Posted by Susan Doll on June 6, 2011
Each month, I join my movie club for brunch where we engage in a lively discussion of all things cinematic. Being a down-to-earth group with no pretentions, we favor two watering holes on Chicago’s North Side, the Holiday Club and the Fat Cat Lounge. Meetings at the former generally entail discussions of film movements, foreign films from specific countries, or the work of acclaimed directors, while those hosted at the Fat Cat tend to cover contemporary films currently in the theaters. Nothing is more fun to cinephiles than sharing information on favorite films or dishing the dirt on duds.
Personally, I have a soft spot for the Holiday Club because the back room is decorated with posters from one of my favorite Frank Sinatra films, The Joker Is Wild, along with stills and memorabilia from other classic movies. The Joker Is Wild is an appropriate choice to don the back room of the Holiday Club, because the film is a biopic of Joe E. Lewis, sometimes called “the father of stand-up comedy.” Lewis was a Chicago-based entertainer who honed his craft in the clubs and bars on the city’s North Side during Prohibition and the Depression. The story of his career is a testament to the gritty history of the Windy City.
In retrospect, Joe E. Lewis is not a show-biz figure who is well remembered, like Durante, Hope, or Berle. His act was a bit raw for television, and he did not seem interested in toning it down for a family audience. His boozy, night-life persona did not translate well into movies, though he did appear in a few. Primarily a nightclub entertainer, film footage of Lewis is minimal, accounting for the lack of recognition today. However, his act, which consisted of telling jokes, spouting one-liners, and singing parodies of songs for a live audience while long-time accompanist Austin Mack cued him on the piano, was instrumental in establishing the format of comedy now referred to as stand-up.
If Lewis’s name doesn’t sound familiar, perhaps part of his life story will. Joe E. Lewis was the entertainer who had his throat cut on the orders of 23-year-old Machine Gun Jack McGurn, an enforcer for Al Capone. Lewis had been a singer who turned the Green Mill on Chicago’s North Side into a popular “gin joint” during Prohibition. The owners, the Chamales Brothers, had leased the Green Mill to members of organized crime, which had grown large and prosperous as a result of Prohibition. McGurn, who leased 25% of the Green Mill, was angry when Lewis left the Mill to play at the rival New Rendezvous Club Cafe. As Lewis walked out the door at the end of his contract, McGurn quietly threatened, “You’ll never live to open.” A cocky Lewis grinned and replied, “I’ll reserve a table for you.” Lewis did open to a rousing success at the Rendezvous and played for a week before McGurn made good his threat. On November 9, 1927, three of McGurn’s men slipped into the Commonwealth Hotel, where Lewis lived, and shoved their way into his room. Two hammered him so hard on the back of his head with their gun butts that they fractured his skull, while the knifeman slashed mercilessly at his body. The deepest wound was caused by a hunting knife, which was used to cut his throat from ear to ear, severing the vocal chords and cutting off part of his tongue. His right arm was also slashed, temporarily depriving him of the use of his arm and hand. Though he would always be able to carry a tune, and he would often sing a verse or two of his favorite song parodies in his act, Lewis’s days as a pop singer were over.
After his recovery, he returned to the Rendezvous on January 28, 1928, attracting a crowd who came to see him out of morbid curiosity, but he could barely speak, let alone sing. Business fell off when the novelty wore off. Knowing no other line of work, Lewis painstakingly developed a different type of act, which consisted of self-deprecating humor based on his vices of drinking, gambling, and living the night life. “I distrust camels,” Joe liked to say, before adding, “and anyone else who can go a week without a drink.” Having played some tough clubs, he was adept at fending off hecklers or remarks from drunken crowds. “Hey Joe, how’s your wife?” was a line often thrown at Lewis, who was definitely not good husband material. “Compared to what,” he would toss back. Lewis became famous for drinking onstage and toasting the crowd with his signature phrase, “Post time.”
The Joker Is Wild turned out to be Sinatra’s only biopic, and it is based on Lewis’s biography of the same name, which was penned by Art Cohn in 1955. Sinatra bought the film rights to the book when it was still in galley form and took the project to Paramount. He was in the prime of his acting career in the mid-1950s, still a hot property after his Oscar-winning performance in From Here to Eternity. He had little problem securing a lucrative deal, with Charles Vidor signing on as director and executive producer. The Joker Is Wild costars Jeanne Crain and Mitzi Gaynor as the women in Lewis’s life as well as Eddie Albert as Austin Mack. The film’s Oscar-winning theme song, “All the Way,” became one of Sinatra’s signature tunes.
Like other movie stars of the classic era, Sinatra did not research his roles, delve into the psyches of his characters, or take their burdens home with him at the end of the day. The approach of the personality actor was to infuse a part of his own image and persona into the role. While lacking the intensity of method actors, personality performers enlivened their characters with a larger-than-life charisma. There is a lot of Frank Sinatra in his interpretation of Joe E. Lewis, but the singer did take great care to study the comic’s line delivery and mannerisms. Supposedly, all the club scenes were performed in real nightclubs to recreate the spontaneity and immediacy of that type of venue. At Sinatra’s insistence, he did not lip-synch to prerecorded music in the club scenes; instead he sang live while the other characters clinked glasses, scraped their chairs on the floor, or coughed. This did not always work well, and some performances had to be re-recorded in post-production, much to Sinatra’s disappointment. But, in general, Vidor and Sinatra worked hard to make the night club scenes feel authentic.
What was it about Lewis’s story that compelled Sinatra to spearhead the production of this film? The singer befriended the comic during the early 1950s when both played the big casinos in Las Vegas, though they may have met earlier. Based on comments at the time, Sinatra seemed to admire Lewis, declaring, “I’ve always thought Lewis was one of only about four or five great artists in this country. . . .” But, Sinatra and Lewis had more in common than playing Vegas; both hobnobbed with members of organized crime who had been instrumental in helping—and hurting—their careers at key junctures. As the singer candidly noted in another interview, “Joe was a helluva singer before the punks heeled on him. Everyone who knew him then said he really had a voice. I wouldn’t play just any singer in a movie—like Russ Columbo or a Rudy Vallee. Joe’s is a powerful story.” Perhaps Sinatra found comparisons between his own career path and Lewis’s. It must have been intimidating for the singer—whose talent was so extraordinary that he was called “the Voice”—to ponder the idea of slashed vocal chords as a punishment for angering the boys in the mob.
The Joker Is Wild begins with Lewis’s days as a singer during Prohibition, follows his efforts to reinvent himself, touches on his heroic tours to entertain the troops during WWII, and glosses over his tumultuous personal life. The end of the film finds Lewis taking an honest look at his drinking and club lifestyle, which are responsible for his crumbling marriage, and deciding to do something about them. Lewis was headlining at the El Rancho Vegas when The Joker Is Wild was released in 1957, and the film’s positive conclusion offers closure to the life of a performer who was still enjoying a career high. There are some gritty moments in the film, and Sinatra hints at Lewis’s rough-around-the-edges personality, but The Joker Is Wild is really an unapologetic valentine to the unconventional lifestyle of a nightclub performer. This is the lifestyle that Sinatra and his Rat Pack were beginning to embrace in the late 1950s, and it would define his star image for the next decade or so.
The real story of Joe E. Lewis’s career exposes the dark side of the night club business, including the violence, the close ties to organized crime and political corruption, and its lost world of drinking, gambling, and philandering. Born in New York City, Lewis made his way to Chicago in the mid-1920s, where he began singing at the Midnight Frolics on the Levee, the city’s notorious red-light district that boasted gambling, drinking, and at least 50,000 prostitutes. Around the corner from the Frolics was the Four Deuces at 2222 S. Wabash, which had originally belonged to Big Jim Colisimo and then to Johnny Torrio, who was responsible for bringing Al Capone to town. If you have seen Underworld, Scarface, or other gangster sagas, you will have seen cinematic and charismatic versions of these criminals, but Lewis and other entertainers interacted with the real deal as a matter of course. These course, uncouth, and often psychopathic gangsters owned many of the clubs, sold bootleg liquor to others, forced club owners to give their favorite performers career breaks, and stuffed money into empty pockets when entertainers were between gigs. To the end of his life, Joe E. liked to claim that he had been Capone’s favorite performer—odd, considering that Scarface Al’s right-hand man was responsible for inflicting the wounds that created Lewis’s own scars.
When Lewis left the Levee for the Green Mill on the North Side, it was definitely a step up in neighborhoods and clientele. Mainstream residents flocked to the North Side clubs for the bootleg liquor and talented musicians and singers, rubbing elbows with gangsters, cops, and local politicians. One of Joe E.’s good friends was Cap Goldberg, that is, Captain Joe Goldberg of Chicago’s police force. Cap could be found most nights downing a few illegal brews at the Mill, listening to Joe E. perform. Sometimes he bunked in Lewis’s hotel room. Another friend was Schemer Drucci, who waited to take Lewis out to breakfast after the Mill closed, because Drucci—a North Side gangster who was “promoted” after the death of Hymie Weiss—also lived in the Commonwealth. He and Joe E. often walked home together in the wee hours of the morning.
Because of Joe’s friendships on both sides of the law, he often warned one side about the other. One evening, he tried to caution Drucci to stay off the streets, because the cops were doing a general round-up of gangsters as a safeguard against possible frauds and pay-offs in the municipal election the next day. Not heeding the warning, Schemer was picked up and hauled in, but the well-connected Drucci used a high-price lawyer to secure an early release. Then, for unknown reasons, a cop named Leo Healy broke protocol and shot Schemer in cold blood on his way back to the Commonwealth. Cap and Joe E. attended Drucci’s funeral together. After McGurn’s men attacked Lewis, club owner John Fogarty and two of gangster Bugs Moran’s torpedoes, Pete and Frank Dusenberg, guarded his hospital room with sawed-off shotguns hidden in violin cases. Lewis’s family members, Cap Goldberg, a priest, and others on both sides of the law nodded respectfully at the well-armed trio as they walked by to visit Joe E. in his room. The following year, Frank and Pete Dusenberg were shot down in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, the morning after tying one on with Joe E. and stuffing his pockets with fifty-dollar bills. Gangster lore insists that the Massacre was arranged by none other than Machine Gun Jack McGurn. Prohibition had created a society of strange bedfellows consisting of entertainers, club owners, bootleggers, gangsters, cops, and politicians. In this culture, the lines between legal and illegal, right and wrong, friend and foe were blurred. So much so that no one though it odd the following year when Joe returned to the Green Mill, because it was now run by a different consortium of gangsters and club managers. Bugs Moran even supplied him with a car emblazoned with a deputy sheriff’s shield. No one asked where he got it.
Joe experienced several years of ups and downs, training his voice to sound like something more than a rasp. A host of fellow night-club performers, such as Al Jolson, Sophie Tucker, and Jimmy Durante, offered support and steered him toward engagements. He was occasionally hired as an emcee, which helped him hone his act as a storyteller and comic. Though Chicago figures prominently in his career, he also worked in New York City and Hollywood.
Once his act took off during the Depression, he played all the famous, glamorous nightclubs, which now hold an almost mythical place in popular culture, primarily because they were frequented by movie stars, entertainers, and politicians. Though Prohibition had ended, and liquor was legal once again, the gangster element didn’t entirely disappear. They turned their operations into something called organized crime, adopted a lower profile, and kept to the shadows. Joe played the Chateau Madrid in New York City, which was frequented by Dutch Schultz, a violent, half-crazed mobster who co-owned the Cotton Club with another gangster, Owney Madden. During WWII, Owney was living in Hot Springs, Arkansas, supposedly as part of a deal he made with either the Feds or other mob bosses to stay out of organized crime. Out of sheer boredom, he volunteered to go to New Guinea with Lewis to entertain the troops, but Abe Lastfogel—William Morris’s most famous agent to the stars, including Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe—wouldn’t allow it. I wonder what Madden would have done to entertain the soldiers—regaled them with stories of his life as Owney the Killer? How patriotic! Later, Joe E. regularly played the Copacabana, which was covertly owned by Mafia boss Frank Costello. Costello was also said to have a piece of the legendary Stork Club. In Chicago, Lewis headlined at the Chez Paree, where an illegal gaming room in the back attracted a high-class clientele. Though the Chicago cops were fully aware of the back room, a sharp, starstruck lawyer named Abraham Lincoln Marovitz ran interference between the club‘s benefactors and those misguided individuals seeking to enforce the law. Marovitz, who became one of Joe’s lifelong best friends, took care of Lewis’s finances, because the comic gambled away every dime he got his hands on. Within a few years, Marovitz was elected as an Illinois state senator; later, he was appointed a U.S. district judge. And, that’s the Chicago way.
When various factions of the mob turned Las Vegas into an adult playground during the 1950s, the major entertainers, including Joe E. Lewis, followed as star attractions at the nightclubs and casinos, just as they had since Prohibition. Anyone who was ever shocked or titillated by Sinatra’s affiliation with mobsters should check out Joe E.’s life story. The intertwining of crime, politics, and show business is still shocking.
As I slip into the back room of the Holiday Club, festooned with posters from The Joker Is Wild, or walk through the door of the Fat Cat, which is on the same block as the Green Mill, I can almost see the ghost of Joe E. Lewis. The x-shaped scar on the side of his face reminds me that my adopted city will never outlive its gangster past; indeed, it seems to embrace it. His career also illustrates that beneath all the glamour and glitz, the entertainment industry is a dirty and ruthless business, where someone waits to line your pockets with money—or slash your throat.
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