Monday, January 6, 2014

Who's Joe Penner?

The star of The Joe Penner Show at the microphone.
In 2014, his career wouldn't amount to much more than a Trivial Pursuit question. But 80 years ago, in 1934, syndicated newspaper columnist Mark Hellinger called him "the greatest theatrical sensation to pop up in recent years," pointing out that the "overnight success" owed his newfound fame almost exclusively to the still-young medium of radio. His name? Joe Penner.

Born as József Pintér in 1904, Penner was not yet thirty years old, a veteran of vaudeville and burlesque, when his guest appearance on Rudy Vallee's radio show shot his career into high gear. Soon, he had his own weekly show, The Baker's Broadcast (later revamped into The Joe Penner Show), and was convulsing audiences with his catchphrases, "Wanna buy a duck?" and "You nasty man!" As Hellinger reported in May 1934, "A Joe Penner book is soon to be published. The Marx company, greatest of the top manufacturers, will soon place a number of Joe Penner toys on the market. The Penner radio contract for next year calls for twice this year's sum. The movies are angling with big hooks. And meanwhile -- while he's waiting -- the man is knocking out his 10 to 15 thousand dollars a week." 

Penner told Hellinger, "I don't feel any different from the way I did a year ago, except for the comfort of the money that will protect my future. I suppose I'm something of a vogue now. But we both know that it can't last forever." That statement, alas, was all too prescient. Joe Penner died of heart disease on January 10, 1941, only 36 years old but with his career already on the downslide. Thanks to a small group of loyal fans, however, he isn't completely forgotten. Visit the Wanna Buy a Duck? site for audio and video clips of his comedy, memorabilia, and a look at the brief career of this neglected comedian.

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