The Stories Behind the Stones

Cemeteries are like libraries. They contain the final resting places of thousands of people, each with their own separate and unique story. Some of these people are famous, and their stories are well known. Most are not, but that doesn't make their lives any less interesting or their stories any less worthy of being told and remembered.

Periodically, we'll spotlight a different Los Angeles-area grave. Every person has a story, and we will use this space to tell their story, through their final resting place.

Joe Penner

(Nov. 11, 1904 – Jan. 10, 1941)

Nov. 11, 2013 -- In the 1930s, comedian Joe Penner was a "top banana," and was known across the country. After starring in vaudeville and on Broadway, his radio show was among the most popular on the air. His "Wanna buy a duck?" catchphrase was repeated in homes, schools and offices from coast to coast, and he was just starting to launch his career in films.

But Penner didn't live long enough to enjoy the lengthy career and fame that came to his radio contemporaries, like Eddie Cantor, Ed Wynn, Milton Berle and Jack Benny. Penner died in 1941, at the age of 36, at the height of his popularity, and is almost completely forgotten today.

Penner was born Jozsef Pinter in Nagybecskerek, Hungary -- now part of Serbia -- in 1904, the son of John and Sofia Keraly Pinter. His parents, looking to find a better life for their family, came to the United States in 1907. Young Jozsef remained behind in Hungary, and was raised by his grandparents.

Penner's father worked in an assortment of shipyards and coal mines before he finally landed a steady, well-paying job at the Ford Motor Company in Detroit.

Penner and his grandparents came to the United States in 1915, when Penner was 9 years old. When his mother met him at the train station in Detroit, and rushed up to hug and kiss him, he hadn't seen her in six years and didn't know who she was.

Penner's comedy style as the sensitive, endearing, out-of-place underdog had its origins in his early years in the United States. (Among later comedians, Penner's style could be compared to Lou Costello, Jerry Lewis or Pee-wee Herman.) After arriving in Detroit, and unable to speak English, Penner was placed in a kindergarten class with children half his age. He felt out of place, would cry when his classmates would tease him and laugh at him, and he used exaggerated physical gestures to try to communicate -– a skill which later came in handy on the stage.

After learning English, Penner became a talented soprano in the St. Paul's Cathedral choir, and he considered a musical career. When a Detroit theater hosted an amateur night, Penner's father urged him to go on stage to sing and perform a Charlie Chaplin impression, which was a standard part of almost every amateur talent competition at the time. Penner won the competition, and the $3 first prize. Based on the positive audience response, Penner continued to enter and win amateur talent competitions, gradually transitioning his act to include more comedy and less singing.

At the age of 16, Penner left home to perform in burlesque and vaudeville shows, carrying a cigar on stage to appear older. His first job as a performer was as the assistant in a mind-reading act, and then as a comedian in a "tab show," which performed abbreviated versions of currently popular Broadway musical comedies, and he was able to use his skill and experience as both a singer and a comedian.

Despite his experience on stage and his slapstick style, Penner never overcame his shyness -– he would intentionally avoid making eye contact with members of the audience because he was terrified that he would see that they weren't laughing.

In 1926, while performing with the "Greenwich Village Follies" in New York City, Penner met an 18-year-old dancer named Eleanor Mae Vogt. Born in St. Louis, Vogt was a performer with the Missouri Rockets, which moved to New York and became the Radio City Rockettes. The couple married on Nov. 11, 1928 -– Penner's 24th birthday.

The following year, a theater manager suggested that Penner try his hand at radio, and set up an audition. When Penner arrived at the studio, he discovered that he would be performing, not in front of an audience, but in a small, glass-enclosed room, surrounded by a handful of technicians. Without the audience response, and facing grim-faced studio workers who were focused on the dials in front of them, Penner felt that his performance had been a disaster, and vowed never to try radio again.

Penner returned to the stage, touring the country in vaudeville revues, carnivals and occasionally performing on Broadway. While on the road, Penner came up with his most famous catchphrase, which followed him throughout his career. As part of his act, Penner would repeatedly carry a random prop out on stage, and ask the MC if he wanted to buy it.

The joke got mild laughs until the time Penner walked out carrying a wooden decoy duck, and shyly asked the MC, "Wanna buy a duck?" For some reason, the audience howled with laughter, and "Wanna buy a duck?" became a regular part of Penner's act.

In 1933, a talent scout for the Rudy Vallee radio show caught Penner's act, and invited him to appear on the Vallee show. Remembering his earlier audition experience, Penner was hesitant. But the scout assured Penner that he would be performing in front of an audience -– it would be just like a vaudeville performance, but with a microphone. Penner was a hit on the Vallee show. He made five more guest appearances and, by the end of the year, he was offered his own show.

Penner's "The Baker's Broadcast," sponsored by Fleischmann's Yeast and featuring Penner as a duck salesman, with musical accompaniment by Ozzie Nelson and Harriet Hilliard, and featuring Mel Blanc as the voice of Penner's duck, Goo Goo, premiered in October 1933, and quickly moved into the top 10 radio programs. In 1934, Penner was voted the top comedian in radio, and was making $7,500 per week -– the equivalent of more than $130,000 today.

Penner became a national sensation. His popular catchphrases – "Wanna buy a duck?," "You na-a-a-asty man" and "Don’t never do that" -– were repeated by fans across the country. A tin, wind-up toy, featuring Penner and his duck, Goo Goo, was a popular novelty, selling for $2.50. When you turned the key, Penner would walk with the duck, and his hat and cigar would rise and fall. (The wind-up toy is currently sold by collectors, with a starting price of several hundred dollars.)

Like many top celebrities of that era, an animated version of Penner also appeared in Disney and Warner Bros. cartoons, including "Mother Goose Goes to Hollywood" (1938), in which the Penner character carries a large bowl to Old King Cole, asks, "Wanna buy a duck?," and Donald Duck jumps out of the bowl.

Despite his tremendous success on radio, Penner wanted to change format of the show, from what was basically a broadcast of his stage show into a situation comedy, but the sponsor disagreed. So, in June 1935, Penner quit.

After touring Europe, Penner returned to radio in October 1936 with "The Park Avenue Penners," a situation comedy with Penner playing the black sheep of the family. The series lasted until June 1938, and was quickly followed by "The Joe Penner Show," which premiered in October 1938, but ended in March 1939. Next, Penner hosted "The Tip Top Show," from October 1939 to April 1940.

Penner also appeared in 17 films during the 1930s, many of them short comedies in which he basically played his stage character. He also starred in a few full-length features –- "College Rhythm" (1934) and "Collegiate" (1936), both co-starring his off-screen friend, actor and comedian Jack Oakie; "New Faces of 1937" (1937), co-starring Milton Berle; "The Life of the Party" (1937); "Go Chase Yourself" (1938), co-starring Lucille Ball; "Mr. Doodle Kicks Off" (1938); "The Day the Bookies Wept" (1939), co-starring Betty Grable; and "Millionaire Playboy" (1940).

With his new fame and fortune, in 1937, Penner had a house built at 630 Beverly Glen Boulevard, north of Santa Monica Boulevard, east of the UCLA campus, and close to the Los Angeles Country Club, at a cost of more $100,000. (The original house is still on the property, and was last sold in 1998 for $2.1 million. It's worth an estimated $9.5 million today.)

Between his radio shows and films, Penner regularly returned to the stage. In January 1941, Penner was in Philadelphia, appearing in the production of "Yokel Boy" at the Locust Theatre. After the performance on Jan. 9, Penner and his wife, Eleanor, returned to their hotel. Penner worked through the night until the next morning. After lunch on Jan. 10, Penner said he was tired, and went to the bedroom to rest.

At about 4:30 p.m., the producer of the play called their room, and asked to speak to Penner. Eleanor went into the bedroom to check on him, then ran back to the telephone and screamed, "Get a doctor at once!" Penner had died in his sleep after suffering a heart attack, at the age of 36.

Penner's funeral service, at Wee Kirk o' the Heather chapel at Forest Lawn in Glendale, was open to the public, and more than 2,000 fans showed up. Eleanor insisted that there would be no assigned seating, so fans who arrived early got seats inside the chapel, while stage, radio and film stars who showed up later had to sit outside on the patio and listen to the service over loud speakers.

The funeral service was over in 20 minutes, but it took another hour and a half for mourners and fans to file past Penner's coffin to pay their respects. Penner's pallbearers were his friend and frequent co-star Jack Oakie; Joseph Nolan, general manager of RKO Radio Studio; Carroll Tracy, brother of Spencer Tracy; Charles Correll, "Andy" of the "Amos 'n' Andy" radio show; Dr. Charles Pincus, dentist; Amory Eckley, radio executive; Edward Kaufman, Warner Bros. producer; and Jimmy Starr, scriptwriter and newspaper columnist.

Following the service, Penner’s bronze-colored copper coffin was placed inside the sarcophagus on the landing of the Great Mausoleum staircase between the Evergreen and Fuchsia terraces, beneath the stained-glass "Children's Window." Eleanor Penner visited her husband's sarcophagus every day, always placing a fresh rose on top of it.

Penner left an estate valued at more than $100,000 -- nearly $1.6 million today -- with 60 percent going to his widow, 33 percent to his parents, and the rest to other relatives.

After Penner's death, Eleanor moved from the home they shared on South Beverly Glen Boulevard to a smaller house on Montana Avenue. But that was not the end of Eleanor Penner's troubles. A year after her husband's death, Penner's parents filed a complaint against her as the administrator of his estate, objecting to the expense of $9,579 -- about $150,000 today -- for Penner's sarcophagus. They claimed that the expense was extravagant, and should not be paid for out of the comedian's estate. They also objected to an allowance to be paid to Mrs. Penner pending the final distribution of the estate.

In December 1944, Eleanor Penner left California for an extended trip to the East Coast. While in Paterson, N.J., she was abducted on the street by three men, forced into a car and driven out into the country. Her jewelry, worth an estimated $20,000, including her $10,000 engagement ring and a platinum and diamond bracelet, were stolen, and Mrs. Penner was brutally beaten and pushed out of the car.

The jewelry was later recovered at the home of one of the suspects, and four men involved in the abduction were each sentenced to five years in prison.

Eleanor Penner returned to California and her home on Montana Avenue, where she died on April 8, 1946, five years after her husband’s death and less than two weeks after her 38th birthday.

Although her mother said Eleanor had been in good health, an autopsy performed at Santa Monica Hospital determined that she died of natural causes. Family members and friends, however, said she died of a broken heart. Eleanor was buried with her husband at Forest Lawn, although her name does not appear on the sarcophagus.

Penner's mother, Sofia Keraly Pinter, died on July 12, 1943, two and a half years after her son, at the age of 59, and is buried in the Whispering Pines section at Forest Lawn, just outside the Great Mausoleum. Her husband, John Pinter, died on Jan. 11, 1955, at the age of 73, and is buried next to his wife. (John Pinter was actually born in 1881; the date on his grave marker is incorrect.)

In 1960, Penner was posthumously honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, at 1752 Vine Street, just outside the Capitol Records building, for his contributions to radio.

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