This story was published in Radio Recall, the journal of the Metropolitan Washington Old-Time Radio Club, published six times per year.
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WISE QUACKING JOE PENNER
(The Sad End of a Funny Man)
By Cort Vitty © 2009
(From Radio Recall, February 2009)
Joe Penner was a moderately successful vaudeville comedian, when his wife Eleanor encouraged him to try radio again. A previous audition was disappointing and he maintained that “radio was not for him.” The veteran comic finally succumbed to his bride’s prodding, on the condition of a private audition. On a summer day in 1933, Eleanor along with Joe’s manager Marty Sampter and a hidden technician were present for the test. Joe was lackadaisical and didn’t care about the outcome – so he really hammed it up, causing the trio to howl with laughter.
Afterwards, the mysterious technician came forward and identified himself as Gordon Thompson of the Rudy Vallee program; Joe had been duped into a big time audition. Within a week, he was invited to appear as a guest on the Vallee show. Remarkably, three months later Penner would have his own show; he’d go on to be voted the most popular radio comic of 1934. When asked if success had gone to his head, Joe responded: “Why should it? I do exactly the same stuff I’ve been doing for years in vaudeville.”
Penner, best known as the radio comedian who coined the wildly popular phrase, “Wanna buy a Duck?” was born Josef Pinter near Budapest Hungary on November 11th, 1904. In 1907, his parents immigrated to the United States and settled in Detroit, where his father worked in the auto industry. Young Josef and his grandfather arrived in 1913 on the Caroathiea; it was the ship that rescued survivors of the Titanic a year earlier. Josef and his grandfather traveled in steerage, wearing lapel tags bearing the message “forward to Detroit.”
After arriving, Joe felt out of place when assigned to kindergarten with children half his age. Unable to speak English, he used his hands to make himself understood. The kids laughed and Joe became upset; he’d run home after school and cry on his mother’s lap. Although these lessons were painful, they came in handy years later when performing before live audiences. The former choir boy, sold magazines, entered amateur contests and became a mind-readers assistant. At 16, he left home to appear in burlesque and vaudeville shows; he adapted the use of a cigar on stage to prove he was old enough to be in show business. The cigar carried into real life; Penner smoked constantly when not performing.
Joe explained the Penner style of humor to Carroll Nye of the Los Angeles Times: “My type of comedy is created out of my own experience in life. It’s easy for me to play the underdog on radio. Many times I went through my routine in vaudeville with my heart aching – not a nickel in my pocket and not knowing where my next meal was coming from.” The sensitive Penner developed a stage technique to intentionally avoid eye contact with the audience. He’d locate a stage position where lighting drowned out faces. He once admitted that seeing a patron “dead-pan” without a gleeful expression, was something that frightened him terribly -- to the point of potentially running off stage.
In 1926 Joe was a headliner in the Greenwich Village Follies, when he met chorus girl Eleanor Mae Vogt. She was born in St. Louis on March 26th, 1908 and entered show business as a member of the Missouri Rockets dance ensemble; the group would later move to New York and become the Radio City Rockettes. She grew fond of the diminutive comedian after realizing his off stage demeanor was nothing like the zany character portrayed in his act.
Joe was shy and reserved when not performing; he didn’t frequent drinking parties or participate in backstage dice games. Joe was never the life of the party; he disliked staying up late and only performed well after getting a full 8 hours of sleep. He considered himself a poor after dinner speaker. The couple married on Joe’s birthday, November 11th, 1928 and enjoyed what truly resembled a “rags to riches” fairy tale marriage. Penner was a devoted husband who showered his wife with elaborate gifts, including furs and jewelry. After hitting the big time, he replaced Eleanor’s original dime store engagement ring with a $10,000 sparkler.
In 1929, a Pittsburgh theatre manager insisted Joe try his hand at radio. Auditioning in a small glass enclosed room; he performed his theatre routine while an expressionless crew watched from a distance. Feeling the performance was a disaster, Joe left the studio vowing never to try radio again His attitude changed in 1933 after wife Eleanor and manager Sampter and ganged up on him. Prior to his Vallee broadcast, Joe inspected the NBC studios, on the top floor of the Amsterdam Building in New York. Expecting another tiny glass closet, Joe was delighted to see the studio had a huge sound stage, with plenty of seats for a large audience. Joe decided he could do his theater routine in such a venue; for the first time he became enthused about the prospect of radio.
Penner learned a valuable lesson on the very first broadcast. Joe realized a routine gesture, such as a flick of his cigar was amusing to the studio audience, but the listening public at home had no idea why laughs were emanating from the Philco. Joe knew millions of people were not in on the gag and from that point on -- he performed only for the listening audience. At the conclusion of his initial show, Joe rated his performance as fair and was surprised to be invited back. During his encore broadcast, Joe was completely relaxed and performed like a veteran. Rave reviews accompanied his performance and he was rewarded with a contact to do his own show. The Baker’s Broadcast, which was sponsored by Fleichmann’s Yeast, premiered on October 8th, 1933; central to the show was Joe as the infamous duck salesman.
“Wanna buy a duck” originated in 1931, at the Publix Theatre in Birmingham Alabama. A show was in progress when the MC became visibly nervous trying to work an unresponsive audience. Joe suddenly walked onstage and slowly moved closer to the desperate announcer. Totally unplanned, out came the words, “Wanna buy a duck?” It was the first thing that came into his mind. The exchange brought the audience to life and the more persistent Penner became -- the more the audience roared. Penner admitted it was a totally meaningless line, but the audience seemed to like it and so it evolved into his act. He added inflection and it seldom let him down. Later, his other popular sayings like “You nah-sty man” and “Don’t ever dooo that” also just simply popped into his head.
En route to his first performance of The Baker’s Broadcast, Joe recalled he and Eleanor were “crying like babies” as they approached the studio. At air time, nervousness set in and the audience noted uneasiness in Joe’s voice, which exaggerated his lisp. The audience thought it was funny and Joe replicated the heavy lisp in future broadcasts; it became another “happy accident, just like the duck.” The duck, named Goo-Goo, had quite a following too. Audiences would send Penner ducks -- some live -- by the boatload; duck toys and radio premiums flooded the market.
Despite tremendous success, Joe grew tired of the show’s limited format; he wanted to segue into other material, but the sponsor didn’t want to jeopardize the ratings bonanza the program had become. Seemingly at an impasse, Joe abruptly quit; his last broadcast was on June 30th, 1935. Musical accompaniment for The Baker’s Broadcast was provided by Ozzie Nelson and Harriet Hilliard. Nelson commented: “Joe was a terribly insecure little man who had an unfortunate knack for placing his trust in the wrong people.”
In the early 1930s, Joe appeared in over a dozen two-reel shorts for Warner Brothers. He and Eleanor moved to California, as additional movie roles beckoned. His only prerequisite in securing a west coast residence was a backyard large enough for a pitching mound; Joe loved baseball and although he never played as a youngster, he enjoyed throwing to a catcher. Joe appeared in 10 feature length films from 1934 to 1940; rating top billing in most.
Joe’s next series on CBS radio, The Park Avenue Penners; debuted on October 4th 1936, from the west coast. In this situation comedy, Joe played the family black sheep. Penner commented to Jack Hanley of Radio Stars magazine that this was one of the fastest sales in radio history. Penner hired writer Harry Conn away from Jack Benny to pen the new series. “Eight hours after his first reading of the script, Joe played an audition of it for Cocomalt. And a half hour after the audition the directors of the company bought the show.” The Park Avenue Penners ran until June 26th 1938.
Next up was The Joe Penner Show, on CBS from October 6th 1938 to March 30th 1939, sponsored by Huskies Cereal. This was followed by The Tip Top Show on the NBC Blue Network, sponsored by Ward Baking; it ran from October 5th 1939 to April 25th 1940. These shows clearly didn’t post the high ratings he enjoyed during his original foray into the medium.
Early in 1941, Penner was starring in the stage show Yokel Boy, at the Locust theatre in Philadelphia. Penner played Elmer Whipple, who arrived in Hollywood after leaving a farm in Massachusetts. The performance on the evening of January 9th was well received. Penner was in good spirits, when he and Eleanor invited co-star Martha Raye to join them for a late dinner after the show. They returned to the hotel and Joe worked through the night and into the early morning hours. After lunch, Penner was exhausted; he went to his room and asked not to be disturbed. The phone rang just before 4:30 p.m. Eleanor answered and Robert Crawford, co-producer of the play, requested she awaken her husband to remind him of an appointment. Mrs. Penner set the phone down, walked into the bedroom and quickly returned -- she screamed into the receiver: “Get a doctor at once.” Her 36 year old husband, film and radio star Joe Penner was dead. The deputy coroner examined the body and indicated the pajama clad Penner had died peacefully in his sleep of a heart attack; it was January 10th, 1941.
Devastated after his passing, Eleanor escorted Joe’s body back to their Glendale California home. Buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Park, she visited his grave daily and always placed a fresh rose on his headstone. Her family desperately tried to shake her state of despair, encouraging her to get out and even start a new theatrical booking business. Later that year, her father, George Vogt Sr. also passed away. In 1942, a letter arrived from the War Department reporting her brother, Lt. George Vogt Jr., had died while serving overseas.
She left California in 1944, for an extended business trip to New York. Shipping her belongings ahead to the St. Moritz hotel, her huge trunk filled with furs and jewels was pilfered upon arriving in New York. On a busy city street, Eleanor was abducted by assailants, forced into a large sedan and driven to the country; she was later found lying on the road, robbed and brutally beaten. Three men were eventually apprehended and charged; her valuable engagement ring was found in the possession of one of the abductors.
Eleanor passed away suddenly on April 4th 1946. Her mother, Alma requested a coroner’s report, since her daughter had presumably been in perfect health. The report revealed Eleanor Penner had died of natural causes; however a broken heart may have been a more apt description. She was 38 years old.
Encyclopedia of Old Time Radio; Los Angeles Times; New York Times; Oakland Tribune; Radio Guide; Radio Stars; San Antonio Light; San Mateo Times; Saturday Evening Post; Washington Post; www.craighodgkins.com/joepenner