Thursday, August 10, 2006

Radio Free Joe

Lord help me.. I have Joe Cook on the brain! I've spent more time than I care to acknowledge trying to track down Joe's radio shows.. even going so far as to actually attempt spending money in the effort. I first caught notice of Joe's radio career while window shopping on Ebay a few years ago. I was startled and depressed to discover that what appeared to be the bulk of Joe's personal estate was being cast to the four winds. Letters, photos, home movies, scrapbooks, etc., all very rare windows into the life and career of this unique and extremely talented comedian being scattered.. permanently diffused, useless for research. None if it was within my price range, either. Certainly not the huge and almost certainly one-of-a-kind transcription discs of Joe's radio appearances. In desperation, I sent out emails to both buyers and sellers but to no avail. Money walks. I had little doubt that, given the scarcity of the material and Cook's extreme obscurity, that I'd go to my grave without hearing Joe's contributions to the world of OTR (sob).

Well, I was wrong. It seems today that there's no media so obscure that it won't be digitized and made available somewhere, and Joe Cook's radio work is no exception. The good folks of the Old Time Radio Researchers Group have made available, on, a set of all known extant episodes of The Shell Chateau (aka The Shell Show), including five hosted by Joe, some of his last radio work as a headliner. The Shell Chateau had been created in 1935 as a vehicle for Al Jolson, but restless Jolie was chronically hard to pin down to a schedule and his role as host and star attraction was frequently filled in by others, such as Wallace Beery. Starting on January 7th, 1937, Joe Cook took over as host and revamped the variety hour into a "Three-Ring Circus of Entertainment", featuring not only performers but sports celebrities, cartoonists and other notables of the day. Cook hosts The Shell Show with his customary affable cheeriness, but the show, with all and sundry reading awkwardly from scripts (especially the non-performers), sounds downright atavistic in comparison with the earlier, vibrant Jolson episodes. But it's downright hard not to like a series that has the devil-may-care audacity to feature opera stars, animal trainers, ballerinas, and Betty Boop all on the same bill of fare. Nonetheless, Cook makes a far less interesting master of ceremonies than he does a featured comedian. Much of Cook's time is spent trying to salvage interviews with mike-shy guests with puns and gags, and this general overexposure tends to take the luster off those occasions when he grabs the spotlight for one of his trademark monologues or novelty numbers.

Incidentally, Toto the Clown (Armando Novello), one of the guests on the 1/23/37 show, is the same Toto who, back in 1918, ditched his series of shorts with Hal Roach, thus making room at the Roach studio for Stan Laurel. On the show, Toto makes his entrance in a tiny clown car while Cook describes the action for the listening audience ("Here he comes now in his famous automobile! The smallest automobile you've ever seen! It's only two feet high! You could almost park it in your vest pocket!"). Toto, who is announced as speaking in public for the first time, is a true eccentric with a thick accent who throws Cooks repeatedly by diverging from the script. It just doesn't get much stranger than this, folks.

Shell Chateau 37-01-16 Guests - Sonja Henie, Larry Adler, Betty Boop (Mae Questel)
Shell Chateau 37-01-23 Guests - The Happiness Boys, Rube Goldberg, Toto the Clown
Shall Chateau 37-02-06 Guests - George O'Brien, Enzio Pinza, Mitzi Green
Shell Chateau 37-02-13 Guests - Effrem Zimbalist, Jean Hersholt
Shell Chateau 37-05-29 Guests - Walter Hampton, Connie Mack, Bert Lynn ("inventor of the electric guitar")

Labels: , , ,


Anonymous Anonymous said...

That does sound bizarre, and your comment about the lackluster reading of scripts by amateurs must have been heightened when Wally Beery hosted. Of all the inarticulate guys to have host something! I don't have a sound card in my computer, so I don't know that I can listen to these anytime soon, but hopefully will eventually. I was amused, to see George O'Brien at the bottom of the entry, guesting with poor st-st-stuttering Joe. Here's something that probably only bugs me. Legend has it, and you hear this all the time from Silent Film lecturers that George O'Brien was so upset by all those extras dying on Noah's Ark that he retired and became a policeman. But everytime I turn around, there's George O'Brien, doing westerns, doing radio, I guess he 'mentally' retired but in fact, kept going right along.

11:54 AM  
Blogger Aaron Neathery said...

I've never seen the (in)famous 1928 Noah's Ark. Is it true that footage of the drownings remains in the film? I'm still shocked that there weren't serious repercussions for those three (or more?) deaths.

And as far as the sound card goes, get one asap.. or an inexpensive MP3 player. There's a world of classic comedy material online for the taking as long as you have the right soft/hardware.

1:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You can find three more of Joe's radio appearances here:

12:50 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home