Joe Cook and the Legend of Sleepless Hollow By C.G. Wolfe
We came across this letter written by Joe Cook to theatrical producer Phil Dunning, dated September 7, 1936, online at James Cummins Bookseller (www.jamescumminsbookseller.com). Virtually unknown today, Joe Cook (1890-1959), was a headliner at New York’s famed Palace Theater, and after breaking into Broadway and radio, became one of the most popular entertainers of his day. Syndicated columnist, Walter Winchell, called Cook “one of the musical theatre’s three geniuses,” and New York Times theatre critic, Brooks Atkinson, once glowingly described Cook as “the greatest man in the world.”
Born Joseph Lopez in Evansville, Indiana, in 1890, Cook was orphaned at the age of three and later took the name of his adoptive parents. A self-taught juggler and acrobat, he joined the circus in 1906 and his multi-talents purportedly included juggling, unicycle riding, magic, hand balancing, ragtime piano and violin, dancing, globe rolling, and tightrope walking. Cook combined his circus skills with the fast-talking ability to tell nonsensical tall tales with a comedic timing that had the audience rolling in the aisles. One of his signature bits was the “Four Hawaiians” routine:
“I will now give an imitation of three Hawaiians. This is one (whistles) this is another (plays ukulele) and this is the third (marks time with his foot). I could imitate four Hawaiians just as easily, but I will tell you the reason why I don’t do it. You see, I bought a horse for $50 and it turned
out to be a running horse. I was offered $15,000 for him and I took it. I built a house with the $15,000 and when it was finished a neighbor offered me $100,000 for it. He said my house stood right where he wanted to dig a well. So I took the $100,000 to accommodate him. I invested the $100,000 in peanuts and that year there was a peanut famine so I sold the peanuts for $350,000. Now why should a man with $350,000 bother to imitate 4 Hawaiians?”
By 1909, Cook was a headliner, and after 15 successful years on the vaudeville stage, he took Broadway by storm, becoming one of the most popular musical comedy stars of the 1920s/30s, in smash hits such as “Rain or Shine” and “Fine and Dandy.” In the midst of the great depression, Cook commanded $4,000 a week on Broadway and was paid a whopping $100,000 to star in his first moving picture.
The letter we came across was written at the height of Cook’s career and refers to one of his few forays into motion pictures. It reads in part: “Not having heard from you I took it for granted that you are not producing the show in the near future and as the grocery bills are still coming thick and fast I signed to do a picture, out here.”
The “picture” Cook referred to was probably “Arizona Mahoney,” which along with the film version of “Rain or Shine,” was Cook’s only other feature film. The letter is penned on personal stationary from the entertainer’s lakeside resort home in Lake Hopatcong, New Jersey, known as “Sleepless Hollow,” for the non-stop wild parties Cook threw for guests, which included the most famous celebrities of the day.
Sleepless Hollow was Cook’s prank-filled, creative playground, where he brought his gift of gag to an art form, carrying out endless practical jokes, and showcasing his penchant for devising complex, Rube Goldberg style contraptions, which he created to complete simple, mundane tasks in the most complicated way possible.
At Sleepless Hollow, callers were greeted by a little person, named Meadow, who would take guests coats as they arrived and toss them out a window. Meadow was, in actuality, Herman Erogotti, one of Cook’s vaudeville colleagues, and he would also double as the bartender, and take on the role of different fictional guests, such as the famed society reporter, Lucius Beebe, resplendent in a formal coat and tails, with a gardenia and over-sized cigar.
Revelers at Sleepless Hollow were then often treated to a trick dog act, in the “Opera House,” which involved very few dogs or tricks. In Cook’s cellar saloon, known as “Kelly’s,” imbibers were encouraged to autograph the piano with a 3-foot pen, play pool with a giant baseball bat on a billiards table where the balls permanently disappeared down the pockets, and view Cook’s collection of absurdities and trophies, which included a baseball in a glass case labeled as “the only baseball not signed by Babe Ruth” (Ruth was known to drop by for a few holes of golf), a stuffed tuna dubbed “the world’s biggest sardine,” and a stuffed sardine billed as “the world’s smallest whale.”
In the garden, there was a tree that seemingly grew green golf balls (green, because they weren’t ripe yet). The first tee on Cook’s custom nine-hole golf course was on top of a 45-foot water tower. One drive into what appeared to be a fairway, was actually a camouflaged cement wall and the ball would ricochet back at the unwary golfer. The ninth hole was designed as a funnel so that any ball landing on the green would roll into the cup as a hole-in-one.
An article in a 1939 issue of LIFE Magazine, that described life at Cook’s 20-acre estate, read in part: “At Sleepless Hollow, Cook has raised simple silliness to a fine art. The establishment is run with single-minded efficiency, to bewilder and discommode visitors. Life at Sleepless Hollow is a marathon of practical jokes… and … a requisite part of the experience of practically every New York celebrity.”
Author and screenwriter, David Ogden Stewart related that, “Joe lived on a mad gag-infested estate in New Jersey which bewilderingly expressed his genius… Poor Mrs. Cook lived bravely in this cuckooland and struggled apologetically to bring some degree of common sense into the madhouse.” In 1932, Stewart recanted his adventures at Sleepless Hollow, in a letter to Harpo Marx, “I am just back from a weekend at Joe Cook’s with Connelly, Ross, Chasen, etc. Very good time. Dinner every night at midnight, barbecued spare-ribs and the like, with a show before dinner in Joe’s personal opera house. It seats nine people, including the chair in the box. I had that seat. It is the only seat that has opera glasses attached to it. It was not a restful week-end, as so many of the seats exploded when you sat down on them, but I had a good time.”
Joe Cook reigned as lord of his loony manor at Sleepless Hollow from 1924-1941, when sadly, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, which forced his retirement from show business. He sold his lakeside estate and moved into a more modest home in upstate New York, where he died in 1959. Cook’s Sleepless Hollow still survives as a private residence and is closed to the public but a display honoring Joe Cook and his life can be seen at the Lake Hopatcong Historical Museum, which is located in Hopatcong State Park, State Park Landing, NJ 07850. You can visit lakehopatconghistory.com, for more information.