When you think of Las Vegas comics, you think of loud, brash guys like Buddy Hackett and Don Rickles or Rat Packers like Joey Bishop. You don’t think of someone like Jack Benny. But Jack played Vegas, and that was only after his wife Mary Livingston convinced him that if a sophisticated humourist like Noel Coward could be a smash in Sin City, so could he.
Syndicated Broadway columnist Earl Wilson caught Benny’s Vegas show in 1958 and couldn’t resist the idea of talking to TV’s best-known cheapskate about being in a city where people willingly throw their money away in hope of landing The Big Jackpot. And he also wrote a bit about Jack’s act, some of which was incorporated into sketches on his TV show. Fans didn’t care if they heard and saw it all before. They wanted to see it live. And that’s why Jack was a Vegas smash.
This column was published in papers beginning July 19, 1958.
Gaming Tables Won't Get Jack Benny's Bucks
By EARL WILSON
LAS VEGAS, July 19 - Jack Benny, on vacation here from television, gave me an exclusive explanation of his secret system of not losing at the dice table. (He doesn't play.)
Actually, he doesn't play much. He'd been sitting in the Flamingo coffee shop with George Burns about 5 p.m. when he yawned and George said, "What are you going to do? Take a nap?"
"I think I might go lose $20, he said.
And so one of the richest men in show business, in shorts and sports shirt, was seen leaning over a hot dice table a few minutes later, risking a few silver dollars—while next to him several nonentities with much lesser fortunes were betting $50 chips.
"I limit myself to $100 a day," Jack told me earlier. "And if the $100 is gone by noon, that's still my limit. If I didn't—being here a whole month—I could get killed."
In his Flamingo night club act—a big sellout—he tells it somewhat differently.
"We all get about the same salary here but I take mine home," he says. "Oh, I may risk a few dollars. But by that time, the house has bought me four cigars and six drinks, and I'm ahead. I may become an alcoholic but never a gambler."
Jack's fascinated by the high-rollers. We discussed a well-known figure who won $1,000,000 in a card game.
"That guy can't sit down to lunch without making a bet—such as how many seeds there are in his slice of watermelon," George Burns said.
"Or whether the waitress will serve you or me first," Jack said, "Those guys know how to gamble. I don't."
Jack's playing it safe, too, by starring here in a cafe show. "I was such a big hit the first time they brought me right back only 11 months later," he says.
JACK WORKS with fellow fiddler Gisele MacKenzie—and has something fresh and novel for cafe crowds: The Jack Benny fan club from Yermo, Nev., a small town near here. The Jack Benny fan club turns out to be, Jack says, "dames all about 80 years old."
Actually, some are only 60.
"I tried to get them to work nude," Jack tells his audience.
When the fan club is invited up on stage, one fan titters "I haven't been so excited since I danced with President Buchanan."
They invite Jack to the convention of the Jack Benny fan clubs which, they say, is to be held in Minnesota.
"Why Minnesota?" asks Jack.
"Well we've tried other places,” one of the "girls" says, "but we seem to do better the nearer we are to the Mayo Clinic."
Jack also tells his audiences that he conducted a poll to find out whether people preferred his TV show live or on film.
"I was surprised," he says, "by how many didn't like me at all."
The truth is that Jack's looking forward to another big year on TV. "There's no way of changing my format because I have no format," he said.
He felt one of his best shows last year was his takeoff on Jackie Gleason and "The Honeymooners."
"I'd like to repeat that in New York!" he said. "And get Gleason to come on at the end. I'll have tell Gleason to stay fat so I can do it."
"Jackie's slim again," I said.
"That would be better!" he decided. He thought Audrey Meadows was great on that show.
If they want an exciting new star on Broadway, they should get Audrey Meadows," he said. I think she's sensational."
JACK'S WIFE Mary came over at this point to say she'd been on the phone all day. "Do you know what all those calls were for?" she said. "Reservations, what can I do about them, Jack?"
“You can't do a damn thing," Jack said. The room where he performs has a sign over it saying, "Jack Benny's Vault." The lettering is in pennies. The club even removed chairs from Jack's dressing room so more customers could be accommodated.
Jack asked me how I liked "The Music Man" and I told him about a man in it who drops a valise with a loud crash. When asked what he does, he says, "I'm an anvil salesman."
"Isn't that an old vaudeville bit?" I asked Jack and George Burns.
"I never saw it," both said.
"But I think it's very funny,” Jack said. "If it were given to me, I'd do it."
George Burns sucked his cigar. "I'm going to do it!" he announced. "Not only that, I'm going to wire them and tell them to take it out of the show because I originated it and it's mine."
Jack laughed for two minutes.
That's why they say he's the world's best audience and one of show business' nicest people.
Just a note about Jack Benny, Jackie Gleason and the publicity photo above. Shortly before the Benny TV show finished its long run, Jack did a parody of the Gleason show, featuring a sketch with Benny as Gleason as Joe the Bartender and Dennis Day as Frank Fontaine as Crazy Guggenheim. Benny was responsible for giving a huge boost to Fontaine’s career in the radio days. Fontaine developed the Crazy character, known as John L.C. Sivoney at the time, in his nightclub act. Benny got him to do it on several broadcasts and was barely able to control his laughter over Fontaine’s routine. So it was that Benny worked with the real Fontaine and a fake one.