Sunday, 20 October 2013

The Legacy of Jack Benny

These days, you might get the idea the relationship between show folk and the media is little more than a battle between belligerent paparazzi and arrogant stars, with each accusing the other of boorish behaviour. That’s merely the tabloid press perpetuating itself. There’s also a world of press agentry with endless and carefully-controlled hype for their clients sopped up by reporters eager to fill space or air time, even with triviality.

How different it was for one young reporter who set out to interview one of TV’s biggest stars, Jack Benny, in the late ‘60s. The reporter could have easily been blown off and told to get lost; I suspect many a star would do that today. But that isn’t what happened. This column by Bob Greene in the Adirondack Daily Enterprise of December 11, 1995 shows you what kind of man Jack Benny was.

Sometimes, the old way is the best way
There was a network television tribute to Jack Benny that was broadcast last week; maybe you saw it. It was a lovely look at Benny’s life and his talent.
A friend and I were talking about the TV special, and we also were talking about some of the people currently in public life who specialize in outrage and calculatedly crazed behavior (athletes, TV and radio performers, comedians), and the thought occurred that the two subjects — Jack Benny, and the present-day purveyors of outrage — are not entirely unrelated.
Because the reason that people still talk fondly of Benny, still consider him almost a member of their families, is that day after day, year after year, he let the public see that talent and dignity are not mutually exclusive qualities; that if you treat people the way you’d like to be treated yourself, not only will they appreciate it, but they will accept you into their lives not just for a hot season or two, but for the long run.
It’s an idea that seems to be all but outmoded in public life today, where the loudest and the most abrasive get all the attention. You wonder whether a Jack Benny, were he to come along now, would even be given a chance to shine. Where are the headlines in Jack Benny’s demeanor? Where are the news flashes in a career built on taste, and impeccable timing, and respect for one’s audience?
And yet — this is what is being lost today — those are the things that stick. People remember.
I certainly do. I met Jack Benny. Only once. I was 22 years old, a beginning newspaper reporter, and Benny, then 75 and near the end of his remarkable career, was performing in the Empire Room of the Palmer House hotel in Chicago. I had called the hotel’s management to arrange an interview, and had been told to show up one evening at a certain time.
When I did, there seemed to have been a mixup. From the house phone, I called Benny’s room; there was no answer. I rode the elevator upstairs, knocked, on his door. No answer there, either.
I kept knocking, for a minute or more, and finally there was that unforgettable voice: "Come in!" In the middle of the hotel room, sitting at a room-service table eating dinner for one, wearing a blue bathrobe over a white T-shirt, black slippers covering black knee-length socks, was Jack Benny.
"I don’t know anything about any interview," he said, peering through his eyeglasses. "No one told me."
He was one of the biggest stars and greatest talents in the world; I was some kid trying to do well in his first full-time newspaper job. Anything I might write about him, he didn't need; he had been written about for half a century. "I have to go downstairs and be on stage in 15 minutes," he said. "I’ve got to finish eating, I’ve got to shave. I’ve got to put my makeup on. ... Can you come back in the daytime sometime?"
I couldn’t, because that’s when I had to be at the office. The interview with Benny was something I was attempting on my own time. "Oh, come on then," Benny said. "Finish dinner with me and then you can come down and watch the show, and we can come back up and talk some more afterwards if you like. Sit down."
And so my evening with Benny began. He treated me like a young relative; he sat and talked with me in the room, he took me down to the Empire Room with him, he whispered something to the maitre d’ so that I would be given a seat where I could clearly see the stage. He invited me back up afterward, sitting around with me until after midnight, treating someone he’d never met and would never see again with absolute courtesy and graciousness.
"I hope I’ve given you enough for a story," he said when I finally left to go home. Whatever I would write would have no effect on his life, but he understood that doing the story was important to me.
He lived for five more years, and we never spoke again. There must have been thousands of people who passed through his life whose names and faces he inevitably forgot. But watching the television tribute to him last week. I understood the legacy of people like him — the people who do things right, who realize that soft voices echo longer than strident shouts. All this time later; and I’m telling you the story of that night. That’s the legacy — the legacy is that people never forget.

No comments:

Post a Comment