Sunday, 13 November 2011

Why Kenny Baker Quit Jack Benny

On June 18, 1939, singer Kenny Baker appeared on ‘The Jack Benny Program’ and to all the world it sounded like he would be with the rest of the cast the following week broadcasting from Waukegan, Illinois. He never made it.

He never appeared on the Benny show again.

So what happened?

Benny fans have debated for years whether Baker was fired, whether he quit, whether he left on good terms or bad.

It took Baker more than five years before he talked about it. And, even then, it seems pieces of the story are missing. Here’s a syndicated news article from 1944, at a time he was on Broadway and had shot a couple of films, including ‘Silver Skates.’

Kenny Baker Tired of Being Just a Jerk
Walks Out of Job Paying Him $150,000 a Year
By Art Cohn
NEW YORK, Nov. 1 (INS)—Kenny Baker was tired of being a jerk, even a $150,000 per year jerk.
The world knew him only as the high-voiced dope on Jack Benny’s program who made such incredibly yappy remarks everyone else on the show sounded like an intellectual by comparison, even Phil Harris. Kenny was the all-American oaf and everyone wanted him to remain that way.
He had become a jerk unconsciously. Most jerks do. He stopped being one intentionally. Most jerks don’t.
“It wasn’t easy walking away from $150,000 a year,” he said last night in his dressing room at the Imperial theatre, “but I realized if I didn’t kill the jerk character it would kill me.”
Kenny had to make his choice: To remain A. Jerk at $3000 a week or to be K. Baker with no offers in sight. It was a big gamble but he took it. He quit Fred Allen’s program more than a year ago and rejected dozens of movie, stage and radio offers—each one wanted him only as a 21-karat Stoopnagle.
“I was doing concerts,” he recalls, “sang with symphonies, went to England and made ‘The Mikado’ but nobody would take me seriously, they thought of me only as a jerk. I couldn't get a straight part to save my soul. That made me mad.”
The fact he has a boyish face and does not look a day over 22, although he is 10 years older, did not help either.
Father of Three
“It’s awfully embarrassing,” he growled. “When I bought a ranch in California last year, the man who sold it to me insisted that my father sign the papers; he didn’t think I was old enough.”
Rather ironical, considering that Baker is, the father of three children—Kenny, Jr., 7; Susan, 4 ½, and Johnny, the 8-month-old baby.
The “jerk,” as he always refers to the character he portrayed on the radio, was an accident.
“Mr. Benny originally hired me only as a soloist,” he says, “after I won a national audition conducted by Eddie Duchin. I was a genuine hayseed when I started on the program. I had lived in Long Beach, California, all my life and had never been on a train, let alone out of the state.
“I was 24, but shaved only once a week. I wore a $22 tuxedo, had the darndest mop of bushy hair and two buck teeth. The first night I stumbled over three chairs and when I was introduced to Mary Livingston I said, ‘How do you do, I am sure.’ It was on the level; that was the way I looked and talked.
A Sap Is Born
“Harry Conn, who was Mr. Benny’s chief script writer at the time, nearly split a gut laughing at me that first night. Then he got together with Mr. Benny and they began giving me hick lines to read...”.
And a new national symbol for a sap was born.
Baker is a revelation as the leading juvenile in “A Touch of Genius,” Broadway’s latest musical hit. The critics gave him rave notices and, as a result, he has received special offers to return to radio—in a serious drama. He is about to sign for a weekly half-hour show over a national network, one combining his talents as a singer and narrator.

Baker isn’t being altogether forthright when he said “No offers were in sight” when he quit the Benny show. Even if it were true he was under contract to Mervyn LeRoy Productions, as each Benny broadcast reminded listeners, and LeRoy certainly wouldn’t let him sit idle. Not only was he on screens in ‘The Mikado’ in an unjerk-like performance praised by critics, he was also pulling down good cash every Wednesday night as the vocalist on ‘The Texaco Star Theatre,’ starring Ken Murray. In fact, one syndicated newspaper columnist suggested on the day he missed the Benny show in Waukegan that “Texaco would like to have Kenny Baker’s services exclusively.” And that’s exactly what happened. By July 15, newspapers reported Baker’s exclusive contract and that Jack was looking for a new vocalist.

Fans who prefer not to do research have suggested Fred Allen somehow enticed his phoney feuder’s singer away, but Allen didn’t join the ‘Texaco Star Theatre’ until 1940. In a way, Fred joined Kenny’s show.

The article claims Baker quit Allen’s show, but Billboard magazine of August 22, 1942 tells a quite different story. The show was being cut from 60 minutes to a half hour in the fall, which was a perfect opportunity to dump Baker. Reported Billboard: “Baker, who drew $2,000 weekly for singing two songs, proved to be a constant headache to producers because of his alleged prima donna attitude.
“The singer, because of the stipulation in his contract giving him the right to choose his own selections, was allegedly difficult to handle. This might have been worked out, according to an Allen spokesman, but he kept picking slow numbers which consumed anywhere from three to four minutes and which caused Allen a good deal of concern because they slowed the program. Christmas Eve he insisted on doing the Ave Maria in German instead of the customary Latin, an incident which cause Texaco much embarrassment because the mail man brought in loads of protests from irate listeners [remember, the U.S. was fighting Hitler at the time]. This was not the entire reason for X-ing him off the spot, but it helped.

In other words, in an exhibition of irony, Baker was being a jerk.

The character that Baker found so objectionable to play on the Benny show was a continuation and modification of the one singer Frank Parker had played on the show. After Baker left, the character was tweaked a little bit more and was handed to Eugene McNulty, along with the name of Dennis Day. If Dennis had a problem playing a daft young man, he never told anyone. It led to a long and lucrative career with Jack, and on his own. In addition, along the way, it was discovered Dennis had a very good ear for mimicry and that was incorporated into the show. And, though all these characters were silly (though not truly moronic like, say, Charlie Cantor’s Finnegan on ‘Duffy’s Tavern’), people weren’t really laughing at them. They had been given comedy lines by Jack Benny, who was the real fall guy on his own programme.

Baker’s hopes of a skyrocketing career after walking away from the Benny show never really materialised, even when compared to Dennis Day. The “weekly half-hour show” mentioned in the newspaper article lasted eight weeks after the story was written and was replaced with Danny Kaye and Harry James. Baker took over ‘Glamour Manor’ (later named ‘The Kenny Baker Show’) in 1946 for a season. He never had a starring radio show after that, let alone one on television. With few prospects, he retired in the early 1950s to record a few gospel albums and, perhaps, mull over whether quitting ‘The Jack Benny Program’ was really the best thing to do.

5 comments:

  1. Baker was also involved in the filming of the Marx Brothers' "At the Circus" for MGM when he left the Benny show, taking Allan Jones' place at the male singer/love interest in the brothers' third MGM release. He may really have thought going into the summer of '39 that he was about to hit it big on the silver screen and didn't need the Benny show anymore.

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  2. He ended up on the Fred Allen Show that fall, so he doesn't seem to have intended to leave radio entirely.

    And he doesn't seem to have left on bad terms. In the first Benny show that fall, they're driving down the street and call out to him. Mary asks why he didn't answer them and is told that he can't, he's on another show now.

    He got mentioned several times in the years that followed. He was scheduled to be on a reunion episode featuring a lot of the show's former characters, that never took place. There are several jokes about him in the 50's. If Jack was mad at Dennis, he might say "Kenny Baker, come home. All is forgiven." And one time Rochester even found him in Stately Benny Manor, when he tells Jack that he saw a curly headed guy in the closed off wing of the house eating Jell-o, and Jack says "So THAT'S what happened to Kenny Baker!" The split seems to have been fairly amicable.

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    1. Jill ~ OTR Fan30 August 2012 07:09

      ...As the song said "good~bye", Kenny Baker did not. The following week was to be the last show of the season, visiting Jack Benny's home town of Waukegan, Illinois. Kenny never made it there.... Instead, a small joke was made while the cast was driving through the town, and someone yells "hello" to Kenny. The response is that he cannot answer because he's on another network.

      On the reason Kenny quit.... It was definately NOT for monetary reasons. Jack Benny paid his staff well. Not cheap in real life ! He was paid $120,000 a year ~ a huge amount of money back then. According to an interview at the time, Kenny was afraid he was being type-cast as an idiot, and wanted to change his persona. He had the movie, "The Makado" out that same year. He went on to star in a few musical comedies, but retired early. In contrast, Dennis Day, who took over for Baker, had a career with Jack Benny for the rest of Benny's life.

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    2. Jill ~ OTR Fan31 August 2012 07:35

      As I am listening to The Fred Allen Show right now, I notice something interesting ~ Kenny Baker is playing the same dope on Allen's show that he perfected on Benny's show. Original broadcast date is stated as 1-15-41, post~Benny. He never really could get away from it. But as he was so good at it, he might as well have continued on and enjoyed the lucritive salary for what amounted to 10 minutes of work a week !

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  3. Jill W ~ OTR Fan29 August 2012 07:21

    INTERESTING song choice for Kenny Baker's last Jack Benny show. I wonder if Kenny himself picked it out since he knew he was already out the door...

    It's a Bille Holiday song called "Don't Worry 'Bout Me".

    Don't Worry 'Bout Me lyrics:
    (By Rube Bloom / Ted Koehler)

    Don't worry 'bout me
    I'll get along
    Just you forget about me
    Be happy my love

    Just say that our little show is over
    And so the story ends
    Why not call it a day, the sensible way
    And we'll remain friends

    Look out for yourself
    Should be the rule
    Just give your heart and your love, to whom ever you love
    Don't you be a fool

    Baby why stop and cling, to some fading thing
    That used to be
    So if you can't forget
    Don't you worry 'bout me

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