Izzy, was enough to get him in the newspapers, and a first taste at being in the public eye. By this time Isaiah Edwin was no longer Izzy; he had split his middle name into two names: Ed Wynn. From this small but unabashed beginning, he started on the path to much higher theatrical achievements.
Wynn’s formative years in entertainment were spent in various troops and assorted acts. He played several instruments and traveled the country with several groups learning about the business. Wynn did not have the easiest of starts, getting stranded a few times with a troupe that had folded. This eventually would land him back at home with the family business he insisted he would not join. Through all of his early experiences he mentioned that comedians would make any sort of joke to get a
laugh; racial jokes and other insulting cracks. Wynn considered himself ‘his own censor’; he never made a risqué or racial joke in his whole career. This would serve as one of his defining attributes in his later work; a comic, clown, with clean fun for the whole family. With the creation of his stage name and a few sketches written, Wynn was on his way to being a figure in vaudeville. His first break came when he found a partner to perform his sketch, “The Freshman and The Sophomore”. For this he teamed up with Jack Lewis, a fellow aspiring performer. They called themselves the “Rah Rah Boys”. From here Wynn continued on to his first time on Broadway in the 1910 musical The Deacon and the Lady. As he grew older he developed his unique and memorable style. This included a certain comical yet slightly thoughtful demeanor, a light even squeaky voice with a slight lisp, and a gift with puns. He wore cartoonish clothing
and always seemed to have a novel, and at times ridiculous, object to amuse his audiences. He starred in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1914 and 1915. From 1916 to 1942 he starred in a series of shows including The Perfect Fool (1921), The Grab Bag (1924), Manhattan Mary (1927), and Simple Simon (1930). The character from The Perfect Fool would later become one of his most memorable stage personas. In addition to being an actor and a comic, Wynn was also a writer and producer. During the Depression, Wynn even hosted a radio program in which he portrayed a character called the Texaco Fire Chief. Over the three years, broadcasting one hour a week, he made a total of one million dollars.
Ed Wynn’s early career in performance centered on the entertainment of the time; notably Vaudevillian stage acting and comedic performance, as the years went on though, he had to make a choice. The choice of whether to stay with the familiar, or move into the new frontier: television. Wynn did indeed make the jump. In his later years he was the star in his own show, The Ed Wynn Show of 1949 to 1950 and on this show he frequently gave pride of place to former film or vaudeville stars who were on hard times, such as Victor Moore or Buster Keaton. His television show was not a huge success but no one worked harder to fill the time slot of primitive early television than Ed Wynn, Martha Raye, Eddie Cantor, Milton Berle and Sid Caesar. They were true pioneers working in tightly confined spaces with primitive equipment, all in black and white. But Wynn didn’t stop there. He continued exploring new ideas. He was the voice of the Mad Hatter in the 1951 animated film Alice in Wonderland and appeared in Mary Poppins in 1964. Both roles reflected his humorous, good nature, and slightly kooky side. Wynn also starred in two episodes of the TV series The Twilight Zone. In the episode “One for the Angels” in 1959 he took on a more somber role as a salesman giving his final sales pitch. This somber role was not his only one, having played Mr. Albert Dussell in the film The Diary of Anne Frank, also in 1959. Wynn continued to work and act, appearing in comedic and dramatic movies and TV shows with a growing emphasis on the latter until his death in 1966. Ed Wynn did indeed make good on his teenage claim, for he devoted his life to theatricals. From Izzy to the Perfect Fool, Ed Wynn is most remembered for his witty jokes, creative costumes, cleaver props, and insistence on clean comedy.
Berman, Garry. Perfect Fool: The Life and Career of Ed Wynn. Albany, GA: BearManor Media, 2012. Print.
Bordman, Gerald Martin., and Thomas S. Hischak. The Oxford Companion to American Theatre. New York: Oxford UP, 2004. Print.
Stein, Charles W., ed. American Vaudeville: As Seen By Its Contemporaries. New York, NY: Da Capo, 1985. Print.
Wynn, Ned. We Will Always Live in Beverly Hills: Growing Up Crazy in Hollywood. New York: William Morrow and, 1990. Print.
Here is a clip from the Ed Wynn television variety show from 1949 with his special guest Buster Keaton:
The University of Arizona School of Anthropology Vaudeville Collection has the following sheet music of Ed Wynn:
FLAME OF LOVE 1924 – Ed Wynn. Cover ED WYNN (The Perfect Fool) in THE GRAB BAG. Book, lyrics and music by Ed Wynn. Presented by A. L. Erlanger.
TEN CENTS A DANCE and SEND FOR ME 1930 – Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. 2 different sheet musics. Cover ED WYNN in SIMPLE SIMON. A Ziegfeld Production. Book by Ed Wynn, Guy Bolton. Staged by Seymour Felix. Cover art by Gorj.
OOH THAT KISS 1931 – Harry Warren, Mort Dixon, Joe Young. ED WYNN presents himself in THE LAUGH PARADE with book by Ed Wynn and Sid Silvers and dances by Sammy Lee.
DOWN WITH LOVE and I’VE GONE ROMANTIC ON YOU 1937 – E. Y Harburg, Harold Arlen. Messrs. Shubert present ED WYNN in the new musical comedy HOORAY FOR WHAT, with Jack Whiting, June Clyde, Paul Haakon. Conceived by E. Y. Harburg. Book by Lindsay, Crouse and Harburg. Staged and directed by Vincente Minelli.
THE SUN’LL BE UP IN THE MORNING 1940 – by Jack Yellen, Sammy Fain. Cover ED WYNN “THE PERFECT FOOL” presents himself in BOYS AND GIRLS TOGETHER. Book by Ed Wynn and Pat C. Flick. Lyrics by Jack Yellen, Irving Kahal. Music by Sammy Fain.