Life imitates art on occasion, and a good example was in Chicago in 1970.
Jack Benny was smitten with the comedy of Frank Fontaine, a night club comic who did a character that eventually became named Crazy Guggenheim on “The Jackie Gleason Show.” In 1950, he built a whole radio show around Fontaine’s talents, which began with Fontaine panhandling a dime from Jack who, in shocking generosity, gave him 50 cents instead.
No doubt Carol Kramer of the Chicago Tribune, writing some 20 years later, didn’t know any of this. But she bookended a newspaper piece on Jack with the same kind of incident that took place in real life. It sounds like Jack was making the rounds to do publicity stories on his coming TV special but, as it always seemed to be the case, interview ending up touching on other topics. The story was published by the Chicago Tribune News Service on November 15, 1970.
I don’t know how much exposure Stephen Leacock got in the U.S., but Jack certainly knew his work. In Canada, his short stories were read in elementary school some 50 years ago.
Jack Benny...he’s really a very generous man.
By Carol Kramer
A hippie walks up to Jack Benny, who’s strolling down Madison Avenue, and says, “Mister, could you give me 50 cents?”
It sounds like a variation of the famous Benny joke about the thief who says to him, “Your money or your life,” and Jack answers, “Let me think about it.”
Surprise!! Jack didn’t think about it for an instant. He just reached into his pocket and gave the kid 50 cents. As he walked away, Jack grinned and said, “He’ll probably spend it on dope—if he can get any for 50 cents.”
There goes that myth, carefully built up in the 76-year-old comedian’s long career. Of course, we all suspected that it was untrue and when you ask Jack what he thinks his biggest virtue is, he pauses for a while, and says, “I think I’m fairly generous.” And if you asked Mary Livingstone, she’d “probably say I’m kind, which includes being generous, I suppose.”
Jack and Mary were in New York recently because he was being honored at a “Salute to Jack Benny” sponsored by the Manhattan School of Music for raising $5 million for symphony orchestras in the last 14 years.
But that’s almost the only trace of vanity you can find in Jack Benny. He’s become an institution during his long career being vain, cheap and 39. He still is 39. I know because as we were strolling down the street after the photo session a couple of women recognized him and asked for autographs. “Are you still 35, Mr. Benny?” one of them asked. “No,” he smiled. “39.” And they giggled.
Tomorrow Jack will celebrate his 20th year in television with an anniversary special. His television career really began on Oct. 28, 1950, and he’d already been on radio for 18 years.
Mary hasn’t been seen professionally for 14 years because stage fright finally got the best of her. But she will be on the anniversary show. Her segment was taped in September and she was given the right of approval. But she liked it, much to the surprise of her husband. “Boy, when Mary likes something, it must be good.” She'll be seen in a sketch with Lucille Ball, who plays her maid.
Other guests will be Bob Hope, who won’t discuss politics [“Being my anniversary, he’s only going to talk about me,” Jack says], Frank Sinatra and Dinah Shore. And it wouldn’t be a Jack Benny show without Eddie Rochester Anderson, Don Wilson, Dennis Day, Mel Blanc and the other regulars. They only get together when Jack does a show. “We like each other,” he says, “but we don't have much in common.”
He’s also not particularly funny. His friend, George Burns, the man he’s been trying to make laugh for years and years, is funny in person. As Jack was having his picture taken, the photographer asked if he could pose sitting on the floor with his legs crossed.
“I don’t think that’s such a difficult trick,” he replied dryly. “I couldn’t stand on my head, tho.” Then he added, “If you asked George Burns that question, he could do 49 minutes on it.”
It’s true that George still does the match bit. Whenever they’re at a party and he sees Jack lighting a cigaret, he shouts, “Quiet everyone, Benny is going to do his match bit.” Jack just smiled to himself thinking of that.
We were walking back to his hotel, a 14-block walk, as people recognized him and shouted “Hello, Mr. Benny.” The hippie was probably the only one who didn’t know it was Jack Benny.
We talked about his favorite comedians. He loves the writings of the Canadian humorist, Stephen Leacock. “I’ve read everything he’s written four times over.” And he’s a Bob and Ray fan. “I’ve always meant to send them a fan letter. I’m sorry I didn’t.”
When I asked Jack if he would like to make a movie again [remember “Buck Benny Rides Again”?] he said, “Who would pay to see me?” further reducing that image of vanity.
He does go to the movies, however. His friends talked about “I Am Curious, Yellow” so much that he finally went to see it because he didn’t believe what they were saying about it.
“It was really boring and the people weren’t even good looking. I don’t know how people can perform like that in front of the cameras. It’s hard enough for me to do it without an audience."
Then we talked about his career. He’s proudest of his ability as an editor of humor. “Writers of humor say I am.” And he’s very critical of his own performances.
“The best thing about my career,” he says, “is that it’s lasted so long.”
And maybe some day he’ll make George Burns laugh.
[Chicago Tribune Press Service]