The Evansville Courier, March 15, 2007

Forgotten Man
Evansville Native Joe Cook Made the Big Time

By Rich Davis

Joe Cook Plaque by George Honig

At the depths of the Great Depression, Joe Cook was pulling down $4,000 a week as a Broadway entertainer and comic when the average American family was getting by on $20 or less.

He made $100,000 in 1930 for "Rain or Shine," a Columbia Pictures movie about circus life, directed by Frank Capra.

Later, at Sleepless Hollow, his cockeyed dream castle on a 26-acre New Jersey estate, he maintained a day shift and night shift of servants for spirited parties. There was a saloon, a theater, a tiny objects museum and a wacky nine-hone golf course on which it was practically impossible to miss a hone-in-one. He was barbecuing with a secret sauce long before the charcoal craze gripped the country.

Pretty good for a kid orphaned in the early 1890's and adopted at the age of 3 by an Evansville grocer. He was a zany, wide-eyed, wide-mouthed youngster who lived in the back of a grocery at Fourth and Oak streets and rehearsed tricks and routines in a barn.

Cook joined a circus in 1906 at 17, which propelled him to vaudeville, then Broadway and Hollywood.

He was Evansville's version of Red Skelton, Bob Hope or W. C. Fields, although Parkinson's disease prematurely ended his career in 1942, before radio and TV could make him even more widely known.

"He's Evansville's most famous forgotten man," says Skip Bawel, a sales representative for a local paper company who became intrigued by Cook's story in 1971 while going through old Evansville Courier files and movie press kits.

Bawel, a film buff who owns six of Cook's seven movies made between 1930 and 1936, will show 40 minutes of "Rain or Shine" at 2 p.m. Saturday at McCollough Branch Library, 5115 Washington Ave. The film was based on Cook's 1928 Broadway show.

Bawel also will discuss Cook's life and career and answer questions as part of a Vanderburgh County Historical Society forum that is free and open to the public.

Bawel says during performances, Cook often would mention he grew up in Evansville starting one of his monologues with, "As I was passing the corner of Fourth and Oak ..."

He was billed as a one-man vaudeville show and was best known for his "Why I won't Imitate Four Hawaiians" routine, although he also juggled, did acrobatics, threw knives, performed magic and mimicked people climbing stairs.

In 1939, the city staged a Joe Cook Day, including a parade and a performance by Cook at the Grand Theater (the site is now Fifth Third Bank's Downtown headquarters). Supposedly, during a golf outing at Evansville Country Club, Cook tipped three young caddies $100, a huge amount in those days.

When Cook died in 1959, New York Post drama critic John Chapman described him in print as "Mr. Entertainment" and repeated Cook's explanation of why his fortune wasn't rubbed out by the 1929 Wall Street crash: "I saw all these people getting rich in the stock market. It looked too easy to me, so i bought government bonds."

Chapman said the city "ought to erect a monument on a street corner," something the city already had done while Cook was alive. For many years the marker stood at Fourth and Oak. When Welborn Hospital was built, the plaque was placed on the side of the hospital.

Bawel said the plaque disappeared this past year and he is trying to find out what happened to it.

Welborn was purchased by St. Mary's Medical Center.

Kathy Fulkerson, director of marketing and public relations at St. Mary's Medical Center, said she talked to the hospital's maintenance staff about the plaque.

She said she learned from staff members someone from the family had requested the plaque, so it was taken down and presented to the family.

(See follow-up article, Evansville Courier, 3-16-07)