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Hollywood’s Nice Guy: Joe E. Brown

By January 19, 2023No Comments
Publicity photo of Joe E. Brown from the radio program Those Websters.
Joe E. Brown was an actor, comedian, sports broadcaster, and Ohio Freemason.

We, as Ohio Freemasons, are driven to uphold our values of Brotherly Love, Relief, and Truth. Our purpose is to give back to our communities through acts of service, large and small. We’re teachers, mechanics, farmers, scientists, artists, and athletes. In our hearts, we’re nice guys that strive to leave the world a better place than we found it however we can.

Joe Evans Brown, an Ohio Freemason and actor, was known as Hollywood’s nice guy. With adept comedic skills, he relished putting smiles on the faces of his audiences, whether on the stages of Broadway or the big screen. Brother Brown appeared in over 70 roles during his acting career, which spanned four decades and included some of the 20th century’s most notable films. 

A Child of Many Talents

Joe Evans Brown was born into a large Welsh family living in Holgate, Ohio, on July 28, 1891. When he was nine years old, he saw a poster for a traveling circus and yearned to become an acrobat. Amazingly, he obtained the blessing from his family, and he left home in 1902 to join a traveling troupe of circus tumblers. He later said of this pivotal, life-changing moment that he was, “probably the only performer in the history of the business who didn’t run away from home to join the circus (Vanguard of Hollywood,” 

Still just a boy, he toured the country as a member of the Five Marvelous Ashtons, perfecting his craft as a performer in front of circus and vaudeville audiences. As an acrobat, Joe proved highly athletic, eventually turning his talents to his favorite sport: baseball. He became a professional baseball player, even forgoing a chance to sign with the New York Yankees at one time. Although Brown’s destiny resided off the field, he did return to the sport later in life as a broadcaster for the Bronx Bombers.

After a few seasons, he missed the stage and returned to performing, ultimately landing roles on Broadway. With his unique looks and perfect timing, he began working comedy into his acts. He remarked of his unconventional physical characteristics, “[The] only thing I could ever do was make people laugh…and I can only take second billing for that talent. Nature met me more than halfway when it threw a handful of features together and called it a face (Vanguard of Hollywood,”

Joe always believed comedians didn’t have to, “stoop to dirty stories to hold an audience(Vanguard of Hollywood,” ” As he worked on his skills as a comedian, he relied on tasteful jokes, timing, and physical features to build his distinct brand of comedy. He was steadfast in his belief that jokes must be in good form and carried that with him throughout his lengthy career.  

Publicity still of June Travis & Joe E. Brown in Earthworm Tractors
Joe E. Brown with June Travis in Earthworm Tractors, 1936.

Joe Hits it Big

During the early to mid-1920s, Joe, the avid baseball fan, took side jobs as a Major League Baseball broadcaster. He sat in for a game in Boston during the 1925 season while starring in a “Betty Lee” performance at the Boston Majestic Theater. 

After some time performing on Broadway, Brother Brown’s comedic abilities earned him a place on the big screen. He was first cast in Jim Jam Jems, a musical comedy that gave way to several other films with Warner Brothers. Considering his years as a performer, he was a natural and quickly became an audience favorite.

As the 1920s rolled into the 30s, Brown was cast in several starring roles in Hollywood. He appeared in On with the Show in 1929, the first all-color musical comedy ever made. This gave way to additional roles, including Sally (1929), Hold Everything (1930), Song of the West (1930), and Going Wild (1930). By this time, he was considered a top talent and had his name appear alongside the title in films and advertisements. 

Joe followed up these musical comedy roles by marrying his two loves: comedy and baseball. In 1932, he appeared in Fireman, Save My Child as a player for the St. Louis Cardinals. He also played a baseball player in Elmer, the Great, and Alibi Ike, both times acting as a member of the Chicago Cubs.

In 1935, Joe Brown took a role in a performance of Shakespeare’s, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He earned high praise for his acting, which is notable because few vaudevillian performers attempted Shakespeare productions. 

For the Stars and Stripes

A Freemason at heart, Joe always looked for a way to give back to others. During the Second World War, he publicly supported a bill allowing German-Jewish refugees into the United States and adopted two children. 

Brown used his stardom and comedic prowess to serve the nation, traveling to bases worldwide to entertain American troops. He made stops in New Zealand, Australia, the Caribbean, Alaska, and the South Pacific. As the U.S. entered the war, Brown was in his fifties and ineligible to enlist, although his sons joined the military and supported the war effort. Sadly, his son, Captain Don E. Brown, died while serving in 1942.

Brother Brown revered the service members of the Armed Forces. He gave back by performing in any conditions and ensuring those overseas had their mail delivered to loved ones. His commitment was so strong that many claimed he would stop by military hospitals and perform his act for one wounded soldier if he could. The “nice guy’s” effort was so valued he was one of two civilians to receive the Bronze Star during World War II. 

Publicity photo of comedians Buster Keaton and Joe E. Brown
Brown appears alongside Buster Keaton in Route 66, 1962

A Mason’s Work Ethic

Joe Brown was as hard a worker as anybody the world of show business has known. His films were reliably successful and during the 1930s he starred in dozens of movies. As time wore on, his brand of comedy was still popular but gradually becoming outdated. His roles became less prominent, but thanks to his fame, he didn’t fade into obscurity and became an excellent guest star and character actor.  

In 1953, he returned to the broadcast booth as a commentator for New York Yankees games. That same year, he became the inaugural president of PONY (Protect Our Nation’s Youth) Baseball and Softball and held the position for over a decade before retiring. He toured the country, promoting the organization and encouraging more young Americans to participate in the sport. 

During his later years, he appeared in some of his most famous titles, such as Around the World in 80 Days (1956) and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963). The role he is best known for today was Osgood Fielding III in Some Like It Hot.

A Beloved Son of Ohio

Joe Brown was only ever married to one woman, Kathryn Francis McGraw. They tied the knot in 1915 and stayed together until he passed away. Together they had four children, including two sons and two daughters (both were adopted). 

His lengthy career and blockbuster success earned him a Hollywood Walk of Fame star in 1960. The following year Bowling Green State University renamed its theater the Joe E. Brown Theatre in honor of his many performances.

Today his hometown of Holgate, Ohio, has named a street in his honor: Joe E. Brown. Additionally, patrons of the Flatrock Brewing Company in Napoleon, OH, can try several beers named in his honor, including various brown ales such as Joe E. Coffee And Vanilla Bean Brown Ale, Joe E. Brown Hazelnut, Chocolate Peanut Butter Joe E. Brown, and Joe E Brown Chocolate Pumpkin.

Over the course of a career that spanned over 40 years, Joe Brown appeared in over 70 roles in television and film. He starred in countless stage performances and completed many high-flying tricks as an acrobat. He lived an extraordinary life while remaining humble, generous, and eager to make life better for those around him. 

Indeed, Brother Joe Brown lived the life of a bonafide Ohio Freemason. He joined Rubicon Lodge in Toledo in 1915, and he received his 50 year award in 1965. He was elected an honorary member of Northern Light Lodge on the occasion of its 150th anniversary in 1967. Brother Joe E. Brown passed away on July 6, 1973, from complications caused by a heart condition. It was three weeks before he turned 82, marking the end of an extraordinary life and career. 

Want to learn about other Freemasons that have been on the silver screen? Read our bios on John Wayne and Don Rickles!