Few of old-time radio’s one-trick ponies (actual or alleged) were sadder than Jack Pearl, and fewer than that were half as bitter about his fate. He’d worked the hard way toward his radio stardom, saw it disappear in a near-literal blink, and couldn’t wring the thought of fickle audiences out of his being even after he finally surrendered any hope of recovering his moment in the sun.
Fifteen minutes of fame? Pearl by comparison seemed to have five. Born Jack Perlman, he was a product of the same Lower East Side (Manhattan) ghetto that yielded Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, and Fanny Brice, coming up in a long hard slog through vaudeville, burlesque, and the Schubert revues before he finally impressed the Ziegfeld companies in the early 1930s. They gave him his first taste of radio itself, in a Ziegfeld variety show, and Pearl probably felt himself right at home.
It was writer Billy Wells in England, where Pearl vacationed one summer, who tipped him that Lucky Strike wanted a new act for its Thursday night variety show (Walter Winchell and Walter O’Keefe were leaving) and hoped to land a solid dialectician—a Pearl specialty. Taking a tip from an ad man studying the real exploits of the 18th-centruy German cavalryman, he developed a routine telling exaggerated tall tales as Baron von Munchausen.
Pearl and his sidekick Cliff Hall became a smash in the fall of 1932; his inability to remember Hall’s first name produced one of radio’s earliest and most memorable catchphrases. (Vas you dere, Sharlie?) The Jack Pearl Show dominated the Thursday night ratings in 1932-33 with a whopping 39.4 on a night the average radio rating was 21.7. It was also good enough to make Pearl the number three attraction of the radio season, behind only Ed Wynn, the Fire Chief (40.5) and Eddie Cantor (55.7).
The problem was, Pearl may have been too good at what he did. He was written off concurrently as a one-dimensional performer and the image took hold so powerfully and so fast he couldn’t break it effectively. He was nowhere near the top ten the following season, on his own night or the season as a whole, and by December 1933 Lucky Strike dropped him.
Royal gelatin picked him up and put him on CBS in January 1934, and Pearl tried a new character, Peter Pfeiffer, dismissed as Munchausen lite, so to say. The show knocked him out of the seasonal top fifty to stay, for the rest of a radio career that amounted to endless comeback attempts that finally ended in 1951 or thereabout, leaving Pearl to live in near-obscurity until his death in 1982.
Tonight, on another comeback trail: Rio just won’t be the same after The Baron (Jack Pearl) gets through with it.
Charlie: Cliff Hall. Additional cast: Mae Questel, Morton Bowe. Music: Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra with Jack Leonard. Writers: Possibly Parke Levy, Billy Wells, George Wells.
Further Channel Surfing . . .
Lum & Abner: Cedric to Carry Campaign Poster (comedy; NBC Blue, 1935)
Lux Radio Theater: Brewster’s Millions (dramatic anthology; CBS, 1937)
The Jell-O Program Starring Jack Benny: Jack Can’t Get a Date for His Birthday (comedy; NBC, 1942)
Lux Radio Theater: Are Husbands Necessary? (dramatic anthology; CBS, 1943)
Vic & Sade: Dottie’s Letter from Chuck (comedy; CBS, 1943)
The Burns & Allen Show: Fred Astaire Drives George Crazy (CBS; AFRS Rebroadcast, 1944)
Fibber McGee & Molly: Fibber Has His Handwriting Analyzed (comedy; NBC, 1944)
Words at War: The New Sun (dramatic anthology; NBC, 1944)
Suspense: Sell Me Your Life (mystery/thriller; CBS, 1945)
Escape: Ancient Sorceries (adventure; CBS, 1948)
Fibber McGee & Molly: Finding a Hairdresser at 141414th Street (comedy; NBC, 1949)
The Great Gildersleeve: Wedding Date Set for Marjorie and Bronco (comedy; NBC, 1950)
You Bet Your Life: The Secret Word is “Sugar” (NBC, 1950)
Suspense: The Death Parade (mystery/thriller; CBS, 1951)
Dragnet: The Big Tooth (crime drama; NBC, 1953)
Fibber McGee & Molly: What’s In the Attic? (NBC, 1954)
Gunsmoke: Body Snatch (Western; CBS, 1959)
Sears Radio Theater: This Home is Dissolved (dramatic anthology; CBS, 1979)