Born in Evansville, Indiana, in 1890, he was a most unlikely person to become one of Lake Hopatcong’s most famous residents. Joe Cook rose to the highest echelon of vaudeville, headlining at New York’s famed Palace Theatre. He triumphed on Broadway and then broke into radio. A household name in the 1920s and 1930s, Cook was one of America’s most popular entertainers. He first came to Lake Hopatcong for a summer vacation, as did many vaudeville and burlesque performers of the day. Unlike the others, Cook purchased a grand home in 1924 and made the lake his primary residence for more than 15 years.
Joe Cook’s physical talents were remarkable. He was an incredible juggler, could walk a tightrope, ride a unicycle, mime, and perform many other circus skills with ease. With this he combined an uncanny ability to tell nonsensical stories that made audiences roar with laughter. Added to this was his penchant for creating ridiculously complex inventions to perform absurdly simple or totally useless tasks. Mix in a little piano, violin, and ukulele playing and you had quite a show. The broad variety of Cook’s act lead to his nickname – “One Man Vaudeville.” New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson once wrote, “Next to Leonardo da Vinci, Joe Cook is the most versatile man known to recorded times.”
Following a very successful fifteen years in vaudeville, Cook became a musical comedy star on Broadway in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, starring in such hits as Rain or Shine, Fine and Dandy, and Hold Your Horses. In 1930, noted columnist Walter Winchell wrote that “Joe Cook is certainly one of the musical theatre’s three geniuses. I can’t at the moment think of the other two.”
Never a fan of Hollywood, Cook made only two full-length movies, which is a major reason he is not widely remembered today. In 1930, he starred in the film version of Rain or Shine, which was directed by a young Frank Capra and is still shown occasionally on television. It has recently been completely restored and will be permanently preserved by Sony Pictures, the successor of Columbia Pictures. Cook’s only other feature movie, Arizona Mahoney, was filmed in 1936 and included a young Larry “Buster” Crabbe. The 1930’s also saw Cook’s successful transition into the new medium of radio, as the host of two variety series and a frequent guest on many others.
While renting at Pine Tree Point on Lake Hopatcong in 1924, Joe Cook and his family fell in love with and purchased the “Boulders” cottage in Davis Cove. Cook immediately went to work remodeling the house in his own unique style. Several gags were built into the house – from walls that moved to chairs that sank. The over 20 acre property gave Cook room to build a nine-hole golf course. From the first hole’s tee on top of a water tower to the memorable ninth hole, which was fashioned so that any ball landing on the green would roll into the cup, the course was, without question, unlike any other ever designed. Cook dubbed the house “Sleepless Hollow” – an appropriate name considering the frequent parties and festivities held there. He regularly mentioned Lake Hopatcong in his vaudeville act and on radio, bringing the lake to the attention of millions.
Cook was unlike other stars who came to Lake Hopatcong. Sleepless Hollow was his year-round residence and his four children went to local schools. When he performed in New York he maintained a suite at the Plaza Hotel, but he was never more than a drive away from his beloved Lake Hopatcong. He participated in a wealth of local causes and long-time residents of the area still remember Cook giving Christmas baskets to all children in the Borough of Hopatcong’s school.
Joe Cook loved cruising the lake in his Bell Isle Bearcat speedboat, named “Four Hawaiians” after his most famous comedy skit. In the act, Cook would explain that he was actually imitating only two Hawaiians. He “could imitate four Hawaiians but did not wish to do so because that would put all the performers would could only imitate two Hawaiians out of work.” Cook would appear on stage with a ukulele in hand and begin:
“I will give an imitation of four 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 for 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 on 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 four Hawaiians?”
Sadly, Cook was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 1941. This forced his retirement from show business. He sold the lake house the same year and moved to a more modest residence in New York State, where he resided until his death in 1959. Had Cook stayed healthy until the advent of television, his playful and physical style of comedy might well have made him one of the new medium’s biggest stars, as was the case with his contemporary, Milton Berle.
During the years, Joe Cook lived at Lake Hopatcong there were scores of articles written about him and his house at the lake. The attention which he brought to the lake and his great love for it, truly made him Lake Hopatcong’s ambassador to the world.
Copyright 2009 Lake Hopatcong Historical Museum