Sunday, 5 May 2013

Carnegie Benny

He had a reputation as the cheapest guy in the world, but it’s impossible to say how much Jack Benny helped raise for charity through his numerous violin concerts all over North America.

The calculation was $2,000,000 when he was honoured in a TV special in 1961—and many more years of recitals (Jack would like that word) followed. TV Radio Mirror gave what amounted to a two-page publicity spread for the special, with one page taken up with a photo of Jack in action on stage as a serious musician. The story was as follows:

A fiddle player who's cutting the deficits without cutting the comedy


September 27, CBS telecasts the Carnegie Hall tribute to Jack Benny—complete with such ranking members of the musical elite as Isaac Stern, Van Cliburn, Roberta Peters, the Benny Goodman Sextet, Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra . . . pretty heady company for a performer whose violin has been little more than a prop for a running joke on TV! Actually, the tribute—and the awards given Benny for his symphonic efforts—have not been in recognition of a great musical talent . . . but because Jack has turned his other talents to the practical side of the preservation of good music. In more than a score of benefit concerts—New York to Honolulu, Toronto to New Orleans—he's raised in excess of two million dollars for charity and various orchestra funds.
"It all started with one of my regular television shows," says Jack. "I was supposed to have had a big fight with my sponsor. I went home mad and said, 'I should have stuck with the violin!' Then I fell asleep and had this dream where I was the guest soloist with the Los Angeles Symphony. ... In a situation like this, you cannot play badly to get laughs. The fact is, you surprise your audience by being able to get through Mendelssohn. The humor comes from small, annoying things that happen or through other musicians trying to take the play away from you. ... I hadn't really played the violin for years. So, for a month before this show, I had to practice several hours a day. Let's face it—I'm not thirty-nine anymore and my fingers weren't supple and I had lost the touch."
Meanwhile, in New York, Carnegie Hall was about to be torn down and a committee had been formed to save it. They asked Jack to help raise funds by appearing as guest soloist with the Philharmonic in an act similar to the one on TV. . . . Jack was in Houston attending the convention of the Retarded Children's Society, of which he was honorary president. There, a leading citizen from Oklahoma suggested he break in the concert act with the Oklahoma City Symphony to raise money for the society. The pattern for Jack's concert appearances was first set in Oklahoma City: The comedy involves primarily the concertmaster, assistant concertmaster and cymbalist, and reflects the same type of humor Jack has perfected in radio and TV. He is "the fall guy" trying to live up to an image he has of himself and never quite succeeding.
"The big job in these concerts is preparation," says Irving Fein, president of Jack's production company. "For most of the people we are working with, it is their first experience with this sort of thing. I begin with letters telling them how to sell tickets, what to use for advertising, how to set up committees. After all, they want to make money for their particular cause, and there's no point in having Jack play to a half-empty house. . . . We arrive in town at least a day or two before the concert. We have our first rehearsal with the key men involved, in Jack's suite, so that, when we get on the stage, their parts are perfect and we don't spend the entire symphony's time. This way, we work no more than two hours with the full orchestra. Then it's done. No problems.
"We have been a little concerned that we might run into a conductor who thought comedy was unprofessional and not suitable for the concert stage. Last year, we were worried about George Szell, who has built the Cleveland Orchestra into one of the five greatest of the world. He is a great, dedicated, and demanding conductor. . . . He couldn't have been more charming! He laughed and said to Jack, I want to rehearse this again—you know comedy, I don't.' He is a perfectionist in his field, and recognized that Jack was also a perfectionist in his."
Unfortunately, there's only one Jack Benny—and several hundred symphony orchestras. There are some four hundred requests. Jack would like to do them all but, obviously, this is out of the question. There is one in particular he would like to do. About two years ago, it looked as though he'd be able to play with the Salt Lake City orchestra. But, when he was available, their schedule was inflexible. Ever since, wherever he makes a concert appearance, he receives a telegram: "Hope you are wonderful tonight. Wish you were here!"

The accompanying photo has become tinted with age. Odd for something that is likely only 39 years old.

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