Sunday, 1 February 2015

Jack Benny's Shy New Singer

It was not an enviable task for Kenny Baker.

He was hired as the vocalist on the Jack Benny radio show and made his debut a week after Michael Bartlett walked out to grasp at a movie career. There wasn’t much time for Baker, Benny or writer Harry W. Conn to invent a schtick for him to use on the show when he wasn’t singing. But they came up with a naïve, at times ignorant, character that stuck with Baker—and eventually gnawed at him—until he quit the show after the episode of June 18, 1939.

Baker’s first show was on March 11, 1935. His character was a hit, so much so that the “dumb” aspect of Mary Livingstone’s character was written out—two dummies weren’t needed—and the snarky, sarcastic part was left behind, which made the show even better.

Here’s a Brooklyn Daily Eagle profile of Baker published January 19, 1936.

Out of a Blue Sky
Radiography of Kenny Baker, Benny’s Singing Stooge, on WJZ These Sunday Nights—Baker Is Apology Personified
By Jo Ranson
WE HAVE with us today (ahem, ahem) Kenny Baker, Jack Benny’s shy tenor-stooge and beyond the shadow of any doubt radio’s most timid soul . . . so hurry, hurry, hurry . . . when a featured performer steps on the stage the conductor in the pit usually marks the occasion by calling for a brassy fanfare and crash of the cymbals . . . but when young Kenny walks to the footlights—if they intend to keep the ballyhoo in character with him—they will have nothing noisier than the waving of an ostrich feather fan . . . he is a great big boy—somewhat over six feet tall and built in proportion . . . but the moment someone shoves him in front of a microphone, sticks a script into his hands and tells him to read, he is practically tongue-tied . . . if the microphone were new to him, we would not bring this up . . . but he has been singing for the movies a couple of seasons now . . . however, being a radio actor is something new to him . . . the characterization Benny worked up for him came as the result of an accident . . . just the same it is a “natural” . . . the first day he came to rehearsal, he was late . . . the gang was sitting around going through their initial reading . . . “Pardon me,” he stammered, “am I intruding?” Of course, he wasn’t, Jack assured him, and told him to make himself at home . . . Kenny took a seat in the corner of the studio . . . in a moment the jester introduced him to the cast . . . “What do you do?” cracked Mary Livingstone, instead of the traditional, “How do you do?” . . . “Excuse me, I’m a tenor singer,” countered Baker, in a loud voice that could be heard two feet away . . . Jack saw the humor of the situation, and almost verbatim it went into the first program... most of Benny’s former singing stooges have been wise guys, who knew the answers even before the questions are asked . . . Kenny doesn’t realize that he has the answer . . . he’s apology personified . . . “Gosh, you’ve got a funny face,” Mary told him one Sunday night . . . “Gee, I’m awful sorry, but what can I do about it,” replied Kenny politely . . . “You can stay home, can’t you?” flipped the Seattle poetess . . . “I know. I’ve tried that already,” came back the tenoring Milquetoast... and when hearty laughter greets his remark, he is genuinely surprised . . . Jack Benny is one of the most affable people in show business and the easiest person in the world to talk to . . . but Kenny is so shy he kept calling him “Mr. Benny” until Jack finally took him aside and told him that sort of formality would have to stop . . . one night after the show Johnny Green invited Kenny to join him at one of Hollywood’s bars for a nightcap . . . after giving his order, the music master turned to his guest with “What’s yours, Kenny?”. . . “Oh, a fudge sundae, as usual,” the timid soul said . . . Johnny told Jack the story a few days later and the next Sunday (no pun intended) the comic worked it into his “Barbary Toast” parody . . . Kenny is getting over his shyness slowly under the tutelage of Benny, who seems to be able to make good actors out of all kinds of singers and orchestra leaders . . . he admits he doesn’t have to work on Baker much . . . he is afraid if he gets any better, he’ll be worse, if you see what we mean . . . in other words, his naturally reticent manner is so disarming and comes over the mike so well, that Jack doesn't want to spoil him.. despite his timid-soul voice, Kenny is a pretty determined sort of a young man . . . among his accomplishments, he lists having acquired a wife at the age of 20 and a musical education paid for out of his own earnings . . . both are interesting stories.. Kenny and his wife were high school sweethearts and gave each other their wedding rings as graduation presents . . . after finishing school, Kenny’s father tried to interest him in the furniture business . . . he went out as a salesman and came back with no orders for three months . . . then he decided to work as a day laborer on the Boulder Dam project and saved money to take vocal lessons . . . like most everybody else, he has a secret ambition . . . he wants to be a violinist, but he has kept pretty quiet about it what with that other would-be Heifetz, the world’s foremost interpreter of “Love in Bloom” on the program.

Arguably, Baker’s tenure on the Benny show was the apex of his career. He was already on two shows when he departed and carried on with the “Texaco Star Theatre,” where he felt he’d get better songs, more air time and—most important to him—not have to act like a dummy. A format revision a few years later cost him his job. He had at least two shows of his own (one syndicated on disc by Ziv) but never attained the heights he reached when Jack Benny plucked him out of obscurity. You can read more about Baker’s departure HERE, his daytime variety show HERE and his later reflections HERE.

1 comment:

  1. Baker's post-Benny career traded his dumb, but recognizable personality for a bland one. If he had had the singing charisma of a Crosby or Sinatra, jettisoning a recognizable, albeit contrived, character trait would have been OK, but Baker lacked the presence to carry it out (he probably would have been better served in "At the Circus" if the Marx Brothers had treated him more like their former designated singer, Zeppo, than as the Allen Jenkins stand-in romantic lead he was -- at least that would have allowed him to use a bit of his comedy background from the Benny show).