Sunday, 29 September 2013

The Stub Story

Childhood must have been a pleasant time for Jack Benny. His home town of Waukegan, Illinois was mentioned frequently on his radio show and names of his boyhood chums found their way into scripts, too.

One of the most interesting examples is Stub Wilbur. He’s featured in the second half of Jack’s second-last radio show on May 15, 1955. It’s based on a joke Jack had done before—someone he knew in childhood would show up as a feeble old senior citizen, hardly the contemporary of a 39-year-old. There actually was a Stub Wilbur (the part on radio was played by an actor) and he was interviewed many years later about Jack Benny.

This syndicated column appeared in the Ogdensburg Journal of March 3, 1980. The writer was with the Waukegan News-Sun.

He Took Jack Benny For A Ride
BY VIRGINIA MULLERY

WAUKEGAN, Ill. (NEA)—Jack Benny didn't always ride in a Maxwell chauffeured by Rochester. Everett Wilbur can remember when the car was a Metz Sports Roadster and he was the driver.
"It was an orange two-seater with a 25-gallon tank," Wilbur reminisces. "A speedy little devil. It would go about 70 miles an hour."
Those were the years immediately after World War I, when Benny began hitting the vaudeville circuit with partner Lyman Woods.
Wilbur was a salesman for a local calf-meal company—"the first to cover the state by car," he says.
To save the budding entertainer money, Wilbur let him and Woods ride along from town to town. There were only two bucket seats, though, so one man had to sit on the floor and hang his legs out of the car.
And the gas tank was in the back, so they had to pile the luggage—including Benny's violin—on the fender.
But it beat paying train fare out of the $2.50 a week that was then the going rate for beginning vaudevillians.
After dropping the two men off at the theater, Wilbur made his sales calls, returning in the evening to wait for them backstage.
Did he ever watch a performance?
"No," he says in surprise. "Why pay money to see him?"
He first saw Jack Benny when the future comedian was still Benny Kubelsky. That was when Wilbur got a job clerking in the Kubelsky family store in Waukegan.
Benny was then a teen-ager, three years younger than Wilbur. (Wilbur was born in 1891, Benny in 1894.) But their friendship grew almost from the start.
"He was a swell guy," Wilbur says.
"He was always joking around. A lot of laughs.
"I don't know what he saw in me. I guess I was a good audience."
As young men, they used to hang around together and attend dances in the park. One year they shared a vacation cabin in Michigan.
"I was cook and Benny was the chambermaid," says Wilbur.
So close were the two men that Benny had permission to go into the Wilbur home at any time to borrow his friend’s suits.
Benny was best man at Wilbur's wedding, and they enlisted in the service together during World War I. Benny ended up in the Navy and Wilbur in the Army.
It was Wilbur who introduced Benny to Lyman Woods, a pianist. The two worked up their vaudeville act in the Wilbur home.
"Our house was like a second home to him," Wilbur says. "He called my mother 'Ma Wilbur.' " She often played the piano while Benny fiddled and was his frequent guest of honor, sitting in box seats at Chicago vaudeville shows.
Wilbur recalls that one of Benny's dreams was to get a role in a musical comedy. He laughs now at how successfully those long-ago dreams were realized.
Wilbur never visited Benny in California, but the two kept in touch through the years. The comedian looked up his old friend almost every time he returned to Waukegan.
The last time was in 1968, six years before Benny's death.
The comedian was in town for a program at the Jack Benny Junior High School. At the end of the festivities, city dignitaries were waiting to transport the star to his next destination.
Benny turned away from the limousines and jumped into Wilbur's car.
"I'm going with Stub," he said, using an old boyhood nickname. The rest of the entourage was forced to follow or lose their guest of honor, Wilbur recalls, chuckling.


Fast cars and fast boats appealed to Stub. The Antioch News of June 25, 1908 relates how Stub raced in his car into Waukegan to get an oxygen tank to try to help save a young man who ultimately drowned at Gage’s Lake. Stub placed third in the speed boat race at the 1927 Waukegan Summer Festival. And he worked as an auto mechanic for Johnson Motors in Waukegan after leaving the J.W. Barwell Company.

Everett Dixon Wilbur died in Waukegan in December 1980, not too many weeks before his 90th birthday.

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