By Fred Muenz
Born in Holgate, Ohio, in July, 1891, Joseph Evans Brown, claimed that he was the only youngster to ever run away from home to join a circus, with the blessing of his parents. In 1902, the then ten-year-old joined a tumbling act called the Five Marvelous Ashtons, which toured the country on both the circus and vaudeville circuits. A gifted athlete, he left the act as a teenager to play semi-pro baseball. After three seasons of playing baseball, he decided to return to vaudeville, turning down a contract offer from the New York Yankees. During this time, he gradually added comedy to his act, transforming himself into a comedian. In 1920, he made his Broadway debut in an all-star comedy review. Throughout the 1920’s, he continued to develop skits and comedy routines, and his popularity soared. In 1928, he was hired to appear in a non-comedy role in his first movie, THE CIRCUS KID (1928), a silent film, in which he portrayed a drunken lion tamer who dies in the lion’s cage. The film was poorly made and poorly received, and Brown learned that his future rested in comedy.
The following year, he signed with Warner Brothers to do comedy adaptations of Broadway shows. His role in ON WITH THE SHOW (1929), the first all-color, all-talking musical comedy, made him a star. In addition to his loud yell and his cavernous mouth, he was known for his athletic abilities, which were prominently displayed in such early Technicolor pictures as FIREMAN, SAVE MY CHILD (1932), in which he plays a member of the St. Louis Cardinals, and ELMER, THE GREAT (1933) and ALABI IKE (1935), in both of which he plays a member of the Chicago Cubs. By 1936, Joe E. Brown was one of the top stars in Hollywood. In 1937, however, he made what he later called “the greatest mistake of my professional life” when he left Warner Brothers to sign a contract with producer David L. Loew. Loew’s films were not well received, as they were cheaply made, with poor production values. As a result, Brown’s popularity faded and, by the end of the 1930’s, he had been relegated to “B” pictures.
An early and ardent anti-Nazi, in 1939, Brown testified before the House Immigration Committee in support of the Wagner-Rogers Congressional Bill, which would allow 20,000 German-Jewish refugee children into the U.S. (the Bill died in committee, and thousands of those children died as a result). Brown himself later adopted two German-Jewish refugee boys. In 1942, his son, U.S. Army Air Corp. Captain, Don E. Brown, was killed when his plane crashed on a training mission. To overcome his grief, Joe E. Brown became the first Hollywood entertainer to travel thousands of miles, at his own expense, to entertain American troops, wherever they were stationed. He gave shows in hospitals and combat areas, performing in all weather conditions and always bringing back sacks of mail from the troops. Joe E. Brown was one of only two civilians to be awarded a Bronze Star, for his service during World War II.
After the war, Brown appeared as Cap’t Andy, in the remake of SHOWBOAT (1951), and as Osgood Fielding III, in SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959), as well as making a number of cameo and walk-on roles and TV appearances. A lifelong sports enthusiast, he spent 1953 as the radio and TV voice of the New York Yankees. In July, 1961, he sat at Ty Cobb’s bedside for Cobb’s last days, talking about life and baseball. His son, Joe L. Brown, inherited his father’s love of baseball, serving as General Manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1955 to 1976, and again in 1985, building the Pirates championship teams of 1960 and 1971.
After years of heart problems, Joe E. Brown died of arteriosclerosis in July, 1973, at age 81. A theater at Bowling Green University, a park in Toledo, Ohio and a street in Holgate, Ohio, are named in his honor.