Jack Benny wasn’t always Jack Benny. He was born Benny Kubelsky and it’s part of the Benny lore that he went through several names in vaudeville before changing his billing from Ben. K. Benny to Jack Benny. In his autobiographical notes contained in a book written by his daughter Joan, he doesn’t explain the reason for the final change, though it’s generally conceded it was because of legal rumblings from orchestra leader Ben Bernie; the two toured on the same circuit at the time. And there are several explanations about how the name “Jack Benny” was picked; Jack himself stated in the posthumous book it was comedian Benny Rubin’s idea after hearing Jack and his ex-Navy buddies call each other “Jack” at a restaurant in St. Louis.
The myriad of stories don’t pin down the date he switched to the name he would use for the rest of his life. Benny himself only outlined in his autobiographical notes that his act had changed by 1921 and he only used his violin to play himself off the stage at the end. But it was far from the character he developed over the years on his radio show. I’ve only been able to trace him as Ben K. Benny up to May 1920, when he was in Lincoln, Nebraska and Sioux City, Iowa in a show headlined playing the Orpheum circuit and headlined much of the time by the Four Marx Brothers.
The first mention I can find of the billing as “Jack Benny” was in the October 13, 1920 edition New York Clipper, a show business trade paper. He was playing the Western Vaudeville Managers Association circuit at the Windsor in Chicago and the Majestic in Cedar Rapids, Iowa; this circuit also had a theatre (the Crystal) in St. Joseph, Missouri. On January 4, 1921, he was appearing at the Keith in Philadelphia. Jack played in Jersey City and the Prospect Theatre in Brooklyn on the F.F. Proctor Time the week of January 10th, and the following week was on the first half of the bill at the Fifth Avenue Theatre in New York City; the headliner was Eddie Foy and Family. He was reviewed under the “Newcomers” column in Variety of Friday, January 21, 1921 by none other than founder Sime Silverman. Evidently Silverman didn’t realise Benny had played the Orpheum circuit as it was hardly small time (the term “time,” as you can see, originated in vaudeville). Here’s what Silverman had to say:
14 Mins.; One.
Jack Benny has a violin and talk. Mainly talk. He handles himself as though having played small time, though his talk material is new. When Benny said he had stopped smoking as smoking: is now too effeminate, he waited for the expected laugh which was not as hearty as he looked for, so he repeated the gag. Later when nearing the finish and the right exit, he pointed to his name on the card, while playing the violin, and saying, "Jack Benny. That's me. They couldn't get my right name on it."
His talk is along the lines of his girl, who lives in Philadelphia, with an idle brother and a father, who died, Benny said, the same evening he was to take his girl to the theatre. On account of the death of his girl's father, he added, they were late for the performance. The 5th Ave. audience thought that was funnier than the smoking gag, which about sums up the 5th Ave.
In outline of turn, Benny has been a student of Ben Bernie, it seems. He talks much like Bernie, but has none of Bernie's gags. His violin playing is negligible for results. He holds the instrument in the regular way, under the neck, whereas Bernie holds it carelessly, often against his body, which Green of Green and Myra, on the same bill, must have intently observed, as he played his violin along that style.
It wasn't vaudevilly to have two violinists on the same bill and have both of them recall Bernie, although Bernie may not mind it. It certainly did not help Benny. But Benny seems able to helf [sic] himself. He has gags, presence and assurance. His only worry just now may be how he is going to follow Bernie if he can make the big time. The answer seems to be for Benny to throw away his violin while Bernie is using one, and try another method of working in his talk, if he doesn't care to become a monologist, outright.
The Delmar time can handle Benny, also the Orpheum Circuit, and the other bookings in between and below, but while Benny looks good enough to make all the time, he can't make the best as at present framed up.
“One” means he was a solo act, standing in front of the curtain.
Jack took out an ad in the New York Dramatic World of February 26, 1921, announcing he was represented by Thos. J. Pitzpatrick. His career was on its way again, travelling across the U.S. and western Canada. And I hear they loved him in St. Joe.