Sunday, 10 November 2013

The President and Jack

Harry Truman’s piano playing became another subject for gentle humour on radio comedy shows while he was president but evidently Truman didn’t mind too much—certainly when it came to Jack Benny. That’s even though Benny chastised him at a National Press Club dinner in 1944, demanding him to keep in tempo while accompanying the comedian during a violin solo. The two played a joint benefit concert in 1958 to raise money to save the Kansas City Philharmonic. The forum on the International Jack Benny Fan Club web site mentions Benny, Jimmy Durante and Melvin Douglas were invited guests at Truman’s birthday party the following year. Jack made an appearance at Truman’s birthday again two years later, as you can see by the United Press International photo to the right. And they got together in 1964 in an aid drive for the Farm Hall of Fame.

Perhaps the most famous connection between the two was the former president’s appearance on the Benny TV show on October 18, 1959. A column in the Milwaukee Sentinel about a month earlier revealed (after the show had been filmed) Benny’s writers came up with the idea but the star was reluctant to ask Truman. Finally, rumours of a Truman appearance started appearing in print, Truman told a reporter he’d never been asked, so Benny finally gave the okay to ask.

The former president’s appearance on the Benny show brought about some publicity from UPI (and, other media outlets) as well. Here’s a piece published October 12, 1959 in the Provo Daily Herald.

Truman Ad Libs For Benny Show

NEW YORK (UPI) "Mr. President ... Mr. Benny ... can we just walk through it once please?" said Jack Benny's director Cy Berns into his headphone in the control room and his voice crackled out over tangle of equipment where the two principles stood.
"Clear the dialogue cards. We will come up on two. Can you fade? We're ready to roll. We have a audio level.
Stage manager, "Tell Mr. Benny and Mr. Truman to just project a little bit more, as if there were 300 people there. I want it for comic effect. Scene three! I want a slap stick for synch. (Whack! went the striped stick in front of the camera). Come up on camera two. Cue them in, please."
And suddenly, Harry S. Truman was on camera, his soft nasal drawl giving Benny the inside word on White House state dinners: "All the old dowagers in Washington try to get in--and some of them do."
It wasn't in the script, and as the former president kept ad-libbing in rehearsal and scene after scene, an observer in the control room said: "Why don't they tear up the script and throw it away?"
The scene was the interior of the Harry S. Truman Library in Independence, Mo. The time was last month during the taping of some 15 minutes of serious-and-spoofing byplay between Truman and Benny. The Truman-escorted Benny tour of the library will be aired on Oct. 16 on the Jack Benny show on CBS-TV.
Although there was a prepared script, Benny had told Truman at the start of the two days of rehearsal and shooting: "Mr. President, you just tell me what this library is for—just what you feel. It'll be much better than anything we can write.
Truman, at 79, showed remarkable stamina on his feet for two days and redoing the scenes time and again with cheerful good humor when Berns looked at the tape and commanded a re-take. When it was all over, the former President looked to the crew: "I can't tell you how nice it's been—now, I've got to go to work."
"Imagine," said Benny, "He's telling US."
At the urging of the Benny staff, Truman sat down and gave them a goodbye solo, banging out a fragment of Mozart on the library grand piano. "That's part of the 16th sonata," he said. "When I was a kid, I used to play it all. So long."

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