Sunday, 11 January 2015
A Benny Warm Up
Many newspaper articles described Benny’s broadcast, but here’s one from 1940 that talks about the pre-broadcast. George Tucker was a syndicated columnist based in New York. Benny broadcast from the Big Apple on April 21th, 27th and May 5th. This story was published in the Poughkeepsie Eagle News of May 7th so, presumably, Tucker was in the audience for one of those three shows.
Dennis Day had joined the show in the 1939-40 season. It seems odd on Tucker’s part to assume the audience didn’t know what Rochester looked like as Eddie Anderson had appeared in movies and there was plenty of newspaper publicity revealing his real name.
Man About Manhattan
By GEORGE TUCKER
NEW YORK, — Sometimes Jack Benny’s broadcasts are even funnier to look at than they are to hear. The reason for this is a half hour of unprogrammed foolishness that takes place just before the show goes on the air. This is the conditioning period, during which the principals run up and down the sidelines “warming up” and getting the “feel” of the house. They have to do this for the same reason that a pugilist shadow boxes and flexes his muscles before climbing into a ring. If they didn’t they would go in “cold,” and perhaps off balance.
Benny is a study in well-practiced nonchalance during this period. He strolls about, wisecracking with people in the audience, pausing occasionally to render a “sonata” on his fiddle. Showers of coins fell at his feet when these impromptu renditions were given in New York. Benny calmly pocketed the change and said, “Thanks, pals.”
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There is at all times just the right amount of happy confusion to be observed—Phil Harris arranging or passing out music, Don Wilson seeing that everyone has a script, Dennis Day sitting down and then getting up and crossing the stage to try a more comfortable chair. Rochester, the gravel-voiced guardian of “Carmichael,” remains out of sight. This is smart showmanship, because the audience is wondering where he is and what he looks like. It is a slick build-up for an important character. Finally, when he is called forth to take a bow, the audience fairly screams. Rochester has a good comedy bit for this introduction. He sweeps into view and bows very low, almost to the floor, to Benny, who in turn bows just as solemnly to Rochester. Don Wilson also bows to Rochester, but Rochester snubs him, sweeping off-stage with his head in the rafters. This is good for a tremendous exhibition of feet-stomping by the audience. Frequently, as you listen by the radio, the cast itself appears to be engulfed with laughter at its own miscues or shortcomings. These sessions are not faked. Don Wilson may read a line backward. Jack may muff a gag. Phil Harris may confuse Mary Livingston with Dennis Day. When this happens everyone on stage breaks down. It is a situation conducive to hysterics, and the audience can no more escape the general hilarity than the actors themselves.
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Seeing Dennis Day, the embarrassed young tenor who always says “Yes, please?” when “mister” Benny speaks to him, makes you realize what a mighty big difference just a few breaks and a little time can make. A year or so ago he was singing on a minor local radio station, and absolutely nobody seemed to care. I bet most of you have pictured Dennis as a blond. You’re wrong. He is slight and thin, and black-haired, and not too tall.
Rochester’s amazing popularity focuses attention on that small but growing company of Negro entertainers on the stage, and in radio and the films who are proving their worth and establishing themselves as credits to their professions as well as their race. There are quite a number of them of late. Watch for a boy named Nicodemus in “Louisiana Purchase.” There is Maxine Sullivan, who isn’t new but she is certainly young, and she has been riding high since she first took the low road to Loch Lomond. You could name any number of youngsters like these who are following the trail so carefully blazed by Bill Robinson, Ethel Waters and others who have done more to help their kind than the pronouncements from a thousand pulpits.