Sunday, 30 March 2014

Jack Benny on Stage, 1921

Jack Benny wasn’t always Jack Benny, the 39-year-old cheapskate who had Rochester drive him around in a Maxwell. That character was developed over the years on his half-hour network radio show.

Benny started out on radio in 1932 just like he had been in vaudeville in 1932—as a master of ceremonies. Basically, he was a host who was a stand-up comedian. He had spent his early vaudeville days working with partners in a musical-comedy act before becoming a single and eventually changing his name to Jack Benny around October 1920.

THIS POST has a Variety review of Benny’s act soon after it arrived in New York. Not long after, the New York Clipper, a trade paper, reviewed the act as it played at the Alhambra at 7th Avenue and 126th Street in Harlem. The picture to the right was taken a number of years before Benny played the house. The Clipper story is from February 2, 1921. I’ve snipped out those parts of the review which don’t relate to him. The bill was Margert Taylor (high-wire), Matty Lee Lippard and Dave Dillon (singer and piano), John W. Ransone Co. (play, “Ask Dad”), Benny, Karyl Norman (female impersonator), Long Tack Sam (magician and acrobat), Burns and Fabrito (“Shoes”) and the Gus Edwards Revue. Sadly, the acts besides Benny (and perhaps Edwards) are long forgotten.

Capacity business again on Monday night. This house can boast of an exceptionally good lay-out, in fact it's one of the most entertaining bills in town this week. Clayton and Edwards, programmed, are out of the show, Jack Benny replacing them. Benny appeared in number four spot on Monday night, a stranger to New York audiences, and tied the show up. Variety in the full meaning of the word is represented on this bill.
We don't remember having seen this Jack Benny in the East, and for that matter this Jack Benny evidently was strange to the audience. It is therefore that we give all the more credit to Jack Benny. Some might compare him with Ben Bernie, because he uses a violin and talks, but the use of the violin is as far as the comparison can go. Benny does an entirely different routine of talk, in an entirely different manner than Bernie. He holds his instrument differently and works differently. Benny is that type of male single that is needed in vaudeville. His talk is refreshing. It's original and it's very clever. He talks in the ordinary conversational tones, yet can be heard all over. He plays one or two bits on the violin, but Benny is not primarily a musician, which does not mean that his playing is bad. As an entertainer, Jack Benny can take his place with the best of them.

The Alhambra was a Keith house. Through the ‘20s, Jack appeared on the Keith Time (including the Palace in New York City) on the East Coast and the Orpheum circuit on the West Coast (Keith and Orpheum would add “Radio” to the front of their names to form some familiar initials), playing in all the major cities.

Interestingly, the review of the acts at another theatre on the same page in the Clipper ends with the words “Pictures closed.” Before long, motion pictures would take over the vaudeville houses. Vaudevillians moved into pictures or radio. Jack Benny did both. He thrived in radio and television, the reason we remember him today and not Harry Burns and Frank Fabrito.

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