Of all the forgotten geniuses of vaudeville, Joe Cook (born Joseph Lopez in Evansville, Indiana 1890 – died New York State, May 15, 1959) is arguably the greatest. A master of versatility, he could sing, dance, act, juggle Indian clubs, perform acrobatics, rotate another human with his feet while lying on his back, tightrope-walk, mime, perform unicycle tricks, play violin, ukulele and piano, and do comedy, much of it using his inept but genial stooge Dave Chasen, who made a career out of this and eventually opened up Chasen’s Restaurant which became a legendary eatery of the stars in West Hollywood. In the 1920s and 1930s he was one of the most famous stars of vaudeville, Broadway and Hollywood.
Orphaned at age three, he was raised in the back of an Evansville grocery store before joining a circus at age 16 and then working in vaudeville, on Broadway and in Hollywood. His amazing talents led to his starring in Earl Carroll’s Vanities, a highly popular show at the Earl Carroll Theater in Hollywood which featured scantily clad showgirls and top variety acts. From here he went on to successful Broadway shows such as Rain or Shine (made into a movie by Frank Capra in 1930), Fine and Dandy and Hold Your Horses. A theater guide for the latter is in the University of Arizona collection.
He was famous for his surreal patter while he was performing his stunts. Often this included references to four Hawaiians that made little or no sense but the audience came to wait for this part of his routine. His stooge Dave Chasen was always asked if he was okay after he’d taken a stupid fall and Chasen would reply with a wave of his hand across his chest which became a national craze for people to use when they wished to say everything was okay.
In the 1930s, Cook began to appear frequently as a radio host or guest, bringing his strange comedy to the airwaves. From 1924 to 1941 he lived at Lake Hopatcong, New Jersey, a resort area where he was known for lavish entertainments and frequent guests for whom he would give impromptu performances. He delighted in surprising guests with crazy landscapes, a demented golf course he’d designed which had one green which forced the ball down into the hole and other goofy experiences to delight guests. His wife spent a great deal of time apologizing to the guests for one crazy gag or another but she enjoyed being part of the whirlwind and lived a life much akin to that of Anne Bancroft during her marriage with Mel Brooks, for living with Joe Cook and going to one of his performances was like being part of a perpetual party.
Sadly, Joe Cook was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 1941 and had to move from his estate and receive increasing care until he slipped away in 1959. If he had lived, Joe Cook would have been a natural for television and would have become much more remembered today. However those who have seen the movie Rain or Shine, in which his many talents are presented because there is no money to stage a circus show with a large cast and he wants to save the circus for the girl he loves. In one lengthy sequence, we witness Cook’s act which even today stands out as a masterpiece of versatility and surreal comedy. The film was recently restored and is essential viewing for anyone wishing to see one of the greatest artists vaudeville ever embraced.
Here he is with stooge Dave Chasen performing some amazing balancing and coordination stunts on a tightrope or slackwire:
And here is Joe Cook in his early vaudeville years ca. 1925 juggling and doing some of his mime, the latter rarely captured on film:
The University of Arizona School of Anthropology Vaudeville Archive has the following Joe Cook sheet music:
PEANUTS AND KISSES 1923 – by Russell Bennett, Robert A. Simon, Owen Murphy. From Hold Your Horses, starring JOE COOK. Book by Russel Crouse and Corey Ford. Staged by R. H. Burnside. Dances by Bob Alton. Ballets by Harriet Hoctor. More dances by Charles Wiedman. Sets by Russell Patterson. Produced by John Shubert.