By The Greater Astoria Historical Society
For little boys and girls of a certain age — or perhaps we should say, now at the threshold of being grandparents — a figure from their childhood was born in Flushing Sept. 8, 1910. Joe Bolton, son of a salesman of hotel supplies, left Queens when his parents moved to Manhattan when he was a youngster.
While still a teenager, Bolton became a journeyman radio announcer, starting with WOR in Newark in 1927, then moving to Philadelphia, where he became a sportscaster. He appeared in some long-forgotten sports newsreels before coming back to broadcast New York Giants football games on the radio. By 1947, he was one of the first announcers to move into the new medium of television. Within three years he was a weatherman for WPIX. Kids loved his antics.
When word went out the station was looking for a host for “Our Gang” shorts, the choice was obvious. The little tykes clamored for Bolton. He got the job but rejected the studio’s suggestion he play a comical hobo and developed, instead, the persona of a genial neighborhood policeman. Starting in 1955, and for the next three years, Officer Joe quickly became a kiddie institution. After the station lost its rights to broadcasting “The Little Rascals,” he quickly found something new.
“The Three Stooges Funhouse” premiered with Officer Joe’s cheerful and genial hosting in September 1958. He bridged the 20-minute-long Stooges shorts into the half-hour TV time slots with live comedy, songs and a few cartoons. Perhaps because Bolton had two children he seemed to know how to keep things moving and how to hold the attention of his youthful audience.
Decades later, a devoted fan hit on the irony of it all: “To have an ‘officer’ sanctioning our three larcenous pals was, in a word, amazing! After all, in so many Stooges shorts, the boys were stealing everything from watermelons to fish and huckstering all kinds of products.”
Officer Joe’s personality definitely helped the show become a success. With their visibility and popularity rising in a market as important as New York, the Stooges’ career got a second chance. Columbia decided to stitch together some of the Stooge shorts into a feature film — with Officer Joe naturally involved in the new production. His role, in full police officer regalia, was immortalized in the Stooge classic “Stop, Look and Laugh.”
In 1961, Officer Joe was handed a new assignment: hosting “Dick Tracy” cartoons. Others tried to fill his shoes, but his audience did not buy it. By early 1964 he was called back to active Stooge duty. His followers were ecstatic and wrote the studio letters by the hundreds. He answered each one personally. Today, scores of his fans, now facing retirement, still treasure his letters and photographs signed with a flourish by an aquamarine fountain pen.
Bolton had one more chance to help his friends in the last Stooge classic, “The Outlaws Is Coming,” a 1965 release. Officer Joe starred as one of the “outlaws” in the film, a posse of bad guys who, in reality, were the hosts of television shows that featured Stooge shorts in cities around the country. Teachers may have protested the title’s poor grammar, but children lapped it up.
Alas, all good things come to an end. The kids started to grow up and the decade-long comeback of the Stooges drew to a close. Slapstick was giving way to “Sesame Street,” and by 1970, when all the outraged parent-teacher protests about Stooge slapstick violence finally caught up to Officer Joe and the boys, the show was taken off the air.
The favorite police officer for the baby boomer generation retired in 1975. It was the right time. His fanbase was getting married and starting their own families.
Bolton moved to Santa Monica, Calif., and in August 1986, as one of his fans recalled years later, “He passed on to that great pie in the sky where ‘the boys’ now dwell.” He was 75.
For more information, call the Greater Astoria Historical Society at 718-278-0700 or visit astorialic.org.