It was evident by 1948, except perhaps to wishful thinkers in radio, that television was here to stay and that the big stars of the old medium would have to make the jump to the new one. RCA made TV sets. RCA owned NBC. How could it avoid putting its best talent under contract onto the tube to help sell video boxes to every home?
Technology didn’t exist, as it did in radio, for live coast-to-coast broadcasts in fall of 1948. Radio was the number one home entertainment medium and very few of radio’s big names even dabbled in TV. Still, the networks expanded their programming schedules from 1947 to ‘48 and radio columns were full of speculation about when Fibber McGee, Fred Allen, Charlie McCarthy and Jack Benny would appear on little black-and-white screens.
Here’s one National Enterprise Association column dated October 12, 1948. It seems the columnist had odds and ends from a couple of interviews, so he used them up in one story by tying them together with television.
Television Fails To Worry Cantor And Jack Benny
By ERSKINE JOHNSON
HbLLYWOOD, Oct. 12—(NEA)—I asked two of your favorite comedians if they are worried about television.
Jack Benny said: “I’ll wait until there’s a big coast-to-coast network. Then there won’t be anything to worry about. Of course, I’ll be on television. After all, I’m only 37.”
Eddie Cantor said: “I’ve been ready for television for the last 35 years. I’m just waiting for it to catch up with me. There’s going to be a big change because of television.
I’m glad I’m around and didn’t die two years ago. It would have been all right to get away from Jessel but not from television.”
Jack and Eddie went to Europe this summer and are back now for the fall radio season. Jack played the Palladium in London to new box-office records, just played in Paris and on the French Riviera. Then he did a GI tour of Germany.
The Army rushed him around so fast, Jack says, “I had breakfast in Frankfurt, lunch in Nuremberg and dysentery in Munich.”
Eddie Cantor arrived, back in Hollywood just in time to be awarded the United Jewish Appeal’s 1948 citation for Distinguished Humanitarian Service for his efforts in “Bringing a new era of hope and reconstruction for the Jews of Europe.”
Sam Goldwyn made the presentation. Sam was Eddie’s boss for seven years. Eddie compares him to Flo Ziegfeld, his boss for 13 years before he came to Hollywood. “Goldwyn,” Eddie said, “is never satisfied with a film scene that is good if only money can make it better.”
Jack Benny was worried as usual. This time he was worried about some straight lines on his radio show. Jokes don’t worry him too much—“We’ve got a million jokes. It’s the straight lines that drive me crazy.”
As Jack explained it, “Anybody can have jokes. It’s the straight lines leading up to the jokes that make a radio program funny.” After 17 consecutive years at the top of the radio heap, Jack should know what he’s talking about.
Cantor was worried, too—about all the adverse publicity Hollywood has had in the last few months. He said:
“There should be a school for movie stars-to-be where they could learn how to act before they learn how to act.”
Benny was still blushing about stepping out of a taxicab in New York and forgetting to pay the driver. The driver yelled back: “So it’s true about you, eh, Buddy?” Benny rushed back and gave him a big tip.
Eddie is conferring again with Warner Brothers about “The Eddie Cantor Story.” “There’s enough for 20 films—we have to pick out the best two hours of 35 years in show business.”
Eddie won't play himself, as you know. The film will be patterned after “The Jolson Story” with a newcomer playing Eddie and Eddie doing the singing.
“But,” said Eddie, “I think it would be nice to let Jolson play my grandfather.”
The only sour note to Benny’s Palladium triumph was the simultaneous opening in London of “The Horn Blows at Midnight.” Despite the way Benny himself has panned the picture, it has made money for Warner Brothers.
Benny’s television career is better-known than Cantor’s. Jack’s TV show was a modified version of his radio show and when it ended in 1965, he modified it for the specials he did until he died. Cantor’s best-known for being one of the hosts on the “Colgate Comedy Hour” starting in 1950. But he almost got on TV the year before until a deal with radio sponsor Pabst fell through. Cantor had a filmed, ZIV-produced series, the “Eddie Cantor Comedy Theatre” in 1955. But Cantor’s poor health (intimated in the Johnson column) took its toll. He wasn’t the energetic, clapping, dancing-around Cantor of 1932 any more. Heart attacks slowed him down and he was in retirement when he died in 1964.