Ed Wynn papers
Held at: Free Library of Philadelphia: Rare Book Department [Contact Us]Philadelphia, PA, 19103
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Overview and metadata sections
Ed Wynn (1886-1966) was a popular vaudeville comedian and radio, television, and film star best known for his quirky costumes, absurd inventions, slapstick humor, lisping voice, and high-pitched giggle. Wynn owned a pair of worn, oversized shoes (on which he famously spent $1,500 on ongoing repairs) and a collection of 800 funny hats. He peddled and played his piano bicycle on stage, ate corn-on-the-cob using a typewriter carriage, and owned an eleven-foot pole (for people he wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole). His stage and radio personas included “The Fire Chief,” “The Perfect Fool,” and “Simple Simon,” while memorable Walt Disney film roles featured Wynn’s voice and likeness as the Mad Hatter in the animated Alice in Wonderland (1951) and a laughing Wynn as Uncle Albert in Mary Poppins (1964). From 1949 to 1950 he hosted the variety program, The Ed Wynn Show, on CBS, the first network television show broadcasted via kinescope from Hollywood to the East Coast, one week after each episode aired. Wynn eschewed bawdy or off-color jokes in favor of slapstick humor, props, and puns. In 1930, New York Times journalist Brooks Atkinson praised Wynn as “the greatest buffoon of the day in the vein of pure comedy” (Moses and Brown 1934, 289).
Ed Wynn was born Isaiah Edwin Leopold on Tuesday, November 9, 1886 to Jewish immigrants, Joseph and Minnie Leopold, of 460 North Second Street in Philadelphia; his father owned a hat shop at 702 Arch Street. Wynn attended Central High School, but he ran away at age 15 to New England and worked on vaudeville productions first as a utility boy, then on stage in American Grit in 1902. Then, he toured the United States performing vaudeville sketches, including a two-year stint with Joe Louis, with whom he starred in the Rah, Rah Boys. According to Wynn, he changed his name as not to embarrass his family, though his father wondered how people would know Wynn was his son if he became famous. While appearing in Winnipeg in 1912, Wynn met the actor Frank Keenan, who was appearing in a show with his daughter, Hilda. She and Wynn married in 1914 and they had one son, Keenan, in 1916.
Wynn appeared in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1914 and again in 1915 and performed in Doing Our Bit (1917), Sometime (1918), and Schubert Gaieties of 1919 before creating and starring in his own Broadway shows: Ed Wynn’s Carnival (1920); The Perfect Fool (1921), the title of which gave him his subsequent nickname; The Grab Bag (1924); Manhattan Mary (1927); Simple Simon (1930; 1931); The Laugh Parade (1931); the drama Alice Takat (1936), a departure from Wynn’s usual comedic productions; Hooray for What (1937); Boys and Girls Together (1940); and Laugh, Town, Laugh (1942). Wynn enjoyed working in front of a live audience, and often greeted theatre-goers at the door as they left his shows.
Despite his own financial success, he played a pivotal role in the Actors’ Equity strike of 1919, speaking in Times Square against poor working conditions, which prompted the Shuberts and other Broadway theater managers and producers to blacklist him. Wynn responded by producing his own revue, Ed Wynn’s Carnival. Because of the strike, he “was forced into business as a kind of one-man band: lyricist, director, producer, and star of his own shows” (Wynn 1959, 36).
Ed Wynn was also a radio pioneer, though he insisted on performing in costume and make-up in front of a live audience during his broadcasts. In 1922, he performed The Perfect Fool on WJZ in New York City, the first time an actor had performed a full Broadway show in this medium. In 1932, Texaco sponsored his radio program, The Fire Chief, and in 1933 he invested in a new radio network, Amalgamated Broadcasting System (ABS) and became its president. However, due to time constraints and unhappiness with the management, Wynn pulled out of the network only one month after its debut, and ABS dissolved.
Accustomed to playing the funnyman, Wynn had difficulties transitioning to dramatic roles. In 1956, he was cast as a boxing trainer in Playhouse 90’s Requiem for a Heavyweight, a made-for-television film about a boxer (played by Jack Palance). The production also starred Keenan Wynn, then working as a character actor, who had encouraged his father to branch out from his comedic roots and helped him struggle through the part. The result was an Emmy-nominated performance from the older Wynn. Their father-son experience on the set was chronicled in Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse’s The Man in the Funny Suit (1960), for which Ed Wynn also received an Emmy nomination. Additional television roles included Kris Kringle in NBC’s Miracle on 34th Street (1959) and Gramps in a live performance of Meet Me in St. Louis (1959). He also appeared on episodes of Twilight Zone (1959; 1963), 77 Sunset Strip (1963), and Bonanza (1965). Additional film credits include The Diary of Anne Frank (1959), for which he was nominated for an Oscar, Cinderfella (1960), The Absent-Minded Professor (1961), Son of Flubber (1963), and That Darn Cat (1965).
Though cheerful on stage, screen, and radio, Wynn’s personal life was often tumultuous. He and Hilda divorced in 1937. Wynn later became the target of a publicized lawsuit in which his aunt and uncle, who had provided care for his wife, sued him for $115,000 in back expenses. Two subsequent marriages, to Frieda Louise Mierse in 1937 and Dorothy Elizabeth Nesbitt in 1946, also ended in divorce. According to Keenan Wynn’s autobiography, Ed Wynn’s Son (1959), the two did not have a close relationship, as the patriarch was often touring the country while Keenan attended various boarding schools and stayed with his mother in the family’s Great Neck, Long Island, home as well as apartments and hotels in New York City.
Ed Wynn died of cancer on June 19, 1966 in Beverly Hills, California, survived by his son and four grandchildren, including actor and writer Ned Wynn and writer, producer, and director Tracey Keenan Wynn. He left an indelible mark on the entertainment industry from his humble vaudeville beginnings to a Broadway, radio, television, and film career that spanned sixty years. Despite difficulties, he adapted his talents to fit the industry’s changing mediums, and when his brand of comedy was outdated, he reinvented himself as a dramatic actor. He has three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame: one each for radio, television, and motion pictures. The epitaph on his tombstone reads: “Dear God, Thank You.”
Internet Broadway Database. 2011. "Ed Wynn," IBDb.com. http://www.ibdb.com/person.php?id=5196.
Internet Movie Database. 2011. "Ed Wynn," IMDb.com. http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0943956/.
Brown, John Mason, and Montrose Jonas Moses. 1934. The American Theatre, as seen by its critics 1752-1934. New York: Norton.
Parish, James Robert, and William T. Leonard. 1979. The funsters. New Rochelle, N.Y.: Arlington House.
Reese, John. 1959. "Grand Old Man's New Career." Saturday Evening Post 231, no. 40: 24-117. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed August 3, 2011).
Wynn, Keenan, and James Brough. 1959. Ed Wynn's son. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday.
The Ed Wynn papers contain newspaper and magazine clippings about the actor and reviews of his productions; correspondence including telegrams, letters, and postcards; publicity photographs; performance notes and ideas for gags; box office records, gag magazines, and family mementos. Researchers interested in early twentieth-century vaudeville, theatre writing and production, the art and structure of comedy, the advent of radio networks and programs, native Philadelphian and/or Jewish American performers, and the biography of Ed Wynn will find this collection valuable. There are seven series in the collection: I. Administrative records; II. Artwork; III. Correspondence; IV. Newspaper and magazine clippings; V. Photographs; VI. Publications; and VII. Realia.
The collection is arranged in seven series: I. Administrative records; II. Artwork; III. Correspondence; IV. Newspaper and magazine clippings; V. Photographs; VI. Publications; and VII. Realia. There is also a folder labeled "Acquisitions history" that includes a catalog card, a newspaper article, and a letter discussing the collection.
Series I. Administrative records are organized alphabetically and include Wynn’s ideas for gags, various lists of expenses, box office statements for The Laugh Parade in 1931, a handwritten musical score, and several invoices and documents from 1926 belonging to his brother, Leon Leopold, who was employed at Fox Films. Two handwritten box office statements for Fox films in Wrightsville, Pennsylvania (presumably belonging to Leon Leopold) are included in this series.
Series II. Artwork is organized by size in an oversized flat box (Box 7). It encompasses approximately 20 printed posters and sketches, cartoons, and caricatures of Wynn in ink, pencil, and crayon by various artists, mostly undated. Also included is a set design from The Laugh Parade and a framed poem titled “Remember This” by F. Collis Wideman, with a personal message from the poet to Wynn inscribed on the verso of the frame. The “Newspaper and magazine clippings” series contains approximately 300 reviews, images, interviews, and obituaries relating to Wynn from publications such as The Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, The New York Times, and Redbook magazine. Two oversize collages of clippings are stored in separate flat files.
Series III. Correspondence is organized alphabetically. It comprises telegrams and letters, dating from approximately 1926-1933, to Wynn from professional contacts and well-wishers. This series also includes postcards received by the Leopold family, including 6 postcards from Wynn to his mother/parents (signed “Sonny, Ed”) as he toured the country in 1907-1908, as well as postcards received by the Leopold family from friends and relations.
Series IV. Newspaper and magazine clippings are organized in chronological order by production name or genre.
Series V. Publications are arranged alphabetically. This series contains approximately 50 gag magazines and several newspapers and joke books, including issues of Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang, College Humor, Judge, Life, The New Yorker, and Smokehouse Monthly, as well as a few loose pages and covers. The bulk of the series dates from 1925-1933; there are five issues of The New York Racket from 1890.
Series VI. Photographs includes 65 publicity stills and photographs of Wynn alone or with castmates, friends, and family members spanning his lifetime. Many feature Wynn from his vaudeville days as well as the actor as his trademark character, the Fire Chief.
Series VI. Realia includes a pair of worn leather weighted gloves and a small prayer book from the Beth Israel synagogue in Atlantic City, New Jersey, presumably belonging to Minnie Leopold.
The majority of the collection was purchased by Mr. Edward ("Scoop") Lieberman of the Philadelphia Press Association from Ed Wynn's mother's estate, 1965.
The Free Library of Philadelphia’s Ed Wynn biography file, which included additional newspaper clippings and notes, was merged with the Ed Wynn papers for optimal access.
Gift of Edward ("Scoop") Lieberman, 1968.
This collection is processed to the series and/or folder level.
- Free Library of Philadelphia: Rare Book Department
- Finding Aid Author
- Finding aid prepared by Jennifer Schnabel
- Finding Aid Date
- The processing of this collection was made possible in part through generous funding from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, administered through the Council on Library and Information Resources’ “Cataloging Hidden Special Collections and Archives” Project.
- Access Restrictions
This collection is open for research use.
- Use Restrictions
The right of access to material does not imply the right of publication. Permission for reprinting, reproduction, or extensive quotation from the rare books, manuscripts, prints or drawings must be obtained through written application, stating the use to be made of the material. The reader bears the responsibility for any possible infringement of copyright laws in the publication of such material.
A reproduction fee will be charged if the material is to be reproduced in a commercial publication.