Nostalgia tells us World War Two was a fun time in Hollywood. The stars were entertaining “our boys” overseas, with a happy collective camaraderie as they jaunted from place to place around the globe. The exuberance of patriotism to help win that clear-cut fight with the Nazis (never the ‘Germans’) and the Japs (always the people and not their government).
Korea was a lot different. The world was still worn out from the last war. And it was a war that was more ideological than personal. Sure, the entertainers made their trips to brighten the lives of “our boys” but it seems to have been done out of a sense of obligation than anything else.
Jack Benny toured overseas during World War Two. He kept a little diary and while there’s a sense of weariness at times, the entries leave you with the impression he was enjoying himself some of the time. You don’t get that sense from his trip to Korea, certainly not from this United Press column which appeared in newspapers starting September 14, 1951.
Jack Benny Finally Is Feeling His Age
By VIRGINIA MacPHERSON
U. P. Hollywood Correspondent
HOLLYWOOD, (UP) — Jack Benny confessed today he’s about through telling people he’s 39. That last trip to Korea made him feel every day of his 58 years.
“I came home completely worn out,” the comedian said. “And it kinda scared me. That was my fifth trip to the wars—and I think it was my last.”
Feeling 58 came as something of a shock to Benny, who doesn’t think he looks it. (He’s right. He doesn’t.)
“Mentally, you feel the same at 58 as you do at 39,” he said grinning. “But after weeks of slogging through that Korean mud and sleeping only four hours a night I couldn't kid myself any more.
“From here on in I’m gonna have to let the younger kids entertain the troops. There’ve been a few other signs that made me think I’m not 39 any more, but Korea convinced me.”
Benny starts his 20th year in radio day after tomorrow. And all the old gang’s back with him. The only one who gave any trouble was his own wife.
“Mary wants to quit,” he said. “She doesn't like show business and we have a heck of a time signing her up every year.
“She refused to do any television with me. Doesn’t think she’s any good. But, although she does less comedy than anybody on the show, she’s one of the top favorites with the fans.”
So Benny backed her into a corner, shoved a pen in her hand, and made her sign on the dotted line. She still isn’t happy about it, though.
Jack doesn't blame her. He’d like to retire himself.
“I’ve been at this for 40 years,” he said, gazing at the shimmering swimming pool two decades of gags have paid for. “But I know I could never quit show business for good.
“I’d like to semi-retire. Do maybe 13 weeks of radio and six weeks of TV and then play theaters in England and Australia. I could squeeze long vacations in between each of these.
“I’d like to do a Broadway play, too, but I can’t. I’m stuck.”
The only reason Benny’s “stuck” is that he’s too good. He has a big staff that earns fabulous dough helping him be funny every Sunday night. And if he quits now, he said, they’ll have to hunt for new jobs. Some of them after 18 years with him.
“But if there's any quitting,” he said, chuckling, “I want to do it myself. I don’t wanta hang around until they fire me.”
“Our boys” may have had more fun that Jack did. When he arrived for his first show on the front line on July 4, he was greeted with a huge, red-lettered sign that read “Welcome, Fred Allen.” He left California at 2 a.m. on June 27 for a five-week tour, along with Errol Flynn, Benay Venuta and Marjorie Reynolds, stopping at the Travis Air Force base in California and several bases in Hawaii before heading to Korea.
MacPherson’s column touches on two other things. Evidently, it wasn’t commonly known at the time that Mary wanted off the show. Anyone who has listened to the Benny show realises quickly her own assessment of her ability was wrong. But perhaps hanging around Hollywood’s elite all those years gave her a feeling of inferiority.
And while Jack wearied of the show-biz grind, he kept himself interested by doing different things. He had moved from vaudeville to radio to television (with some slight overlapping). Then he did Vegas shows. And then switched his focus altogether by taking part in charity symphony performances. And, had he lived longer, he might have revived his dormant movie career, having been cast in “The Sunshine Boys” (today, six sequels would have been planned before shooting even began). Show business never fired him. And he never quit. He was there until the very end.