Jack Benny’s show started out as a musical-variety one and when it finally went off the air 23 years later in 1955, about the only vestige of variety was Dennis Day’s solo—and Day wasn’t appearing on every show at that point. The enjoyable band numbers were eliminated and even the sketches disappeared for long periods of time as the show evolved into a sitcom about a radio star and his cast. That left only Day’s song to give a short pause in between acts and a break for the writers’ brains.
Day was a real find, having been hired after Kenny Baker deserted the show for $2,000 a week with Texaco (and then, apparently, soon complaining he only got four minutes of air time to sing). He had virtually no radio experience but grew into Baker’s role in the show, and then evolved it into much more because of his gifts for comedy. He eventually parlayed that into his own, and quite lesser, programme “A Day in the Life of Dennis Day” starting in 1947.
Here’s a syndicated newspaper piece from 1943. Robbin Coons worked at one time for the Associated Press; he penned a feature story on Day for the Radio-TV Mirror several years later. Day’s first broadcast with Benny was October 8, 1939. He lasted until April 23, 1944 before being inducted into the U.S. Navy the following day, then returned on March 17, 1946. The final Benny radio show was May 22, 1955 but Day continued with him through the television years.
Dennis Day Won Radio Fame All Because of an Appendectomy
By ROBBIN COONS
HOLLYWOOD, June 4 — Just for a change, I’m turning today to a fellow who isn't the type. His name is Dennis Day, and—he can correct me if I’m wrong—I think he’s an actor by mistake.
That's all right, anyway, because he’s a singer first and an actor only because—well, because he’s a singer. You’ve been hearing him on the air with Jack Benny for four years now, and seeing and hearing him in an occasional movie, like “Powers Girl” or the one he's doing now, “Sleepy Lagoon” with Judy Canova.
He says he has a lot of ham in his make-up, but it doesn’t show. He says that’s why, back in New York when his dad and mother didn’t want him to take up such a flighty business as singing, he decided he’d be a lawyer. He even went to law school, and might have finished if an appendectomy hadn’t broken up his course and turned him back to yodeling.
He says he has the ham. It doesn’t show because he looks, talks and acts so much like a good, clean, family youngster who somehow got mixed up with the show world and, much to his amazement, is part of it.
Dennis Day turned 26 the other day. The reason you keep on hearing him sing, instead of hopping to a bugle call, is his family. He’s one of six children, is sending two of them (already enlisted in naval reserve) through college, and is taking care of his aged and ailing parents. He doesn’t know how much longer his deferment will last—but he does know that, traveling some 25,000 miles about the country with the Benny show, appearing at three or four camp shows a week, and broadcasting from military bases, he has never had any wisecracks tossed at him by service men.
Dennis (real name Dennis McNulty) was introduced on the Benny show as a naive, breathless kid, the butt of many jokes. He still plays that character today, though he is in fact neither breathless nor naive. You might call it naive that he was, at one time, paying out 30 per cent of his earnings to three different agents, but that’s show business, and slicker, older guys than Dennis have found themselves similarly peddled wholesale.
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Dennis started singing when he was a boy, the only one in his family, who had the gift. He sang in the glee club at Manhattan College, but it wasn’t until after appendicitis ended his law studies that he tried seriously to make a living with his songs. When Kenny Baker left Benny, Dennis tried for the spot — and nearly passed out when Benny, in person, came to hear him. Benny gave him a round-trip ticket to California to further auditions, and that was four years ago. He still calls Jack “Mr. Benny.”
If Dennis Day were “the type,” he’d be parading his talents in front of the boss constantly. As it is, only recently Benny heard him tell a dialect joke—dialect having been a quiet specialty of his for years—and that’s why he’s doing it on the air now.