Sunday, 7 September 2014

Did He Have the Melon?

Jack Benny’s publicist must have had a thing about bathrobes.

I’ve found several different 1960s print interviews arranged with Jack in his hotel room as he seemingly just got out of bed. In each case, the reporter remarks on it in the story. I don’t know how many stars today would tolerate before-noon, in-suite interviews, but Jack did.

This Associated Press column is from November 27, 1966. Its purpose is to plug a TV show. It contains no surprises if you’ve read other newspaper feature stories from the ‘60s. But newspaper readers then didn’t have the luxury of going on-line and digging up a bunch of interviews conducted over several decades so it was probably news to them.

The photo on this post accompanied the column.

Jack Benny, 39 Going on 73, To Needle Beauty Pageants
EDITOR'S NOTE: Jack Benny, nearing 73, is one of the busiest senior citizens in show business. And that's the way he likes it, playing "straight man for the whole world." And if his Thursday night special puts him on top of the Nielsens, that wouldn't make him unhappy.
Associated Press Writer
New York — Jack Benny opened the door of his hotel suite, then quickly retreated into another room and reappeared in dressing gown.
"Forgive me, forgive me," he apologized. "It's this time difference from California."
His manager, Irving Fein, who accompanies him on all professional journeys, appeared from an adjoining room, and everybody sat down to breakfast.
Benny, whose manner and mien belie his year, eyed two glasses of orange juice and one slice of Persian melon.
"Who gets the melon?" he demanded, in that petulant, ready-to-get-my-feeling-hurt voice he has developed over 35 years of radio and television. Then he laughed, and said he'd rather have orange juice anyway.
Benny, in spite of the fact that his official biography states that he was "born 39 years ago in Chicago, will be 73 in February. And, although in semi-retirement from television for two seasons, he manages to be about the busiest senior citizen in show business.
A professional errand of mercy jetted him to New York this time—to be a guest star on CBS Garry Moore Show, part of a desperate, effort to save the show from sagging ratings.
• • •
BENNY had just finished making his annual special, and was also using his time to plug it. A spoof on beauty pageants and loaded with former contest winners, it will be broadcast next Thursday on NBC. Benny is not the funniest man in the world off-camera. In fact, he is a bland, somewhat understated fellow who is rated by his colleagues as the greatest audience for humor in the world.
Steve Allen, in his book "The Funny Men," says that Benny is "to humor what Artur Rubinstein is to music: "A performer of genius." He calls Benny the world's greatest "reactor" to jokes and situations, which usually are on him—"straight man for the whole world."
Over years of show business Benny has honed his professional character: A conceited tightwad of easily punctured dignity. And years of limelight have also developed what is widely believed to be his "real" character—a generous, outgoing and modest man who is an inordinately big tipper and a lavish appreciator of other people's humor.
• • •
IN AN INTERVIEW, Benny will have pleasant words about all his colleagues. He will discuss his recent move from his Beverly Hills home to an apartment close to his favorite golf course. He speaks of enjoying freedom to spend more time in his Palm Springs home — although he has not done so yet—and the pleasures of doing charity concerts all over the country with top orchestras.
Benny practices on his violin at least two hours a day. He's a much better violinist than he appears to be; it takes considerable skill to play delicately off-key. He goes to his office daily. He performs on a lot of stages.
"It is a good life," he says. "I enjoy playing a few weeks a year in Nevada—once I get accustomed to the turnaround in hours. And I like to be able to work on a concert or a show for a few concentrated weeks and then take time off." Over the years, Benny shows have been real innovators. The old radio show and the newest special, however, are built from the same brick and mortar. There will be the "stingy" jokes and several samples of his fantastic timing.
• • •
BENNY'S FIRST radio broadcast was a 1932 Ed Sullivan Show, and his opening lines were:—“This is Jack Benny. There will be a slight pause while every one says, ‘Who cares?’” Today, Benny can produce laughter merely by exploding “cut that out” or just by facing the audience thoughtfully and droning "Hmmmmm." Over 35 years, the audience has come to know the character and is conditioned to laugh.
Benny's timing is peerless. Don Wilson once told a magazine writer that when Benny turns to the audience for his famed long "reaction," other actors are not allowed to continue with their lines. The signal to resume comes when he again faces his fellow performers.
Benny jumped off the Sullivan Show into his own NBC series in 1932 and was one of the network's big stars until the famous "Paley's Raid" of 1949 when CBS wooed away big names like Benny, Bergen and Skelton. He continued the radio show until 1955, but in 1950 started his television series. These continued, in one form or another on CBS until 1964, after which he returned to NBC for one season of specials.
When the weekly show was discontinued for low ratings, Benny was not exactly happy, but obviously he has adjusted to the idea of one special a year, plus as many guest shots as he wants to take on.
"Listen," he confided, in mock exasperation. "I am an awfully easy fella to get along with. I like everything I do and I'm happy with everything I do. I like to work and I like to practice. I even like to walk down Fifth Avenue and have people say hello to me."
And, for his amour-proper, he'd also like it very much if his Jack Benny Hour Thursday landed him on top of the Nielsen ratings.
Oh, yes, and he did, after all, eat the melon.

1 comment:

  1. Jack and Garry Moore were good friends; they appeared back-to-back on CBS' Tuesday night schedule from 1962 through '64, after which both of them left the network [Jack did a final season of weekly shows on NBC, and then concentrated on occasional specials after the fall of 1965- Garry went on a year-long trip around the world on his little schooner]. But even Jack couldn't save Garry's Sunday night CBS variety show that November.....too much competition from NBC's "BONANZA" (and, to an extent, ABC's "SUNDAY NIGHT MOVIE") forced Moore off the air in January 1967. In fact, Jack's first NBC special the previous November had been a "disappointment" with critics and viewers.......and his sponsor, Eastern Airlines, declined to sponsor any further specials. It took Jack more than a year to plan and execute his next special {for American Motors, on December 1st}....which WAS a critical and popular success.