Some comedians are an acquired taste. I never acquired one for Joe Penner. And seeing he’s been dead for 70 years, I likely won’t acquire one. But I sure like this ad for his film debut, ‘College Rhythm’ (1934). We get a realistic Penner and a cartoon duck. Duck as in “Wanna buy a.”
Cartoons are about the only place anyone knows Penner from these days. Danny Webb borrowed his voice for Egghead at Warner Bros. (notably in ‘Daffy Duck and Egghead’). And the annoying rabbit characters in the Warners’ animated short ‘My Green Fedora’ (1935) were Penner-ised with one dressing like him and the other laughing like him. Penner was a huge, but fleeting, radio star. Rudy Vallee “discovered” him in 1933 and played straight man to him. This clip is courtesy of Craig Hodgkins’ very good site on Penner.
Radio isn’t kind to people whose routine consists of little more than a couple of catchphrases. And that’s about all Penner had, besides a childishly-whiny voice. Penner realised a little too late that you could go on with the same act for years in vaudeville, but not on radio. In 1936, he gave up his duck and tried a new radio show written by Harry W. Conn, the man who thought he made Jack Benny, but his career had peaked.
Penner continued in movies, walking from RKO to Universal in a salary dispute in 1939, before his sudden death on January 10, 1941. He was 36. The catchphrases he tried to give up followed him to the grave; some front page newspaper stories showed a publicity shot of Penner and his duck. Click on them below to see the clippings in larger form.
Philadelphia, Jan. 11 (AP)—Millions who had howled hilarious approval of a little Hungarian comedian and his incessant “Wanna Buy a Duck?” were touched by sadness today with the death of Joe Penner.
The 36-year-old funnyman who brought the nation many a laugh through the screen, stage and radio, died in his sleep yesterday. Pending an autopsy, the cause was given as a heart attack.
Penner, seeking a rest, had asked not to be disturbed in his hotel room — Mrs. Penner told how hard he had been working on his new show “Yokel Boy,” which opened here Monday — and was found dead in bed about 5 P. M., by his wife.
Only the night before, friends said Penner — born Josef Pinter in a tiny Hungarian village — had appeared in his gayest mood. After the show, he escorted Mrs. Penner and comedienne Martha Raye, their guest, to a night club.
Robert Crawford, his co-producer and general manager, said the star called upon, returning to the hotel and seemed “in the best of spirits.” Mrs. Penner, the former Mae Vogt, a dancer in Joe’s first show, was placed under a physician’s care.
There was no understudy for the star of “Yokel Boy” and the Locust Street Theater was dark last night. Crawford has not decided whether it will be continued.
Penner was brought to this country at the age of nine by his grandparents, and joined his parents in Detroit, where the father worked in a motor car factory. School and odd jobs had no appeal for a youngster who showed more aptitude for clowning than classes, but a prize for an amateur impersonation of Charlie Chaplin started him on his way to stardom.
His first theatrical job was assistant to a mind reader—until the comedian on the bill failed to show up. Penner stepped in, and there followed several seasons of vaudeville, carnivals, burlesques and nightclubs. The first big break came in 1926, a role at $375 a week in the “Greenwich. Village Follies.” In 1933 Rudy Vallee had Penner as guest star on radio, and a few weeks later he was featured on his own program.
The death of Joe Penner may cancell [sic] the road tour of “Yokel Boy,” the Lew Brown-Ray Henderson musical in which the comedian was making a stage “comeback.” The show had been booked for a one-night engagement on Jan. 29 at the Empire, but no news of cancellation has been received by Harry Unterfoot, city manager of RKO-Schine theaters, who is supervising the theater.