Sunday, 1 April 2012

Jack Benny’s Not an April Fool

Jack Benny was victimised by things out of his control time and time again on his radio show. Events and people seemed to conspire against him, which made for great comedy. And it even happened to him after one of his broadcasts, and in real life.

You’d think it’s pretty common knowledge that you play April Fool’s Day jokes only on April Fool’s Day. But someone got the idea you could play one the day before and everyone would know that’s what you were doing. It didn’t work.

The NBC Red Network had a powerhouse line-up on Sunday nights, starting with Jack Benny, followed by “The Fitch Bandwagon” (with Dick Powell), followed by Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. On the evening of March 31, 1940, the other networks conceded the 7 p.m. half-hour to Benny; NBC Blue and CBS ran war news roundups while Mutual broadcast another in a series of Bach cantatas. So someone thought they could use Benny’s popularity to get some publicity. With an “April Fool!” tossed in.

It resulted in front page news with a bit of irony.

Says Radio Broadcast Was Publicity Stunt
PHILADELPHIA, April 1. (AP)—An announcement that “the world will end at 3 p. m,, E.S.T., Monday, April 1,” purported released by the Franklin Institute’s director of publicity and broadcast over a local radio station (KYW) sent thousands of frightened Philadelphians hurrying to their telephones for additional details last night.
Newspapers, police stations and the city’s information bureau were deluged with calls. The information bureau estimated it handled 4,000 calls itself.
The announcement, read after a radio program (Jack Benny) which featured the name of Orson Welles, of Martian invasion fame, and a discussion of the possible end of the world, said:
“Your worst fears that the world will end are confirmed by astronomers of the Franklin Institute, Philadelphia.
“Scientists predict that the world will end at 3 p. m., E.S.T.,, tomorrow.
“This is no April fool joke. Confirmation can be obtained from Wagner Schlesinger, director of the Fels planetarium of this city.”
Then the radio station checked the story and broadcast an explanation.
It said the announcement was a publicity stunt conceived by William A. A. Castellini, publicity director of the institute, to arouse interest in the opening of a show at the planetarium.
Castellini said later he had told “some of the people” at the radio station about the announcement and “thought they would know it was a stunt.”
Castellini explained Welles and Benny had no knowledge of the stunt. He said he heard the Benny program and thought it a good chance to get some publicity for the planetarium.

The show’s first half involved a phone call to Welles (he was not heard), who Phil Harris blamed on the current sun spots that Jack said had disrupted radio transmissions and could destroy the Earth. But there was no way the P.R. guy for the Franklin Institute could possibly have known in advance that dialogue would be taking place on the live show.

Benny and his writers chose to ignore the whole thing. There was no reference to the stupid scam on the following week’s broadcast.

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