The strip was adapted to a short-lived 15-minute CBS radio series, 12 feature-length films (chiefly from Monogram Pictures), nine Vitaphone film shorts, a 1954 syndicated television series (The Joe Palooka Story), comic books and merchandise, including a 1940s board game, a 1947 New Haven Clock & Watch Company wristwatch, a 1948 metal lunchbox featuring depictions of Joe, Humphrey and Little Max, and a 1946 Wheaties cereal box cut-out mask. In 1980, a mountain in Pennsylvania was named for the character.
Here, made to order, was the comic strip character I had been looking for—a big, good-natured prize fighter who didn't like to fight; a defender of little guys; a gentle knight. I ran back to the office, drew a set of strips and rushed to the newspaper syndicates.
Many rejections followed before Fisher's strip was finally syndicated by the McNaught Syndicate after Fisher, while employed as a McNaught salesman, sold it to over 20 newspapers. It debuted April 19, 1930, and by 1948, it was ranked as one of the five most popular newspaper comic strips.
Characters and story
Fisher originally changed the appearance of Palooka to fit each reigning real-life champ – until the coming of African-American Joe Louis in the 1930s, at which time the image of the cowlicked blond Palooka remained unchanged. Though his adventures were mostly low-key, he was pumped up by a supporting cast led by girlfriend Ann Howe, boxing manager Knobby Walsh, his mute orphan sidekick Little Max, Smokey, his black valet and later sparring partner and lovable giant Humphrey Pennyworth, a smiling blacksmith who wielded a 100-pound (45 kg) maul. Like Ozark Ike McBatt in baseball, Joe Palooka was intended to exemplify the sports hero in an age when uprightness of character was supposed to matter most. The character was part of an effort among top newspaper cartoonists to sell WWII-era Series E bonds to the public as a wartime financing initiative.
The strip garnered much publicity when cheese heiress Ann Howe and Joe were married on June 24, 1949. The engraved invitations for the event, sent to a select list of celebrities, read: "Mr. Ham Fisher requests the honour of your presence at the marriage of Ann Howe to Mr. Joe Palooka on the afternoon of June 24th in your favorite newspaper." Fisher received formal acceptances from Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson, General Omar Bradley and Attorney General Tom C. Clark. At the time, the strip was carried in 665 American newspapers and 125 foreign papers.
After Fisher committed suicide in 1955, his assistant Moe Leff drew the strip for four years. Lank Leonard recommended Tony DiPreta, who stepped in to illustrate Morris Weiss' scripts. DiPreta stayed with the strip for 25 years until it ended its run November 24, 1984, when it had dropped to only 182 newspapers. DiPreta then moved on to draw Rex Morgan, M.D..
Found in print as early as 1923, the word palooka was widely used to mean a lout or an inept fighter. Of uncertain origins, the word may originally have derived from the ethnic slur polack.
Over decades, Joe Palooka appeared in comic books from several comic book publishers. Early comic books offered strip reprints, but eventually the character was seen in original comic book stories. Secondary characters Little Max and Humphrey Pennyworth each had their own Harvey comic book series.
On radio Joe Palooka was broadcast on CBS from April 12 to August 18, 1932. With Teddy Bergman in the title role, the 15-minute series was heard on Tuesdays and Thursdays, sponsored by Heinz Rice Flakes. Elmira Roessler, Elsie Hitz and Mary Jane Higby played Ann Howe. Knobby Walsh was portrayed by Frank Readick and Hal Lansing. Others in the cast: Karl Swenson and Norman Gottschalk. The announcer was Harry von Zell.
Films and television
Joe Palooka made his movie debut in Palooka (1934) with Stuart Erwin in the title role, Jimmy Durante as Knobby, Lupe Velez as Nina Madero, and Marjorie Rambeau as Mayme Palooka. Now in the public domain, the film can be seen online. Palooka was followed by a series of nine two-reel Vitaphone shorts (1936–37) starring Robert Norton as Joe and Shemp Howard as Knobby.
He returned to feature-length films in 1946, when Monogram Pictures launched a series of 11 low-budget films starring Joe Kirkwood, Jr. as Joe, Leon Errol as Knobby and Elyse Knox as Ann Howe. The first in the series was Joe Palooka, Champ (1946); the series ended 1951, with Joe Palooka in Triple Cross.
The Joe Palooka Story, popularly known simply as Joe Palooka, was a 1954 syndicated television series starring Kirkwood and featuring former boxing champion Maxie Rosenbloom as Humphrey Pennyworth.
South of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania on the way to the town of Mountain Top, Pennsylvania is Joe Palooka Mountain, named in the early 1980s by the Mayor of Wilkes-Barre. A granite monument with the likeness of Joe Palooka is located at the base of the mountain at the intersection of PA 309 and PA 437 between Wilkes-Barre and the town of Mountain Top.
In September 1948, a limestone Joe Palooka statue (in a flowing cape) was erected on a hill overlooking Route 37 in Indiana. In 1984, the nine-foot high, ten-ton statue and its base were moved and rededicated to the Town Hall in Oolitic, Indiana.
In Sometimes a Great Notion, Ken Kesey skewers one of his characters with this paragraph: "'Tsk, tsk,' said Brother Walker. And, as he had learned the comment from Joe Palooka, it came out 'tisk tisk', the way he assumed it was pronounced."
In Smokey and the Bandit, after having been drawn into a fight and taken a beating, character Cledus "Snowman" Snow (Jerry Reed) tells his friend Bo "Bandit" Darville (Burt Reynolds) over the CB radio, "Look, you ain't gonna believe this, but I just did my imitation of Joe Palooka."
Lyrics of Popeye's theme "I'm Popeye The Sailor Man", composed by Sammy Lerner in 1933 for Fleischer Studios' first Popeye the Sailor cartoon: "I'm Popeye the sailor man / I'm one tough Gazookus / which hates all Palookas".
In On The Waterfront (1954) Marlon Brando's character, Terry Malloy, references Palooka. He tells his brother, Charley Malloy (Rod Steiger), "It wasn't him, Charley, it was you. Remember that night in the Garden you came down to my dressing room and you said, 'Kid, this ain't your night. We're going for the price on Wilson.' You remember that? 'This ain't your night!' My night! I coulda taken Wilson apart! So what happens? He gets the title shot outdoors on the ballpark and what do I get? A one-way ticket to Palooka-ville! You was my brother, Charley, you shoulda looked out for me a little bit. You shoulda taken care of me just a little bit so I wouldn't have to take them dives for the short-end money."
- Palooka (1934)
- Joe Palooka, Champ (1946)
- Gentleman Joe Palooka (1946)
- Joe Palooka in the Knockout (1947)
- Joe Palooka in Fighting Mad (1948)
- Joe Palooka in Winner Take All (1948)
- Joe Palooka in the Big Fight (1949)
- Joe Palooka in the Counterpunch (1949)
- Joe Palooka Meets Humphrey (1950)
- Joe Palooka in Humphrey Takes a Chance (1950)
- Joe Palooka in the Squared Circle (1950)
- Joe Palooka in Triple Cross (1951)
(made for Warner Brothers)
- For the Love of Pete (March 14, 1936)
- Here's Howe (June 6, 1936)
- Punch and Beauty (August 6, 1936)
- The Choke's on You (September 12, 1936)
- The Blonde Bomber (November 28, 1936)
- Kick Me Again (February 6, 1937)
- Taking the Count (April 24, 1937)
- Thirst Aid (June 12, 1937)
- Calling All Kids (November 20, 1937)
- Presarvin’ Freedom: Al Capp, Treasury Man, "Hogan's Alley," 1998
- "Mr. and Mrs. Palooka," Time, June 27, 1949.
- DeLong, Thomas A. (1996). Radio Stars: An Illustrated Biographical Dictionary of 953 Performers, 1920 through 1960. McFarland & Company, Inc. ISBN 978-0-7864-2834-2. P. 223.
- Strickler, Dave. Syndicated Comic Strips and Artists, 1924–1995: The Complete Index. Cambria, California: Comics Access, 1995. ISBN 0-9700077-0-1
- Toonopedia: Joe Palooka