Ham Fisher featured in a 1939 ‘Coffee Quiz’ from Pan American coffee producers
Throughout the Golden Age of Radio era of American History the daily and Sunday funnies helped millions of Americans cope in the smallest ways with the effects of Women’s Suffrage, Child Labor abuses, Industrialization, World War I, the Wall Street Crash, the Great Depression, the homefront arguments–pro and con–throughout the isolationist era leading up to World War II, and of course World War II and its aftermath.
The appearance of many of America’s most beloved and popular comic strip characters and their families over Radio seemed a natural extension of Print media strips.
LIFE magazine’s June 5 1939 article on America’s favorite comic strips underscores the diverse and popular favorite strips during the Golden Age of Radio
LIFE magazine’s June 5, 1939 article (above) on America’s favorite cartoon fiction cited forty of the more popular comic strips of the era that ultimately found their way to Radio. Some popular examples of comic strips that found their way to the air follow:
1931 Little Orphan Annie
1932 Buck Rogers
1932 The Story of Joe Palooka
1934 The Gumps
1935 Dick Tracy
1935 Flash Gordon
1935 Jungle Jim
1937 Baby Snooks [from 1904’s The Newlyweds]
1937 Terry and the Pirates
1938 Red Ryder
1938 The Lone Ranger
1939 Li’l Abner
1941 A Date with Judy
1941 Gasoline Alley
1943 Archie Andrews
1943 Black Hood
1945 The Nebbs
1953 Beetle Bailey [The Comic Weekly Man]
In many cases a popular comic strip of the era found its way to the comics section only after appearing over Radio. In most instances of comic strip characters finding their way to the air, the original artist, writer or syndicator of the strip maintained control over the franchise irrespective of the medium over which the franchise entertained its audiences. And indeed many of the popular comic strips cited above found their way to Film and eventually Television. That was the staying power of some of America’s most popular comic strip characters and their families.
Ham Fisher brings his Joe Palooka to America’s Funny Pages
Hammond Edward ‘Ham’ Fisher (1900 – 1955), was a Wilkes-Barre native son who from the age of 6 had declared that one day he’d write his own comic strip. Ham had to quit school at the age of 14 to help out his family for a year. His father had suffered some reversals. First struggling as a door to door brush peddler and truck driver, young Ham Fisher also sold automobiles and worked in a haberdashery shop very similar to the one his eventual character ‘Knobby Walsh’ had owned. He eventually finished high school, illustrating the school’s newspaper and making up posters for student activities. Fisher eventually found his way to the Wilkes-Barre Record working as an ad salesman, cartoonist, and occasional reporter. The Record had first hired Fisher on the strength of some political illustrations he’d submitted to the paper. Fisher’s Wilkes-Barre Record experience served as a stepping stone to the New York Daily News. By 1920, Ham Fisher had put together a series of sketches and sample portfolio strips of a character he first called ‘Joe Dumbelletski’ then ‘Joe Dumbell.’
Between 1920 and 1927 Fisher continued to play around with the character, eventually naming him “Joe Palooka.” While working for the McNaught Syndicate throughout 1927 he began attempting to promote his Joe Palooka strip in earnest during the course of his travels across the country as a strip saleman for the syndicate.
By 1928, having found a reported twenty interested papers, Ham Fisher presented his twenty sales in hand to McNaught as a fait accompli. On the strength of those initial nibbles, McNaught agreed to give Joe Palooka a trial. Within a few months Joe Palooka had not only become a new Sunday sensation across America. The term “palooka” had first appeared in Print during the early 1920s. Fisher’s strip further propelled the word palooka in the popular vernacular of the day in reference to prize fighters of varying degrees of success. Ham Fisher is also credited with discovering and mentoring the equally famous Al Capp of “Li’l Abner” fame.
Vitaphone came out swinging with their 1936 promotional flyers to exhibitors
As LIFE magazine told it, Al Capp was dejectedly walking down a New York sidewalk late one morning when a mysterious stranger pulled up next to him in a car. The stranger asked Capp if the portfolio under Capp’s arm might be rejected samples of Capp’s strips. Al Capp, understandably miffed continued walking on, but the stranger persisted. That stranger–Ham Fisher–explained that he’d recently lost his assistant and would Al Capp be interested in working with Fisher on Joe Palooka. The rest, as the overworked saying goes, was cartoon history in the making. Unfortunately the relationship between Fisher and Al Capp would eventually sour years later, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Fisher never portrayed his Joe Palooka as a “palooka.” Ham Fisher’s Joe Palooka was the heavyweight champeen of da woild. Ham Fisher’s initial inspiration for “Joe Dumbell” was a real prize fighter he’d met at a pool hall in Wilkes-Barre in 1920. The two chatted a bit while watching the proceedings and Fisher was reportedly taken by the pugilist’s otherwise mild manners and dedication to supporting his orphaned brother and sister–while still a wildcat in the ring. Fisher later said that the meeting hit him like an atomic bomb and he literally bowled over the prize fighter in his rush to get to his drawing board at the Wilkes-Barre Record. But we digress. Over the course of the following thirty years, Fisher’s Joe Palooka franchise found its way into Film, Radio and ultimately Television.
Joe Palooka enters Radio’s squared circle
1934’s Palooka for Reliance Pictures featuring Jimmy Durante as Knobby Walsh
With the Joe Palooka strip soon syndicated in hundreds of newspapers throughout America, Ham Fisher approached the Columbia System (CBS) chain about the possibility of bringing Joe Palooka to Radio. CBS found that Heinz 57 Varieties showed interest in sponsoring The Story of Joe Palooka to promote their Heinz Rice Flakes and Heinz Breakfast Wheat cereal products to juvenile adventure fans across America. Originally commiting to twenty-six episodes, The Story of Joe Palooka premiered on April 12, 1932 over CBS affiliate stations across the chain.
1936 Heinz Rice Flakes ad from Boy’s Life
From the April 28th 1932 edition of The Alden Times:
Joe Palooka, Boxing Champ,
Is Now Heard on the Air
Joe Palooka, that lovable boob of the prize ring and comic strip created by Ham Fisher, now comes to radio.
Palooka, his fights and troubles and mixups, is being presented each Tuesday and Thursday at 6:45 p. m., EST, over the Columbia system.
The dumb, gentle but unbeatable Boxing champ is portrayed by Ted Bergman, 200-pound Columbia actor who looks like a prize-fighter, in the fifteen-minute hilarious sketches adapted by Georgia Backus. His bold and wise-cracking manager, Knobby Walsh, is played by Frank Readick, 130-pound Thespian.
Ted Husing describes Joe’s tremendous fight scenes and Harry von Zell announces the program.
Airing every Tuesday and Thursday at the dinner hour, The Story of Joe Palooka launched with a huge promotion throughout the U.S. At the time touting “over 10,000,000 fans” of the comic strip, Heinz 57’s spot ads of the era heralded the new series as “the greatest 15 minutes of fun on the air.” The Story of Joe Palooka starred young Teddy Bergman [Alan Reed, the ‘voice’ of TV’s Fred Flintstone] in the role of Joe Palooka, with Frank Readick as Knobby Walsh, Joe’s friend and manager, and Elmira Roessler, Elsie Hitz, Mary Jane Higby in the role of Ann Howe. Georgia Backus wrote the scripts for the juvenile adventure serial and Ted Husing announced all the ferocious action during Joe’s fight scenes. Radio, Film and Television legend Harry Von Zell was the series’ announcer and Heinz spokesperson. Quickly running through the two-a-week order of twenty-six installments, Heinz 57 Varieties ordered an additional thirteen episodes, for a total of thirty-eight before pulling the plug on the short-lived series.
With a solid cast, comparatively engaging adventures for the genre, renowned sportscaster Ted Husing’s animated blow-by-blow expositions, and Frank Readick’s engaging dialogue, the series had every reason to continue beyond its initial run. Teddy Bergman was an ideal choice for the role of Joe Palooka and though listeners couldn’t see it at the time, Bergman certainly looked the part of a heavyweight. As it turned out, Billboard reported that the reason Heinz short-counted Joe Palooka out was that Mrs. Heinz idly tuned into the series while attending a soiree in Pttspurgh and upon actually hearing the show for the first time pronounced the series a bit too undignified a vehicle to promote the Heinz Family’s products. She had Mr. Heinz pull the plug on the series. The production performed the last two weeks of the series on the cuff–and CBS aired it sustained. It failed to attract another sponsor. But timing was everything–then as now.
Understandably down but by no means out for the count by the Radio experience, Ham Fisher began shopping his Joe Palooka franchise to the Film Industry. And as it turned out, Ham Fisher wasn’t quite ready to give up on Radio either. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves again.
Joe Palooka takes a training run at Hollywood
Joe Palooka’s Film career spanned twenty ‘B’ Films between 1934 and 1951. The first actor to portray Joe Palooka in Film was Stu Erwin in 1934’s Palooka for Reliance Pictures. Palooka also featured Robert Armstrong, Lupe Velez, Jimmy Durante and Thelma Todd. Jimmy Durante portrayed Knobby Walsh, Joe’s trainer.
Reliance Pictures’ Joe Palooka (1934)
On the strength of that initial box office success, Vitaphone undertook a series of eight more Joe Palooka short films featuring Joe Palooka lookalike Robert Norton as Joe and Shemp Howard of The Three Stooges as Knobby Walsh:
1936 For the Love of Pete
1936 Here’s Howe
1936 Punch and Beauty
1936 The Choke’s on You
1936 The Blonde Bomber
1937 Kick Me Again
1937 Taking the Count
1937 Thirst Aid
By no means idle during World War II, Ham Fisher’s comic strip hero went off to War just like millions of other heros of his day. Private First Class Joe Palooka found his way into the hearts of servicemen the world over through both Stars and Stripes and Yank Magazine. One of the first comic strip heros to enlist (1940) and one of the last to return to civilian life (1946), Pfc Palooka’s War record left an idelible impression on both the millions of servicemen and seamen who’d read him abroad, and millions back on the homefront.
Having taken a well-earned big screen hiatus during the World War II years, the franchise once again found its way to Film in a series of eleven ‘B’ Films for Monogram. The Monogram Pictures run featured Joe Kirkwood, Jr. as Joe Palooka, Leon Errol as Knobby Walsh, and Elyse Knox as Joe Palooka’s love interest, Ann Howe:
1946 Joe Palooka, Champ
1946 Gentleman Joe Palooka
1947 Joe Palooka in The Knockout
1948 Joe Palooka in Fighting Mad
1948 Joe Palooka in Winner Take All
1949 Joe Palooka in The Big Fight
1949 Joe Palooka in The Counterpunch
1950 Joe Palooka Meets Humphrey
1950 Joe Palooka in Humphrey Takes a Chance
1950 Joe Palooka in The Squared Circle
1951 Joe Palooka in Triple Cross
The Monogram Series prompts Joe Palooka’s return to Radio
In yet another demonstration of the adage, “timing is everything” Ham Fisher took another run at a Radio version of Joe Palooka. In 1945, Fisher got NBC interested enough in the project to get them to order two 15-minute audition recordings for the proposed project. Joe Palooka had become wildly popular throughout World War II, so all parties concerned had every expectation that the time was right to give Radio another chance. The Monogram Pictures deal was already underway, Joe Palooka was in virtually every major newspaper across America, and Joe Palooka’s wartime adventures were still fresh in the minds and imaginations of his adoring military and civilian fans–an estimated 60,000,000 of them by 1945.
The first NBC-ordered audition announced that Ham Fisher himself would be supervising the proposed Adventures of Joe Palooka. Both auditions were recorded and transcribed by NBC’s Recording Division under the supervision of Ham Fisher’s new production company, Graphic Radio Productions, Incorporated. One of Fisher’s new collaborators in Graphic Radio Productions was Harold Conrad, a former Broadway columnist and agent. Conrad wrote the treatments for both of the audition recordings.
The first audition found Joe Palooka and a buddy in the South Pacific, still in uniform and volunteered for a secret mission. But Joe’s buddy Jerry Leemy gets talked into a welterweight match with a ringer. The second audition continued the secret mission/welterweight ringer fight plots. Both auditions gave the impression that–at least through the end of the War in the Pacific–Joe Palooka’s adventures would revolve around his multi-faceted Army career–hence the “Adventures of” theme of the proposed project. Timing again being key, NBC apparently couldn’t get any sponsors to commit to the project and NBC wasn’t inclined to air it sustained.
Still convinced he had a winner on his hands, Ham Fisher shopped the project during the summer of 1945 to the short-lived North Central Broadcasting System (NCBS) , a comparatively small regional network of primarily upper midwest, mid-sized affiliate stations. Graphic Radio Productions and NCBS struck a deal to begin recording twenty-six weeks worth of five-a-week serial episodes of The Story of Joe Palooka–a total of one hundred thirty, 15-minute episodes–a total of approximately 28 hours of scripted dialogue.
NCBS, already beset with growing financial and licensing problems, would ultimately declare bankruptcy during 1946– just as its affiliate stations had the new The Story of Joe Palooka well underway.
Employing the same bell-ringing intro as the NBC auditions, the premiere of the new series had Joe Palooka–now a civilian–facing his first opponent after four years of military service. Ann Howe, Joe’s fiance, returned to the production, but Joe’s first bout resulted in a loss to World Champion Heavyweight Al Wilson in a 15-round decision. From the get-go, continuity for the new series seems to have utterly failed: both the intro and close of the first through sixth episodes announce, “The Winner and Still Champion, Joe Palooka.” This is underscored by the fact that the series’ first five-part adventure found Joe Palooka suspected of throwing his first World Championship bout since returning to civilan life.
Over the course of at least the first fifty episodes, Joe Palooka was on the run across America for one mistaken criminal accusation against or another. He’d also changed his name three times. Painting America’s recent World War II hero, Joe Palooka, as a coward who continually finds himself running away from his problems and accusors instead of facing them head-on doesn’t strike us as upholding Joe Palooka’s previous long-standing image as either Heavyweight Boxing Champion of the World, a World War II hero, or a clean-living, honest Sports figure. We can’t imagine what Graphic Radio Productions and NCBS could have been thinking to mount such an initially negative image of one of America’s larger than life heros in Comics, Film and Radio prior to the NCBS run.
There were other script and production continuity issues during the first week’s premiere adventures. The announcer and narrator for the series butchered many of the place names and characters throughout the series. He also mangled two out of the first seven teaser titles for the following day’s episode(s). This oversight wouldn’t be so remarkable but for the fact that this was a transcribed, syndicated series of only 28 hours, entirely recorded and pressed prior to its first public broadcasts. By 1945 Ham Fisher’s net holdings and wealth were an estimated two millions dollars–on the order of $26M in today’s dollars. Why he’d do a second Radio run of The Story of Joe Palooka on the cheap is anyone’s guess.
No credits have yet surfaced for the 1945-1946 run of The Story of Joe Palooka. To our ears the 1932 series was far superior to the NCBS run of The Story of Joe Palooka. It sounded more authentic, was better produced, and the acting performances and scripts were the equal of any of the other juvenile adventure series’ of the 1930s. The 1945-1946 run by contrast was flat, poorly performed in comparison to the original Radio series, and the production values for the 1945 run were abysmal as compared to the 1932 run. It would appear that the few sponsors of the 1945-1946 run were predominately Dairy Industry concerns throughout the upper Midwest.
The Joe Palooka franchise attempts a transition to Television
Fast forward nine years and the Joe Palooka franchise found its way to 1950s Television with The Joe Palooka Story, again starring Joe Kirkwood, Jr. as Joe Palooka, but with Luis Van Rooten as Knobby Walsh, Cathy Downs as Ann Howe, and Slapsie Maxie Rosenbloom as Clyde. The Television franchise ran for two seasons from 1954 to 1955.
Tragically, Ham Fisher took his own life in 1955 at the age of 54, essentially foreclosing any possibility of a continuation of the reasonably well-received Television series.
Joe Palooka epilogues
Joe Palooka finally married Ann Howe, his girlfriend of over eighteen years, on June 24th 1949.
Ham Fisher’s two attempts to bring Joe Palooka to the air during Radio’s Golden Age failed both times–once through no fault of his own and the second due to an underfunded, poorly written and performed production. His attempt to bring the Joe Palooka franchise to Television failed due to Fisher’s suicide. Fisher’s comic strips, the two Film franchises, and Ham Fisher’s generous contributions to the War effort were the Joe Palooka franchise’s only real successes. During Ham Fisher’s last professional years, his 20-year feud with Al Capp eventually resulted in Fisher’s expulsion from the National Cartoonist’s Society–the only member of the Society ever expelled for “conduct unbecoming a cartoonist.”
Georgia Backus, the writer for the 1932 Columbia run of The Story of Joe Palooka, came under the jaundiced scrutiny of the House Un-American Activities Committee and the Red Channels pamphlets, essentially ending her career as either an actress or writer.
Teddy Bergman, later known as Alan Reed, and Radio’s very first Joe Palooka, went on to legendary careers in Radio, the Stage, Film, Advertising, and Television.
Ted Husing, the ring announcer for the 1932 series, went on to become one of the most famous sportscasters of Radio’s Golden Age. Husing, much in the mold of Ham Fisher, was also arrogant, highly opinionated and coarse to friends and foes alike. In another irony of the Joe Palooka franchise, Husing was struck blind in 1956 during treatment for a malignant brain tumor the year after Ham Fisher commited suicide. Husing died in 1962 at the age of 61.
Harry Von Zell, the announcer and Heinz spokesperson for the 1932 Radio series, went on to his own legendary careers in Radio, Film and Television.
Frank Readick, the voice of Knobby Walsh in the 1932 series of The Story of Joe Palooka, went on to join Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre Players, appearing frequently throughout the Mercury Theatre productions over Radio.
All told, Ham Fisher’s lovable character Joe Palooka launched a multimedia entertainment franchise stretching over fifty-seven years.
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