Phil Baker was a comic personality and performer whose stardom, sad to say, was confined to a specific generation: in the 1920s and '30s he was a veritable fixture in the theater world as the comedic sparkplug of numerous revues, and in the latter decade he made the leap to radio with considerable success. By the 1930s and '40s, he bid fair to become a film star, but the right scripts and vehicles weren't there and he remained best known for his radio work. Baker was born in Philadelphia in 1896, to a middle-class family with no particular contacts in the entertainment world. He was musically inclined, however, a talent that manifested itself when he received an accordion as a bar mitzvah gift and learned to play it on his own. Before he was far into his teens, he was working as an office boy to future Universal Pictures founder Carl Laemmle at the Imp Film Company, and he was soon bitten by the performing bug in a way that simply wasn't going to be sated by playing the accordion at school or at parties.
Baker ran away from home and ended up in Boston, where he financed his first night by winning an amateur talent competition and taking away the princely sum of 50 cents. There followed more amateur nights as he headed to Fall River, and then on to New York, where he became a part of a violin-and-accordion duo with Ed Janis that was as popular for their comic schtick as for their music. From there, he leaped into a partnership with Ben Bernie, and "Bernie & Baker" topped the vaudeville circuit before they split up the act. Baker joined the legitimate stage when Ziegfeld brought him into his Midnight Frolics, and he was later cast in the Greenwich Village Follies and other revue-type shows, where his quick wit soon began supplanting his music as the main focus of his act, and by the time he was cast in the Music Box Revue he was a star performer. A visit to England proved disastrous as his opening night audience sat silently through his jokes (though they did join in the music-making), but on his return he picked up exactly where he left off, and he was soon a part of such top entertainment vehicles as the stage revue Artists & Models. Baker also composed songs, including the hits "Park Avenue Strut" and "Pretty Little Baby." Apart from his overall success, Baker also always claimed that he originated the use of the "stooge" in modern comedy. As the story went, he was in the middle of performing one night when he found himself being heckled by a man in the fourth row; the man turned out to be an out-of-work comic, and the audience found their spontaneous give-and-take so funny that Baker hired the man to repeat his outburst as part of the act in subsequent shows, which greatly elevated Baker's already considerable popularity. Among those who passed through the spot as Baker's second banana was Sid Silvers, who went on to stardom in his own right on-stage.