Sunday, 26 April 2015
The Life and Career of Jack Benny
For two Sundays in a row, Chicago Tribune’s TV Times devoted space in weekend TV supplement to analyse and biographise (if that’s a word) the comedian whose career just kept rolling along. We’ll present it on two consecutive weekends as well, unfortunately without the photos that accompanied the articles.
This one was published on December 17, 1960.
THE UNSINKABLE MR. BENNY
by Richard Blakesley
TV Week Editor
JACK BENNY made his first appearance before a nation-wide audience on Ed Sullivan's radio program in 1932. His first words were: "Hello, folks. This is Jack Benny.... There will now be a slight pause for everyone to say, 'Who cares?"'
Apparently a lot of people cared, for he was soon back on the air as the star of his own show.
Now, 28 years later, Benny is still the star of his own show, and in a startling move belying his "39 years." He has programmed his 1960-61 appearances on a weekly basis rather than every other week as was his schedule last season.
In television, where a 39 week contract has been a cradle-to-grave experience for many performers, Benny's move marks him as something of a rebel. Virtually every other comedian in the field—including several considerably less than 39 years of age—has either taken himself off television entirely or reduced appearances to one or two a month or once-in-a-while "specials."
But Benny, now well into his 11th year on TV, isn't afraid the pace will kill him physically or professionally. In addition to his TV show, he is booked for night clubs and concert engagements with such major symphony orchestras as those in Cleveland, Milwaukee, and Indianapolis.
He will, of course, be violin soloist. But he'll not play "Love in Bloom" that made him famous. On these occasions he will tackle such major fiddle fodder as selections from Mendelssohn and Rimsky-Korsakov.
After his almost three decades as an entertainer, audiences still wonder: Is Jack a virtuoso sidetracked into a career as a comedian or a classic comic with a musical side line?
When asked that question recently in Chicago, Benny gave his famous long look and uttered that unfunny word that always evokes audience hysteria: "Well . . . !"
Perhaps Isaac Stern, the violinist, knew the answer when he said: "When Jack walks out in tails in front of 90 musicians, he looks like the greatest of soloists. What a shame he has to play!"
THIS PARADOX of the entertainment world was born Benny Kubelsky on Feb. 14, 1894. His father ran a clothing store in Waukegan, Ill., but Benny was born in Chicago where his mother had been transported for his birth. "The only reason I conceal my age," says Benny, "is that if I told it nobody would believe me."
And he's right, for at 66 he has the appearance of a man much younger. Scarcely out of diapers, he began, at his father's behest, taking violin lessons. While still in grammar school he became the only knickerbockered member of the orchestra at the Barrison theater in Waukegan. During high school he doubled between the school band and the Barrison job, and at 16 he teamed up with Cora Salisbury, the Barrison pianist, as a vaudeville act. When Miss Salisbury left the act, Benny joined Lyman Woods and the team of Benny and Woods became a headliner on the vaudeville circuit.
During World War I Benny was in the navy. His chief job was raising money for navy relief. His routine in the Great Lakes revue was entirely musical. but one night during his performance the lights went out in the auditorium. To keep the crowd from getting restless, Benny and a pianist named Zez Confrey [he later wrote "Kitten on the Keys"] began to talk. The audience roared with laughter.
It was this ad libbing in an emergency which first indicated to Benny that he could be funny. It is ironic that an ad lib started him on his phenomenal career as a comedian because ever since he began broadcasting he has never ad libbed, depending entirely on carefully prepared material.
This dependence on script led Fred Allen to remark: "Benny couldn't ad lib a belch after a Hungarian dinner."
Benny discussed the problem at lunch that day with Benny Rubin, who also was on the Orpheum bill. Several sailors entering the restaurant, remembering Benny from his Great Lakes days, saluted him with the friendly term they use to address each other: "Hi, Jack!"
Rubin was quick to recognize the possibility of the name. "That's it," he exclaimed, "Jack-Jack Benny."
And so it has been ever since.
From vaudeville, Jack Benny progressed to musical comedy for Earl Carroll and the Shuberts. During a Los Angeles engagement of a Shubert musical he met Mary Livingstone, at that time not in show business. They were married in 1927.
After his debut on the Ed Sullivan radio show in 1932, Benny gave up a highly paid role in an Earl Carroll musical to try radio. He gambled on his theory that radio was the future entertainment medium, and from the start [on the Canada Dry program] his concept was to provide a set of characters listeners would come to recognize and look for every week. And from the start he was the lovable boob, the prime example of human frailties and the butt of most of the jokes on the show.
His first vocalist set the pace for the others. Frank Parker was a tenor, and so were Kenny Baker, Larry Stevens, and Dennis Day, and all except Parker were unknown when Benny put them on the air. All became not only legitimate singers but highly skilled comedians developed under Benny's tutelage.
Benny has starred in more than 1,000 radio and TV programs, most all of them based on a single theme—his stinginess. Next week's installment attempts to explain this phenomenon which defies all experts on comedy geriatrics.