Sunday, 12 October 2014

Jack Benny, 73 Years Ago Today

Jack Benny found comedy in his own show. Some nights, he’d refer to screw-ups on the previous Sunday’s programme. And on others, he’d do a routine that included how the popular press viewed how he was doing.

A good example of the latter is on the show of October 12, 1941. The gang picked through reviews of the season opener a week earlier, 73 years ago today.

Jack: Well, Don, I thought the press was exceptionally nice this year. For instance, PM gave us a lovely notice. In fact, you could almost call it “a rave.”
Mary: [unintelligible over static]
Jack: Yup. PM said our opening programme really was “a humdinger.” Very nice, don’t you think?
Don: Oh, wonderful.

Well, PM did review the season opener. It didn’t use the word “humdinger,” but the article was complementary. It was unbylined and published on Monday, October 6th.

King Benny Rides Again
VENDOR: Hot dogs, hot dogs. . . .
Get your red hot dogs here. . . Hot dog, old timer?
MR. BENNY: Yes. . . . Give me two. . . .
VENDOR: Yes sir. . . . D'ya want the reg'lar, or the king size?
Thus, in his typical topical vein, the nation's favorite mummer of Americana, Jack Benny, returned to his 30,000,000 weekly listeners last night (WEAF 7), with a surfire [sic] skit that might have been entitled Mr. Benny at the Ball Game, or Down In Front.
Except for a characteristic opening-night nervousness, from which Jack genuinely suffers after nearly a quarter century in show business, the Benny show last night was just what the 30,000,000 want: a spate of discomforture for Jack, the penny-pincher; acid comments by Mary Livingston; a few well timed phone calls from Rochester, the oppressed but irrepressible valet; a song, a dance, and a hearty sales approach from 200-pound Don Wilson, the Jello announcer. You might say that Jack Benny, in his 11th radio year, and starting his eighth season for Jello, was in mid-season form.
Some listeners may have noted, however, that last night's Jello program lacked the intimacy that is its hallmark. That was because last night's broadcast came from the full-sized, 800-seat Ritz Theater in Manhattan (it will next week, too). whereas the Benny programs originate ordinarily in a 300 seat NBC studio in Hollywood. There, the studio audience usually finds itself part of the show; in Manhattan. Benny the Phenomenon has to strut the stage.
The reason NBC sets Benny up in a big studio whenever he can be lured to Manhattan is the unprecedented demand for broadcast tickets. This year's requests haven't been counted up yet. but last year. for his broadcast from Manhattan in the spring, there were 50,000 requests tor the Ritz Theater's 800 seats.
Jack is notoriously the most fretful and nervous of all the big-timers, and he was even "nervouser and nervouser" last night. After the last rehearsal, which ended about 6, he paced up and down back as though ducking a hot-foot. He lighted cigars that were already lit; his eyes had a faraway look; he sat down, then got up.
When he finally went on the air, this nervousness continued for a while. He perspired; his hands and his script trembled as though he were an amateur; he lip-read all the others' lines and nodded with the punch lines. After the first 10 minutes of the show, this stopped. The laughs relaxed him. At the sign off, he even said good night to his daughter Joan, out in Hollywood.
Although the standard radio contract runs in multiples of 13 weeks, and the usual radio season is for 39 weeks. Benny this year is doing only 35 broadcasts He can, if he wants, take off two weeks later in the season. He has also eliminated the repeat broadcast for the west coast, thus ending a long-standing radio custom traceable to the differences in east coast and west coast times. Instead of repeating, in person, the Benny program is now rebroadcast by transcription.
Jack, who is paid $18,500 a week (out of which he pays all hands on the program, including the band and maestro Phil Harris), is the only performer in radio who has the foregoing privileges. He won them last year after a long battle with General Foods, makers of Jello.
The fight got so far advanced that when it looked as though lack and Jello wouldn't get together, NBC did an unheard-of thing, they gave Jack, the comic, the option on the NBC-Red (WEAF) 7 p.m. Sunday time segment. This was the first time in radio history that a performer, and not a sponsor, got an option on broadcast time.
What prompted NBC to this unprecedented action was its desire to continue its hold on the 30,000,000 listeners who tune Jack in Sunday nights. Furthermore, Jack still has that same time option; it means he is still the boss. As one General Foods reprepresentative [sic] observed wryly.
"Jack can fire us almost any time he wants to."

As a side note, this show is an example of why doing your own research and not trusting every on-line source is necessary. Various places on the internet insist the October 5th Benny broadcast was done on location at Ebbets’ Field. That’s obviously not the case from the story you’ve just read. And anyone should be able to tell listening to the actual programme. Nowhere on the show does anyone say they’re at a ball park. The acoustics are wrong for it, for one thing. For another, Ebbets’ Field was the site of the World Series; there’s no way the field condition would be risked by placing a full broadcast stage on it. For another, Jack’s script refers to him being in Brooklyn in the past tense. And for yet another, Dennis Day gets booed when he mentions the Dodgers. Dem Bums had such a rabid fan base, surely there would have been cheers in the home of Dodgerville. The show has a sketch set at Ebbets’ Field, nothing more, nothing less.

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