Wednesday 23 October 2019

Mr. Wilson Wears a Dress

Network radio in the 1940s had a small group of actors constantly in demand for both dramatic and comedy shows. One of them was Joe Kearns.

The dramatic show he may have been best known for, at least on the West Coast, was The Whistler. He was a regular on Suspense and showed up frequently on Lux Radio Theatre and Hollywood Star Time.

Kearns was a fine comedic actor, too. He had regular roles on The Mel Blanc Show and The Judy Canova Show and the short-lived Harold Peary Show. He’s remembered fondly by fans of the Jack Benny radio show as Ed, the man who had guarded Benny’s underground vault seemingly since the Revolutionary War, but Benny found other parts for him to play.

An early starring role was in a 1939 NBC Blue network show called Parents on Trial where he played a judge. Bea Benaderet and Elliott Lewis, two other A-list supporting actors, also appeared.

Those shows are just a very small sample.

When television came along, Kearns finally got audience recognition; such is the nature of seeing someone every week instead of hearing him. Kearns was cast as Mr. Wilson on the Dennis the Menace series and played the part until his sudden death in 1962.

This only scratched the proverbial surface of Kearns’ talents. Here’s a story from the Salt Lake Telegram of January 20, 1924. The paper had a columnist in New York who reported on people from back home.
Utahns In New York

NEW YORK, Jan 19.—"Miss" Kearns of Salt Lake advanced gracefully to center front of the big stage, cavernous without its customary scenery. The eminent critics stopped talking golf to take a look and lend an ear to this latest and prodigy of Ned Wayburn. Ned's proteges generally were worth looking at. "Miss" Kearns proved no exception.
"Her" appealing blue eyes, round girlish face and golden curls rivaled those of the fair Lillian Gish. "Her" plaintive soprano voice evoked forgotten memories. "Her" dainty feet and neat ankles repictured memories more vivid. And "she" certainly could dance! Imagine, then, their surprise when this vision of feminine pulchritude snatched the blond tresses from a most masculine haircut and commenced singing in a tenor a la McCormack. Ned Wayburn then steps to the front. "Beg pardon, gentlemen, my mistake. Let me introduce you to Mr. Joe Kearns of Salt Lake."
The critics applaud. "Where did you find him?" "When are you going to present him to the public?" "Another Julian Eltinge . . . and like comment. Joe Kearns had "gone over" with the critics, whose opinions shadow the taste of the theatre-goers.
Backstage, Joe Kearns was modestly accepting tribute from those most interested—mother, sister, grandmother and Ned Wayburn.
Joe is the son of Joseph Albert Kearns, who is in the wool business in Salt Lake. He is only 17 years old but his remarkable aptitude for female impersonation, as well as decided ability in stage and costume designing, led him to New York some six months ago. C. Clyde Squires, the Utah artist, was instrumental in bringing him to the attention of Ned Wayburn, stage director and producer of Ziegfeld Follies, who immediately became interested in the lad.
Joe commenced his professional stage training under Mr. Wayburn's direction last September. He receives ballet instruction from Alexander Yakoloff, formerly Anna Pavlova's dancing partner. Soft shoe and toe dancing he is learning from Robert Connely, the late Bert Savoy's manager. His vocal lessons are under the care of Vere Richards. On January 5, Mr. Wayburn arranged a tryout to see if his belief in the boy's genius was justified. Apparently it was, for Joe is to go on with his studies until such time as Mr. Wayburn thinks it advisable to place him on the stage.
The other night Joe Kearns was presented to a number of Utah people at an informal gathering in the Kearns apartment. The guests were enthusiastic and predicted a most successful future. They were greatly interested also in a miniature stage designed by this talented Utahn. It was an exact reproduction of a big stage with a special lighting effect and scenery of unusual coloring devised by young Kearns. Costumes for a complete revue of his designing were also exhibited. Among the guests were Mrs. Ella Squires and her son Harold.
Mrs. Kearns and her mother, Mrs. Lehl Peterson, are to return to Utah within the week via the Panama canal. The daughter Beth precedes them by train.
Kearns did not become the next Julian Eltinge (perhaps vaudeville’s top female impersonator of the 1920s). His career didn’t take off in New York. He went across the country to Los Angeles and enrolled in the Marta Oatman School of Theater, co-starring in a performance of Eugene O’Neill’s “Diff’rent,” mounted at the Sum-Toy-Sho Theatre on March 6, 1926. His professional debut occurred at the Pasadena Playhouse in “What Price Glory” in February 1927, with Clark Gable in the cast. The Los Angeles Times of February 13th gave a summary of Kearns’ brief career, pointing out he first appeared on stage at the age of 5 in Salt Lake City playing a little girl.

Kearns continued writing plays and returned to Salt Lake to announce at KSL. He was back in Los Angeles in 1936, appearing in the title role of Peer Gynt in a serialised version of the Ibsen play broadcast starting in mid-November on KECA. He returned to KSL in July 1937 but was back on the air in Los Angeles by October.

Since we’ve talked about some of the high points of Kearns’ radio career, let’s jump ahead to July 30, 1961. Kearns had been on Dennis the Menace for two seasons and it seems there was a bit of friction on the set as certain adults who thought they were going to be featured found themselves watching Kearns’ Mr. Wilson take up piles of screen time. He explains why in this Associated Press column.
Child Stars Don't Worry Joe Kearns

HOLLYWOOD (AP)—The late W. C. Fields once observed that a man who hates kids and dogs can't be all bad.
Applied to child actors, the first half of that epigram has plenty of private subscribers in show business. But publicly, of course, few have dared to evince anything less than loving deviation to moppets, fearing that failure to do so meant theatrical disaster.
Thus show folks have been slightly startled in the last couple of years by the success of amiable, bespectacled Joe Kearns as a sort of every boy's curmudgeon next door, the fusty, perpetually exasperated Mr. Wilson of CBS' “Dennis the Menace” series.
Actually, two men scarcely could be less similar than the bumbling, bombastic Wilson, and Kearns, a gentle-mannered, 54 year old bachelor whose favorite hobby is playing his enormous, theater-type pipe organ.
“In fact,” he admitted with a shrug, “I really didn't want to do the part at first. I just couldn't see myself as Wilson at all because in the cartoons he's an old guy with a paunch and no hair.”
Kearns has none of the former and plenty of the latter. “Then, when I got into it, I gave the show a year at the most,” he went on. “I figured: How far can you go with a kid getting into mischief? It's surprised me. I guess it's surprised everyone.”
More surprising to Kearns and to the rest of the cast has been his emergence as the No. 2 personality in the company. Neither he nor anyone else imagined at the outset that the unfriendly neighbor who spent most of his time chasing Dennis (Jay North) home would become the star's leading foil.
“I know it's caused some . . . well, sensitivity among the rest of the cast,” he said. “But it certainly wasn't my idea. It wasn't planned that way. “I guess the writers just found it easier to create situations for Dennis and Mr. Wilson than anything else.”
Kearns, who says he “only wants to be a good actor, that's all,” has never been troubled by the thought that the series could make him a childhood symbol of the neighborhood meanie.
“It hasn't worked out that way,” he adds. “People often ask me if I'm getting a stigma I'll never live down, but I don't see it. A lot of children ask for my autograph, and they're never less than very friendly.
“I think one reason is that Wilson has been pasteled down from the cartoon character. He still has his rough edges. He's an old fraud, really, but he's very fond of Dennis down deep inside.”
Kearns doesn't share the common theatrical loathing for working with children. Having started his own career at the age of six, he understands and sympathizes with child actors.
“Working with kids isn't nearly as bad as it's cracked up to be,” he demurred. “Sure, some are . . . Oh, you know. But the kids on our show are good children, and they get in there and work, too.”
And Kearns candidly concedes that it's a bit late for him to be concerned about being “typed” by his role.
“At my age,” he sighed, “the only way a character actor can be a success is playing a neighbor.”
The article mentions Kearns’ theatre pipe organ in his home. Kearns lived for years at 6122 Carlos Avenue, not too far from Hollywood and Vine. In the 1950s, he designed and built another house behind the first one and had it constructed around his organ. The organ was featured on an album on Liberty Records; a picture of the second home shows the exterior hasn’t changed a lot from what’s on the property today. One Robert F. Robertson, who lived with Kearns since the mid ‘40s, occupied the “organ” home.

In February 1962, Kearns had a cerebral haemorrhage and fell into a coma. He died in hospital almost a week later at the age of 55. United Press International quoted someone at CBS saying “That’s the end of that show. He was the whole show.” That wasn’t quite the case. Gale Gordon was quickly brought in to fill the nemesis role. But the calendar isn’t kind to youth. The boy who played Dennis, Jay North, was outgrowing the role. The series lasted one more season. Gale Gordon toddled off to work with Lucille Ball. North found other work. Kearns remained a fond memory for TV and radio fans.


  1. Joe Kearns was so well rounded. Besides radio, Kearns was kind of a who's who of 1950's and early 60's television. Especially sitcoms. Ozzie Nelson liked him, he was in a number of " Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet " episodes. He played a semi regular character in " Our Miss Brooks ", and some dramatic appearances on other shows at the time.I'm old enough to remember when he passed. They had just run the episode where Mr. Wilson included Dennis in his will. As kids, a lot of us were shocked.Of course, a few remaining episodes ran after that, just a spooky coincidence. Gale Gordon did look more like the comic strip version of Mr. Wilson. Gordon was brought in to play Mr. Wilson's brother.

  2. In terms of friction among the adults on the set, Herbert Anderson might have been kicking himself by 1961 for not holding onto the role of Mr. Pomfritt on "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis", which ran concurrent with Dennis on CBS. Less frequent appearances, but a role that had a wide range of emotions, better lines, and more lasting impact for William Schallert, who took over the role following the show's pilot episode

  3. Hans Christian Brando25 October 2019 at 18:51

    It's a shame, really. Gale Gordon looked more like the comic strip Mr. Wilson, but of course they had to bring in a new Mrs. Wilson, who looked a lot less like her cartoon counterpart.

  4. I think that if it had worked out and once Jay North had out grown the roll of Dennis, they could have had a spin off show staring the Wilson's .All was before my time but ,I'd have loved a show like that !

  5. Loved the show and especially the character of Mr Wilson .