Joe E. Lewis: King of the Nightclub by Christopher B. Vasquez-Wright

Joe E. Lewis, king comedian of the nightclub circuit, was born January 12, 1902 and died June 4, 1971. As portrayed in his 1957 biographic film titled, The Joker is Wild, Mr. Lewis started out as a popular crooner in a gang-owned speakeasy during the prohibition years of the 1920’s. He was so successful that his gig deals became the target feud between two rivaling gangs that wanted to hire him away for his services. Shortly after he accepted a new gig from the opposing gang, mobsters were sent to convince him to change his mind. Instead, he was ambushed and severely beaten. They slashed his throat and left him for dead in an alley. Mr. Lewis survived, but his crooning career was ruined. After several surgeries, he was left with a bullfrog voice. But Mr. Lewis refused to quit the entertainment business. It took him more time to learn how to speak again and redefine his new stage persona. He claimed a new voice, as a comedy king, and set the standard for the country’s nightclub circuit.

Joe E. Lewis may be best remembered by the film. His character was played by Frank Sinatra, a fellow crooner and lifelong friend. Sinatra did an accurate portrayal of Mr. Lewis, but lacked a few nuances. Critics point out that for the drunk monologues, Sinatra “has the outer mannerisms down pat and catches the bitter inner restlessness almost too well.” But Sinatra missed the mark in the comic delivery because he lacked Lewis’ “natural clown’s grin [that] takes the curse off their cynicism.” Sinatra also “cleaned up the worst of the off-color cracks,” but “in his later singing manages a fair compromise between Lewis’ groggy hoarseness and his own slick style of crooning.” Joe E. Lewis’ biography written by Art Cohn is a more accurate account to learn details, but it only covers his early life. His life continued to 1971. Details of his post-1950’s life are scattered across headliner articles of entertainment magazines and newspapers. Over his career, he was mentioned at least 47 times in Variety and 13 times in The Billboard. Bringing these articles together helps us know about his latter-years for an epilogue to his biography. Below are five noteworthy themes of his latter-life found in the articles.

His continued popularity and loyalty

Mr. Lewis traveled frequently and his shows were often packed. He became the standard in top-notch niteries across the country. For 25 years, he was the main attraction in the upscale nightclubs of New Orleans, Baltimore, Chicago, Pittsburg, Miami, Galveston, St. Lewis, Hallandale, and Hollywood. The two places he performed most were the Copacabana in New York and El Rancho in Las Vegas. We know that he was a loyal performer and friend. Variety states that “Lewis and El Rancho operator Belton Katelman have been friends for many years.” He went to Las Vegas each winter to entertain at El Rancho, and it appears that his name he did not perform in the other Vegas nightclubs. But when the El Rancho was destroyed by fire in 1960, Mr. Lewis continued to travel to Vegas to entertain his fans, but he performed at the other locations. Apparently, the very next winter in 1961, his winter schedule was finally open to perform in L.A. By then he had played at every one of the country’s top niteries.

His intimate style

Mr. Lewis was an original, well rounded, stand-up bar comedian that delivered razor-sharp vulgar wisecracks between gulps of undiluted scotch. He worked with the live bar audience, and thus, his club acts were too vulgar to be aired on radio or television. But reviews shed light on his stage persona. In 1954 The Billboard gives several reviews of his talent. Sometimes he was paired with a striptease, did parodies, sing songs that no longer aired on radio, dance, and even get away with teasing the nightclub owners. One article gave a typical description;

His routine is the same; his topics no different – sex and booze; and there certainly is little discernable change in the muffled, garrulous manner in which he presents his material. Despite this, or because of it, the Stem crowd loves him. In 35 minutes of lampooning and salty take-offs on Rodgers and Hammerstein and other hits, the vet showman indulges in no pretensions to excellence of taste and thereby must hang the affection of Lewis admirers.

His humor was certainly vulgar, yet he did have a mannerly slant; he “avoided four letter words in his nightclub routine.” His style though, was too intimate for live media. In 1938 Mr. Lewis probably realized this after he “flopped” in his first shot at live radio. A radio review explains that he “stuck to the material he uses on the niterie floors – intimate, topical gags that are okay for the wisenheimers, but strictly nix for the vast majority who never see the inside of the cabaret.” Television was not what made him famous. The few occasions that he did make a television appearance his behavior was restrained for the broader audience. But when live at the club he would unleash his talent and captivate the audience. A commentary states;

Mr. Joe E. Lewis is a very disconcerting gent. Just when you are about to confirm your opinion that he spends too much time trying to make the Chez Paree audience act the way he wants it to, rather than acting the way the audience wants HIM to, he becomes enmeshed in a hilarious tangle of songs, gags, head bumpings, ad lib asides and a couple of conga steps, and you find yourself emitting those noiseless, midriff-racking guffaws that can be evoked by only the most ridiculous sort of humor.

Another commentary gives us another angle of his stage persona stating that he “sings his little songs at the Copacabana, in the voice of an unreformed race-track trout, with a bitter lowdown humor”. Despite his great reception, he would announce to his audience; “I got no talent”. It is unfortunate that his intimate club acts were not recorded to be seen again.

His money management and prestige

Mr. Lewis was an extremely successful entertainer in the nightclub circuit. One of his 1962 shows made headlines when it grossed a record breaking $95,000. This show attracted prestigious fans who flew in to see him; including U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Adlai Stevenson and the 1950 Nobel Prize Winner in Political Science, Ralph Bunche. Per his obituary, Mr. Lewis was earning $400,000 per year after WWII. Every now and then Mr. Lewis would tell his audience that he didn’t care for much for money, except that it quiets the nerves. It is true that he was a gambler, but he knew his limits. He did care about his money and made sure he would not run out. He delegated all his finances to a group of trustworthy individuals; including Federal Judge Abraham Lincoln Marovitz and head of New York Terminal Cabs, Danny Arnstein.

His bachelor lifestyle

Mr. Lewis lived an adventurous unhealthy lifestyle, without regrets. He was married and divorced only once. His marriage with movie star Martha Stewart didn’t last more than two years (1946-1948). His lifestyle was one of the unconstrained bachelor, which fed into his stage persona. Several sources quote his words, “I figure you’re only young once and, if you work it right, once is enough”. He escorted the dames and he loved to gamble. He was a heavy drinker and was known for ignoring doctors’ advice to quit drinking. By 1955 he had most of his stomach removed because of ulcers.

Mortality did weigh in his mind (he did survive a throat slashing). In 1950, after a group of 1,256 Friars and Femmes roasted Mr. Lewis; he was “deeply touched” and said, “I’m glad you said it while I’m alive”. In 1962 during his 60th birthday he said, “Already I can see the handwriting on the floor” because he knew he would not last forever. In 1966, Mr. Lewis showed serious signs of declining health and relished his final years. In January that year he told the William Morris agency “not to overload” him on bookings and to alternate his performance dates for more “vacation periods”. Ten months later he was “stricken” and hospitalized with diabetic complications. Nevertheless, he continued to perform for his fans, gamble, escort the dames, and drink scotch on the stage.

His life of service and longtime friendship with Frank Sinatra

Variety magazine shows that Mr. Lewis was highly respected among the vaudeville and Friar communities. He became president of the American Guild of Variety Artists (AGVA) in 1955 and in 1957 he received an award from AGVA for his service as president. He was also elected Abbot of the New York Friars club, at least twice, in 1953 and 1969, and served as Friars Dean for at least two terms. Mr. Lewis was the first friar to be roasted and the New York Friars club even dedicated a card room in his name to honor him. After his health started to decline they all knew Joe E. Morris wouldn’t last much longer. He was so respected that in 1970 the Friars Club of California threw a bash just to honor him. This event was hosted by Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. By then, Joe E. Lewis and Frank Sinatra had kept in touch for 14 years since his biographic movie was filmed. Evidently, they were good friends; Variety mentions that in 1969, “Frank Sinatra, a longtime friend of Lewis, came from the Coast” to attend an earlier tribute to Joe E. Lewis which was hosted by the Copacabana club of New York .

Conclusion

In sum, Mr. Lewis set the standard of entertainment for the country’s nightclub circuit. He was loyal to his friends and fans and quite busy with his work. Though he was a gambler, he knew his limits, and was wise to trust professional investors for his financial affairs. He was a lifelong friend of Frank Sinatra and he actively served as a leader in the entertainment community. He survived a slashed throat and knew he still had his shot at life, and it seems that he did “work it right,” for Joe E. Lewis’ standards.


Bibliography

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Cohn, Art. The joker is wild: the story of Joe E. Lewis. Random House, 1955.

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Velarde, Ed. “Talent Review: Joe E. Lewis.” The Billboard (Archive: 1894-1960), vol. 66, no. 26, 1954., pp. 43.

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