Sunday, 19 October 2014

She Got Her Benny Story

Here’s another “What’s Jack Benny really like” newspaper feature, this time from the Long Island Daily Press of March 22, 1936.

There’s no indication of the stage fright that supposedly caused Mary Livingstone to, more or less, quit the show after 20 years. But it may hint at another reason she didn’t want to be on the radio. And Harry Conn, the writer who claimed no one knew who he was, once again gets more ink.

It Pays to Be Big-Hearted
By BETTY GOODWIN

NEXT TIME, Mister Editor, please let this writer have an easy assignment—such as interviewing a sound effect. Or translating a series of broadcasts by Mussolini, Emperor Haile Selassie and the St. Bernard dogs of the Alps. But never again, please, send me out to get Jack Benny to talk seriously about himself. The first thing he said was. “You don't want a story about me. I haven't any Hidden Chapters in My Life. You know as well as I do that you can't write a story without a Hidden Chapter, And looka here, I'll show you what a punk prospect I am. I haven't even a Hitherto Undisclosed Love Affair. Now where are you? What can you write about?”
Only dimly, behind the rolling clouds gray smoke, could I discern the sly smile and silver hair that are Jack's trademarks. The Benny big black cigar, in you hadn't heard, has often been compared to the ever-burning torch under the Arc de Triomphe. Now and then some trouble-maker starts a whispering campaign to the effect that Jack discards his cigar while sleeping and showering, but he is always quick to deny the rumor.
“Now, here's your story,” he went on. “Kenny Baker. There's a kid who's going to amount to something. Why, I want to tell you that Kenny—”
“But Mr. Benny,” I protested, “we'll do a story about Kenny later. What the editor wants is a story about YOU. Here you are back in New York after months and months in Hollywood. We've GOT to have a story. Everybody’s writing and asking!”
“That gives me an idea,” he said, quietly, thoughtfully. “I'll give you something for Screen and Radio Weekly. I'll get Mary to write a poem for you.”
JUST then Harry Conn, who is Benny's script-collaborator, stepped in and saved the day.
“Don't pay any attention to Jack,” he whispered. “Come out here in the control room a minute and I'll give you a story.”
He talked only a couple of minutes before the whole thing fitted together as the works fit into a watch. Jack's talking eternally about the other people in his show; the gay atmosphere of the rehearsal (because a Jack Benny rehearsal has none of the strain, none of the ragging, none of the seriousness that characterize most big-time rehearsals). Everything suddenly seemed quite clear, this story included.
The thing that makes Jack Benny different; the thing that makes you listeners love him, is really the simple old-fashioned trait of generosity. Most theatrical people and comedians particularly are selfish as they can be about the “fat parts” or the “laugh lines” of their show. The star gets the big piece of pie—or else why be a star?
WELL, there was a time (some of this I eventually wormed out of Benny, but most of it came from the people he works with) when Jack was exactly like all the rest. He began in vaudeville and in small circuits. He worked hard, kept busy most of the time—but he is the first to admit that he wasn't too good.
Those were the days when “playing the Palace” in New York was the apex of every vaudevillian's ambition. Finally, after years in the sticks, Jack got his chance at the Palace.
His act consisted of himself and a girl, but he didn't give the girl much. Just a line or two, here and there, to help him out.
When he stepped into the spotlight he almost ignored the girl altogether. This was his big moment. Why share any of the precious limelight? His reasoning was the typical reasoning of show business. “Grab the spot if it's on you or anywhere near you.”
Jack played his hardest to that blase big city audience. He gagged and he fiddled. He smiled, shouted. He gave them the works.
“You kind of keep out of things, for a while,” he tipped off the girl stooge. But it wasn't for long. A week later Jack was back in the sticks, smarting under the knowledge that somehow, unbelievably, he hadn't made good.
There were hundreds of more nights in tank town hotels before Jack won a second chance at the Palace. Even then it wasn't what he really considered a break. He had to share his skit with another guy. Guy by the name of Lou Holtz. And, golly! What ideas that Holtz fellow had! Why, he wanted to mop up the floor with Benny! He turned Benny into a regular stooge. By the time the curtain was rung down Jack hadn't enough dignity left to patch a pinhole. He'd been a goat, he'd been a chump—and he'd been a wow! That was the turning point in his career. From that performance on Benny was big-time. He had learned the secret that has guided his every move in radio: “Never mind being the big shot. It's being the under-dog that pays!”
He spent more time than ever thinking up laugh-lines—and then he gave them away. He gave them to George Olsen and Ethel Shutta, when he made his debut with them 'way back in 1932. He gave them to Mrs. Benny, when he finally persuaded her to join him behind the microphone under the name of Mary Livingston. And speaking of Mary brings up a subject that is a story in itself. She isn't a bit nervous or concerned about rehearsals, so she had plenty of time to talk to me. She said quite frankly that the first few years of her marriage to Jack were not all that she had expected them to be. You see, Mary had been brought up as far as possible from the theatrical world. She thought a husband should go to work at 9 in the morning and come home at 5. She thought he had no business associating with chorus girls, who call everybody “darling” as a matter of course.
She thought—very definitely!—that she had made a mistake when she married an actor fellow who couldn't provide anything in the way of a home except a series of cheap hotel rooms, linked together by tiresome train trips.
Several times when Jack’s girl stooge was ill, Mary filled in behind the footlights, but it wasn't in her really to like the stage. The stage was the Enemy of the Home.
THEN one night, after Jack had turned to radio, he pressed her into service again. The script ran short. There was, in radio parlance, “one minute to fill.” Jack beckoned insistently to Mrs. Benny and together they filled the minute with silly, pointless conversation.
“Now,” said Mary, after the program was off the air, “now I suppose the sponsor's sore. I'll bet I've ruined your career in radio—and just when I was beginning to see where we'd have a real home and stop hopping trains every night.”
As it turned out, nobody was sore, least of all the radio audience. They sent in hundreds of letters asking who the new girl on the show was. “We like her voice,” they wrote. “Let's have more of her.”
THAT, my children, is the story of How Mary Livingston Came to Radio. Jack, having discovered the material advantages as well as the spiritual satisfaction of being big-hearted, gave her an increasingly large part in the broadcasts. Week by week and program by program he built her into a star. Of course, she didn't know what was happening to her. Most of the Benny-made stars haven't known what was happening to them. They speak lines, to oblige Jack. They treat him rather badly, it always seems to them, cracking jokes about him, talking back and acting sassy. And then one day they wake up to find themselves famous, the beneficiaries of the powerful “Benny build-up.”
"If he wants to give lines away, if he wants stooges, why doesn't he go out and hire real actors?" you might very well ask.
The real reason is that Jack likes the non-professional way in which these singers, announcers, maestros, friends and relatives deliver their wisecracks. They're natural. They can get the laughs.
There, Mister Benny! I hope you're satisfied. You were right when you asked us to write the story about your pals. They can tell your story better than you can!

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