Sunday, 21 June 2015

The Rise of Kenny Baker

At first, Kenny Baker was a shy young man who was grateful that he was given a huge break that practically made him an overnight national success. That’s if the publicity is accurate. But something happened between November 3, 1935 when he made his debut on the Jack Benny radio show and less than four years later when he didn’t show up for the final show of the season. He later declared he left because the character he was given on the show was grating on him and he didn’t want to be typecast. Baker hung around radio for another decade, even landing a starring sitcom, but he basically kissed the pinnacle of his career goodbye when quit Benny.

It would appear there were no hard feelings; perhaps Benny felt that Baker was bettering himself by sticking exclusively as the vocalist on The Texaco Star Theatre (he had worked on that show and Benny’s simultaneously in 1939). Jokes about Kenny Baker made periodic appearances on the Benny show for the next dozen or so years, and Baker returned for the Christmas show in 1946.

Here’s a syndicated feature story published in the Rochester Democrat of December 20, 1936 that gives a nice summary of Baker’s career up to that date.

A Timid Tenor
The Story of a Chap Named Kenny Baker, Who Really Is Very Modest

By Frances Morrin
KENNY BAKER is the Horatio Alger, Jr. of the networks; the answer to the success story writer's prayer. Unknown a year ago, today he is one of the big names in radio. In the year that he been the timid tenor on Jack Benny's hour, he has won his way into the hearts of the radio fans. Stacks of fan mall testify to that. And now he is act for a career in motion pictures with Mervyn LeRoy, Warner Bros.' ace director, as his sponsor.
His story has all the ingredients that go to make up the popular Horatio Alger, Jr., rags-to-riches story formula. Struggling young tenor playing tag with jobs runs away with high school sweetheart whose parents object to son-in-law who sings for a living. Terrific struggle ensues to keep their heads above water financially and then practically overnight comes fame and fortune.
Kenny, however, is inclined to discount his success and put it down to luck, as I discovered when I attempted to pry the story of his life from him one afternoon recently. We had made arrangements to meet at the reception room of the Hollywood NBC studios, and I admit I was curious about this young man whom I had -heard only over the radio.
When he came in in white ducks and a sweater he looked more like a six-foot college football player than a leading light of radioland. And he is not handsome; rather he belongs to the homely-but-cute school with his befreckled nose, generous mouth and shy but friendly manner.
AND definitely he is very modest about his arrival. The details he gives are very sketchy. When 1 asked him to tell me something about himself he said: “Well, I sang around here for several years and then, I won the Texaco Radio Open contest and that led to my engagement with Jack Benny. Now there’s a grand fellow, Jack.”
The first thing you know you’re talking about Jack Benny instead of about Kenny Baker. But by dint of much questioning of the young man himself and members of the Benny cast I finally pieced together his story. Kenny, who was christened Kenneth Lawrence Baker, is the son of Mr. and Mrs. Gordon Baker. He is one of those rare specimens, a native Californian, for he was born in the little town of Monrovia, Calif., a suburb of Los Angeles, 24 years ago.
We skip over the tender years of his life except to say that Mr. and Mrs. Baker had ambitions for their son to be a great violinist. Kenny admits that he wanted to play the violin, but not enough to practice very much.
The Baker family moved to Long Beach and it was while going to the Polytechnic High School there that he first began to take any great interest in singing. After graduation he decided definitely that he would follow a musical career and studied music theory at the Long Beach Junior College. While he was studying he entered the Atwater Kent radio contest but nothing happened.
THE next year, 1933, was an eventful year in Kenny's life. That was the year of the Long Beach earthquake. After the quake he quit school and went back to work. Just what the earthquake had to do with his leaving school and going to work I don’t know, unless it was that he had fallen very much in love with his high school sweetheart, Geraldine Churchill, and promised to show her parents, who objected to a crooner as a son-in-law, that he could make a living.
Or perhaps the earthquake convinced young Baker that life was short at best and that he should set about living in earnest. At any rate, he went to work in a furniture store. There followed a series of jobs including one as a day laborer on the Boulder Dam project.
Finally he managed to get steady work singing in a church in one of the small suburban towns. With a regular income assured Kenny decided to risk matrimony, so he and Geraldine, who had waited patiently for him, eloped. Then, as Kenny puts it, the fight started.
The church job vanished and the youthful Benedict found that there were many more tenors than there were jobs for them. He got a coach, Edward Novis, brother of Donald of radio fame, and worked with his voice, studied and practiced. He sang at night clubs, at churches, filled occasional radio engagements. Anything to keep the wolf from the Baker doorstep. Gradually he began to get local recognition, and finally became a member of the staff quartet on Los Angeles station KFWB.
IT WAS while he was singing there that he decided to enter the Texaco Radio Open contest held in Los Angeles last year. Much to his own amazement, he won it over the other 1,100 contestants.
“Boy, you don’t know how good $100 in cash looked to me. That was the prize and also an engagement to sing with Eddy Duchin’s orchestra at the Cocoanut Grove,” Kenny beamed as he told me this.
“It was while I was singing at the Grove that Mervyn LeRoy, the director, heard me. He came backstage after my act and told me he thought I had moving picture possibilities. I thought at first be was kidding, because I know I’m no Romeo. Then when he offered me a contract I signed it so fast I splattered ink all over the paper.”
Another famous personality caught Kenny’s act at the Grove. Jack Benny heard him, liked him, but did nothing about it. For Benny’s program was all set. He had Mary Livingstone, Johnny Green, Don Wilson, and Michael Bartlett was to take Frank Parker’s spot. But Bartlett failed to click as a radio personality. His voice, which thrilled the motion picture audiences, lost something over the air waves. So Bartlett withdrew from the cast.
Agents for the program called a number of singers for auditions to fill Bartlett’s place. Kenny says he didn’t know it was an audition for the Benny program when he was called or he would have been too scared to sing. And whether Benny asked for him Kenny says he doesn’t know. At any rate, before Kenny had finished his first song, one of Benny’s men tells me, Benny himself stepped from the control and said, “There’s the boy I want.”
CAME the first Sunday and time for rehearsal. (This part of the story was told me by one of the cast.) Jack and his cast were assembled when Kenny walked in. In his usual bashful manner he went over to a corner and sat down by himself. When they started to rehearse their lines, the young tenor was so nervous he fumbled his.
Jack, smart showman that he is, decided to capitalize on Kenny’s real personality, so they wrote his lines to portray him as the timid tenor. And the audience loved it. After Parker’s heckling of Benny for two seasons, the listeners liked a sympathetic character.
So after his first appearance he was signed for the season and proved so popular with radio audiences that he was contracted for the program again this year. This national recognition as a featured artist on Benny’s program has not increased Kenny’s hat size the fraction of an inch. If anything, he errs on the side of modesty, and I told him so.
He shook his head. “I’ve been very lucky,” Kenny says. “I have been fortunate enough to get the breaks and I know it. I haven’t had any pull and I have worked hard, but so have lots of others. So why should I get a swelled head? Look at Jack Benny.
“There is a fellow who has about everything anyone could want and yet he is the grandest guy you’d ever want to meet. Nothing high hat about him. And what a showman. He has a mind that works like lightning and can always turn a mistake into a laugh.
“SOMETIMES in rehearsing, someone will make a mistake and if Jack thinks it will get a laugh we put it in. For instance, when we were rehearsing for our first program this season, Jack’s line to introduce Phil Harris was ‘He’s the tall handsome, romantic type.’ Jack in reading it said ‘romantic tripe’ instead and it proved to be such a laugh we kept it in.”
When Kenny isn’t rehearsing for the show or trying out new songs, he likes to play handball, golf or go fishing. But soon, as he told me this morning over the phone, that will be a thing of the past. For just recently Mervyn LeRoy nought the Clarence Bodington Kelland story, “The Great Crooner,” for Kenny and will star him in it. It is a tailor-made story for the timid tenor of the airlanes, for it concerns a bashful young man who makes a tremendous hit as a radio singer, and was written by the author of “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.”
If tins story does for young Baker what Mr. Deeds did for Gary Cooper, he’ll be able to write his own ticket. But whatever happens, I’m gambling he’ll still be wearing the same size hat.

Baker’s entertainment career pretty much petered out at the same time as network radio did. He had a show on Mutual in the ‘50s and made some religious recordings. But it would seem he had enough money to walk away and spend time with his family and Christian Science endeavours. If he had any regrets, he never made them public.


  1. Baker did "The Mikado" for Universal and "At the Circus" for MGM about the time he walked away from the Benny show. Given the two studios' strengths and weaknesses, he might have been better served, career-wise, if he had done "The Mikado" for MGM and "At the Circus" for Universal.

  2. I first heard of him in the movie "At the Circus" with the Marx Brothers.