A few days ago, we espoused the opinion on this blog that Jack Benny’s first appearance on the radio wasn’t in 1932, as he had claimed for many years, and pointed out a 1931 appearance on the ‘RKO Theater of the Air’ as likely being the first. A search found no evidence of any broadcasts in 1930 (though Tim Lones of the Cleveland Classic Media blog found one) and the grind of vaudeville would almost preclude anything in the ‘20s.
Turns out we were half right.
Laura Leff of the International Jack Benny Fan Club may know about Jack Benny than anyone alive, save Jack’s daughter Joan. She sent a note that she was sure Jack had done some radio in the late ‘20s in Los Angeles when he was under contract to M-G-M. So back to the digging we went. And, as usual, it turns out Laura was correct. Jack’s famous Ed Sullivan show of 1932 wasn’t his first radio appearance. But it wasn’t in 1931, either.
To the right, you see a clipping from the radio page of the Oakland Tribune of October 9, 1929. At the very bottom, it reads:
“Tonight KFRC will have Jack Benny as master of ceremonies for the Mavio [sic] club from 8 to 9. Marie Wells, popular musical comedienne, will sing a group of songs.”
A check of listings in the Tribune and other California papers (unfortunately, I don’t have access to any Los Angeles papers of the day) clears up the mystery. The show was called ‘The MGM Movie Club’ and it originated from KHJ, the Don Lee network station in Los Angeles. Don Lee owned KFRC in San Francisco and had four affiliates up the West Coast. On August 10, 1929, United Press reported Don Lee was merging his six stations with CBS as of the following January 1st. The Don Lee stations were carrying some CBS programming, but ‘The M-G-M Movie Club’ wasn’t one of them (at least, the CBS flagship in New York didn’t run it, though it would have been a good candidate for a network show). It was a regular show; the previous week featured Basil Rathbone hosting, with Cliff Edwards, Bob Montgomery and forgotten stars Ethelind Terry, Lawrence Gray, the Three Twins and Catherine Dale Owens.
I don’t know any more about the programme or the broadcast itself, though Marie Wells’ presence is puzzling as she was under contract to Warner Bros.
At the time, Jack was about to open in M-G-M’s ‘The Hollywood Revue’ with just about every star the studio had at the time. No doubt that’s what he was pushing on the broadcast. So I won’t go so far as to say October 9, 1929 was Jack Benny’s first appearance on the radio. But we do know it wasn’t 1932 as legend would have you believe.
This post gives me a chance to talk about Laura Leff’s Labour of Love. Laura has just published Volume 3 of “39 Forever.” The first two volumes feature detailed research on every single episode of Jack Benny’s radio programme, including casts, sketches, “firsts”, songs, appearances of the “Anaheim, Asuza and Cucamonga” gag, screw-ups. Anyone who loves Jack’s radio show should have them. Laura’s now devoted a third volume to Jack’s television series. Almost anything you wanted to know about the show is there. You can read more about it HERE and if you want to find out what else the Fan Club offers, stop by HERE.
By the way, ‘The Hollywood Revue’ of 1929 is memorable in that it brought us that wonderful song “Singin’ in the Rain” long before Gene Kelly’s immortal dance to it in the movie of the same name. You can see briefly Jack at the end of this clip along with one of Hollywood’s greatest ever comic actors, Buster Keaton. And you may recognise a few other soggy faces.