1966: A Man Who Was Deadly Serious About Being a Buffoon Dies

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Ed Wynn didn't make the use of hats that his merchant father had intended.
Ed Wynn didn't make the use of hats that his merchant father had intended.Credit: Insomnia Cured Here, Flickr Creative Commons

On June 19, 1966, the comedian Ed Wynn, star of vaudeville, Broadway, radio, TV and the silver screen, died, at age 79.

He was born Isaiah Edwin Leopold, in Philadelphia, on November 9, 1886. His father, Joseph, was an immigrant from Bohemia, and his mother, Minnie, had come to the United States from Constantinople.

Not quite what dad had in mind

Joseph Leopold, who manufactured and sold women’s hats, hoped that his son would follow him into the business. Isaiah did develop an interest in hats, but not as a commodity: It is said that in what was probably his most famous comedy revue, “The Perfect Fool” (1921), he employed 800 different hats, many of them very tiny, to get his audience laughing.

Ed left Philadelphia’s prestigious Central High School at age 15 to join up with a vaudeville company. When it went broke in Bangor, Maine, he played piano in a brothel to raise the money to return home. But he was soon off again, this time to New York.

Postcard depicting Ed Wynn as the Texaco Fire Chief for the premiere of the radio program The Texaco Fire-Chief Program.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

By 1913, he was a headliner on Broadway, and the next year, he was hired by Florenz Ziegfeld for his Follies. That association was short lived: in 1914, as W.C. Fields was presenting a sketch called “Pool Sharks," Wynn appeared from under the pool table mugging for the audience. An irritated Fields came around to the front of the table and – says the legend – knocked Wynn unconscious with his cue.

His next employers were the Shubert Brothers, Ziegfeld’s principal rivals, who signed him to a long-term contract in 1917. However, in 1919, when actors nationwide staged a strike, Wynn joined them, though he had been working under relatively good conditions.

The Ed Wynn Show: Buster Keaton segment from 1949Credit: YouTube

Blacklist for life? No big deal

When Actors' Equity staged a benefit variety show for the cause, the Shuberts obtained a court injunction to keep their Starr from appearing. And when the emcee introduced him from the audience, Wynn stood up to express his regrets. "Of course the orders of the court must be obeyed,” he said, adding that, “If I had been able to appear tonight, I had in mind telling you a story” He thereupon proceeded to perform an entire act from the third row of the audience.

  That impudent act got Ed Wynn blacklisted for life by the Shubert organization. He responded by becoming his own producer, and in fact, over the next two decades, from 1919 through 1942, he produced, wrote both words and music, directed and starred in a number of Broadway comedy revues, the most notable of which may have been “The Perfect Fool,” in which he found countless ways to be a buffoon.  

By the 1930s, he was also appearing on radio, earning $5,000 as the host of the show “The Fire Chief.” Sponsored by Texaco to promote its new gasoline of the same name, it featured Wynn in the title role, entering the stage on a tiny play fire truck, and wearing an ill-fitting, child-size fire fighter’s helmet. (Though he was comfortable in the live theater, performing live on radio terrified Wynn, so he insisted on doing his shows in full dress and with a studio audience.)

The Fire Chief, a radio show sponsored by Texaco to promote its new gasoline of the same name, starring Ed Wynn. Credit: YouTube

In 1933, Wynn decided to set up his own network, called the Amalgamated Broadcasting System, into which he sank both his own and investors' savings. When it went bust, after four weeks, he was left owing $300,000 to creditors. He resolved to pay the money back, but by the end of the process, his wife had left him, and he suffered a mental breakdown. That was in 1937.

For the next two years, Wynn did not perform publicly, until finally his son, Keenan Wynn, the child of his marriage to Hilda Keenan, coaxed him back into working. He now added movies and television to his platforms, and in the 1950s, even took on serious acting roles.

In the last decade of his life, Ed Wynn performed in a series of Walt Disney movies, including “Babes in Toyland” and, most famously, “Mary Poppins,” in which he played Uncle Albert, a character who “loves to laugh”.  He also starred in the 1959 film version of “The Diary of Anne Frank,” as Mr. Dussell, a role that won him an Oscar nomination. And in 1979, Wynn died, leading entertainer Red Skelton to remark: "His death is the first time he ever made anyone sad."