Sunday, 1 March 2015

A Star in Spite of Herself

The first regular “character” on the Jack Benny show (not counting announcers, bandleaders and singers) was Mary Livingstone who, as we all know, was played by Jack’s wife. Her first appearance was on July 27, 1932, almost three months after the show debuted. She was not heard the next week but, so goes the story, there was a cry by fans to bring her back, so back she came.

Evidently, the fans wanted to know more about her. For a while, her identity was kept secret, but it soon leaked out that she was Mrs. Jack Benny. Before the Benny show moved from New York City for good in 1936, several newspaper and magazine pieces were written about her. Here’s one from the Long Island Press of June 2, 1935. This may be the earliest indication that Mary really didn’t want to be on the show at all. Still she stuck with it until, finally, she recorded her parts in the final radio season (1954-55) so she didn’t have to face an audience, and had to be coerced into making even a rare appearance on the TV show. It’s too bad because she was very funny and had the perfect delivery for the caustic lines the writers gave her.

She Couldn't Help Being a Radio Star
By Fred Wilson

THE first time she ever saw her future partner, she thought he was terrible and he thought no better of her.
She never wanted to go into the show business.
Her initial effort on the stage was a miserable flop and she firmly resolved that her career as an entertainer was ended before it started.
To this day she refuses to go into the movies, and gets out of theatrical engagements whenever she can.
In spite of herself, she has become one of radio's top-ranking favorites and is in no little measure responsible for her partner-husband achieving and maintaining his position as one of the air’s foremost comedians. We're talking about Mary Livingstone, poetess extraordinary, heckler and Jack Benny's greatest trouble-maker, who shares the spotlight with Jack every Sunday night over NBC.
Mary and Jack are facing the microphone these days in Los Angeles, a significant fact, for it was not so many years ago that they faced each other for the first time in that city under somewhat different circumstances. Love at first sight? To the contrary! For a couple of years after that, whenever they met, they were ready to tear each other's hair out.
IT WAS not long after the war. Jack Benny was playing vaudeville in the Southern California metropolis. He had some friends in town—that is, there was a daughter in the family. Jack had some time off between appearances at the theater and decided to do some courting. Everything would be going smoothly until the youngest of the Livingstone girls, Mary, then aged 12, would come into the room and embarrass her big sister and her beau to tears.
"Why doesn't that fresh kid leave us alone?" Jack pleaded.
“I don't understand what you see in that ham actor,” mischievous Mary replied.
That was bad enough, but the dark-haired girl with the big brown eyes was not finished with the "ham actor" yet. She did not think much of Jack Benny and did not spare him the pain of let him hear about it.
She persuaded her father to give her a week's allowance in advance and with the extra cash she took all her friends to the theater where Jack was playing. Before she bought tickets she gathered them together and made a bargain with them. "If you promise not to laugh at a single one of Jack Benny's jokes, I'll buy you each an ice-cream soda on the way home after the show," she said. The girls were on. They got seats down in front and the laughter and applause during and following Jack's act was conspicuous by its absence.
IT WAS several years before Jack Benny returned to Los Angeles. Mary had been away to school in Vancouver and after completing her education in her native city, she got a job as a buyer for a department store. The fresh kid had developed into an extremely attractive young lady. She still did not think much of her sister's actor-friend. They met at a party.
While Mary's opinion had not changed, Jack's did the minute he saw her. The vaudeville star danced almost every dance with her that evening. The next day he sent her flowers and called up for a date. Mary intended to say "No" but she said "Yes" anyhow. They saw quite a bit of each other during the rest of Jack's stay in town, and at the end of the week, in spite of herself, she found that she liked him.
Jack went back East. Two years later Mary went to visit her sister, who had now gone on the stage. She was playing in Chicago and as luck would have it, so was Jack. They became engaged on a Sunday and decided to get married at the end of the week. That was a tactical error on Jack's part because during the intervening five days he almost lost Mary forever.
It wasn't that she didn't care for him, but she definitely did not care for his profession. And the more she saw of theatrical life during that week in Chicago, the more she hated it. You could never settle down with an actor, she figured. Trouping around all over the country and living out of suitcases was far from her idea of married life. She carried on so much about it that Jack was soon discouraged. She broke off the engagement and Jack only went through the gestures of offering opposition. Mary packed her things and was ready to return to Los Angeles.
At this point a third party entered the affair. It was Jack's father. Mr. Benny had a long talk with "quite contrary" Mary. Next he visited with his son and then returned for another session with Mary. They loved each other, didn't they? They weren't children any more. Well, then, why not be sensible about this thing? Mr. Benny's kindly counsel was taken to heart and Mary and Jack decided to go through with it.
THERE never was such a wedding. Neither bride nor groom said a word on the way to the City Hall to get the license. Jack forgot to get a ring and had to use his mother's. And to top it off, the moment Mary Livingstone became Mrs. Jack Benny, she fell to the floor in a dead faint.
Here she had gone and married the fellow. But even worse, she found herself in the show business. The Bennys' honeymoon was spent in the Blackstone Hotel while the groom finished out his engagement in Chicago. (Early this year, Jack and Mary were in Chicago again and celebrated the eighth anniversary of their honeymoon by taking the same rooms in the same hotel.)
Mary's troubles were really beginning. Her worst fears began to come true. She hated the long rides on the trains, leaving one town in the dead of night and reaching the next one just in time for the show. Marriage meant a home, friendly neighbors, spending the evenings sitting in front of the fireplace reading and chatting. At least, that is what Mary Livingstone expected. Instead, her home was a small hotel room, a different one each week so you couldn't even get used to it and fix it up comfortably. Nice quiet evenings? They were nice and quiet, all right, because she had to spend them by herself while Jack was at the theater.
Wouldn't Jack leave the stage and go into some ordinary business so they could live like other people? Well, that was asking a bit too much. Why couldn't Mary interest herself in his work, come down to the theater and make friends with the people in the show?
MARY started hanging around the theaters. Chorus girls in scanties in front of the footlights are one thing, but backstage and in the dressing rooms they appeared to be positively naked. And how familiar they were with Jack and he seemed to reciprocate their friendliness. What, to anyone who has been with theatrical folks for more than five minutes, is simply the informal good fellowship of the show business, and completely essential to it because it provides the only relief from the tension under which everyone is working, seemed to Mary to be rather unorthodox behavior for a married man. She accused Jack of flirting and swept out of the theater angrily. Mary was a pretty unhappy girl.
Unhappy, but not stupid. When Jack explained to her what it was all about, she was quick to understand. But that did not solve her problem. She was still associated with the show business, and quite frankly, she had had more than enough of it. Jack talked some more. Perhaps if Mary could become definitely interested in his work, she might feel differently. Perhaps if she could learn some of his acts and realize what he was trying to do, and make suggestions, or possibly go on the stage herself some day, she would see things in another light.
Mary was a better trouper than she ever thought she could be. She would brace up and take an interest in her husband's work. She would willingly help him rehearse and if she ever thought of anything which might improve the acts, she would suggest it. But as for actually taking part in a show, well, he might as well forget it. The inevitable had to happen sooner or later, and it did when they were in New York. Jack's regular partner became ill and Mary was the only one who knew the role. Here she was an actress, something she had sworn she would never be. She went on the stage with him and before the act was half-way finished, she knew she was terrible. When the curtain went down, Jack stood in the wings trying to console her. Mary told him he didn't have to do that. She was terrible, she knew it, everyone else knew it, she was through with it and that was that.
JACK had to get another partner, but when they were in Chicago, she left. Mary was drafted, despite what she considered better judgment. She had regained her confidence and everything went well until they were booked into Los Angeles. Jack thought it would make her nervous to play before her family and friends and Mary was only too glad of the excuse to leave the show. Jack again had to get a new partner. But somehow the act did not click as well as it had across the country when Mary was in it. The new girl was released and Mary was persuaded to return. And this time she remained.
She disliked Jack the first time she had seen him, and she married him. She did not want to marry him because she hated the show business, and here she was, part and parcel of it. This was a little more than three years ago. They played their way back East and when he got to New York, Jack got an offer to go on the air.
This was the opportunity Mary had been waiting for. It meant Jack would have to stay in one place and they could take an apartment which would be a real home. For the first time since they were married, Mary was supremely happy. She figured she was through with the theater and they could begin the kind of married life she had always hoped and prayed for.
ONE night Jack's script ran short. He had to fill in for a couple of minutes and an idea flashed through his mind. He waved to George Olsen to start a number, walked over to where Mary was sitting and brought her over to the microphone with him. He signaled to the engineer to fade the music out and started an impromptu bit of dialog with her. They succeeded in ending the broadcast without any "dead air." Within two weeks Jack had received so many requests that Mary be made a regular part of the show that there was nothing to do but get Harry Conn, his writer, to bring her into scripts regularly.
So, in spite of herself, Mary Livingstone became a radio star. However, there were compensations. A radio broadcast once a week is a little different from four or five stage shows a day and Mary was able to have her full share of home life, too—that is, with exceptions. Today Jack Benny and Mary Livingstone constitute an inseparable combination. Jack without Mary is like Amos without Andy. Listeners wait for her poems and wisecracks as eagerly as they do for Jack's "Hello, again" and his gags at the expense of Don Bestor's spats. Mary's "O. K., Toots" has become a national catch-phrase. They even wrote a popular song about it. Mary has succeeded in making a pretty domestic fellow out of Jack, too. They hardly ever go in for night life. If Mary and Jack want to do something they consider very gay, they go to a midnight movie.
EVERYTHING goes along smoothly until Jack's managers make stage engagements for him. The following he has built up over the air puts him in greater demand for personal appearances than ever. But the theater owners insist that Mary be included in the act.
She always rebels at this and does everything possible to get out of appearing before the footlights. They usually work out a compromise. Mary will come along if Jack promises her she only has to play the first part of the week.
She has turned thumbs down absolutely on the movies. Jack is out in Hollywood now making a picture for M-G-M. Mary won't even go anywhere near the lot where the film is being made. They have rented Lita Grey Chaplin's house for the summer and Mary is having the time of her life.
A star in spite of herself, Mary still looks forward to the day when Jack will give up the show business, but she knows he would never be happy out of it. This summer they are planning to take their first real vacation since they have been married. Mary is pretty excited about this, but she is not building too many hopes because Jack does the word "rest" means.

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