Sunday, 26 July 2015
An Unglamorous Night With Jack Benny
Michael Kernan of the Washington Post covered one of Jack’s many concerts. The story is, to me, a sad one. While there’s laughter, there doesn’t appear to be joy. Jack put up with an awful lot of crap. Was it atypical? I suppose we’ll never really know. Jack again (as he did in a number of interviews around this time) practically writes off his radio career. And his manager, Irving Fein, reveals the real reason why Jack toured—he needed the money. It seems improbable, but (to quote Rochester) that’s what the man said, that’s what he said, he said that.
The Post ran the story on July 27, 1969. It was syndicated in other papers afterward.
What else do you get out of life?
By Michael Kernan
INDIANAPOLIS, Ind.—This is Middlesville, Flatland, a true midwestern city with a feeling of prairie and elbow room, where lonesome tall buildings stick up against the horizon like grain elevators, and near downtown on Meridian St. there are two-story Victorian houses with lawns, and where parking costs 25 cents an hour. The event of the year is an automobile race, and the people in the hotel lobbies are slickly urban, but the ones out on the sidewalk have thick ears and heavy faces and friendly, unwondering eyes, and what in the world is a 75-year-old millionaire like Jack Benny doing at an open-air theater for a whole week in a place like this?
For that matter, what possesses him to take on a schedule that will bring him to the Shady Grove, Md., Music Theater for five days, followed by seven days in Warwick, R.I.; a week in Buffalo, N.Y.; a one-night stand in Aspen, Colo., for a charity concert; a week in Honolulu; a three-day home visit to tape a TV program; a quick trip to New York to do a special, and a return engagement in Las Vegas, where he just finished doing 28 shows in two weeks?
The first thing the comedian did in Indianapolis after he had unpacked at Stouffer’s Inn was to go to a party, and after that broke up at 2:30 a.m., he alternately napped and watched the moon walk reruns until 9.
A press conference was set for 10:30 a.m. in an annex to the Penthouse restaurant overlooking the city — from Lincoln Chiropractic College to Monument Circle — beneath a gray sky.
“Hello,” he said, striding in and shaking hands all around. “Hello, hello.” His voice was lower than one remembered. He faced an arc of TV cameramen under strong light and made small talk. Somebody presented a large cake with 25 candles and a silver question mark stuck in it, and he blew them all out in six breaths.
“Make a wish,” someone suggested.
“I wish I could eat it,” he said, adding that he has a slight case of diabetes.
THEN he began a series of comments and retorts, batting ‘em out like fungo flies. That canard about his not being able to ad-lib came from one of his better lines (to Fred Allen: “If I had my writers here, you’d never get away with that) and is simply not true.
Discussing his violins—he owns a $35,000 Stradivarius—he was asked “Is it difficult to play lousy?”
“Not for me it isn’t,” he snapped. “I played when I was a kid but didn’t take it up again until 12 years ago. I started to practice again. And after eight months, I had my first concert at Carnegie Hall, which gives you an idea of what kind of guts I got.”
He dropped two saccharine tablets from a silver pillbox into his coffee and talked about his 24 movies and the radio program, which made him an institution, and the TV specials, and how he switched from “Earl Carroll’s Vanities” at $1,500 a week to the unfamiliar new medium of radio with a spot on Ed Sullivan’s old half-hour sports program.
“I don’t like to look back,” he said. “I never was crazy about radio. Some fans always want to go back, but I’m not interested any more. I’m looking ahead to the next stage show. It’s how I keep young.”
They kept him at it for two hours, and then there were two singles with local TV interviewers. “Do you mind, Jack?” one asked. “This lady came all the way from Fort Wayne to interview you.” Benny: “All the way from Fort Wayne? (pause) That’s the greatest compliment I ever had.” Twice they had to change film reels, but Jack showed no irritation.
He told the cameraman, “Don’t catch me here,” touching his throat. Talking quietly to the woman interviewer, his arm around her, he admitted he would like to cut down by half but not retire. He said, “But if I was selling neckties I think I’d retire.”
Benny’s head writer, Hilliard Marks, was wearing a white bush jacket, light gray slacks and white slippers without socks.
Jack: “What happens now, Hicky, you wanna come with me, see what I should wear.”
Marks: “A tux. Opening night, I think it’s nice.”
Jack: “I think I oughta dress there.”
Marks: “It’s a nice dressing room.”
Jack: “I might as well make-up there.”
It was like one person musing to himself. They walked out, Jack stopping for an autograph at a table of giggling office women. “Well Xerox it,” they said. Heads turned. Conversations died. Jack Benny lives in a world of double-takes.
Driving to rehearsal with Hickey Marks, Jack worked out some new lines on the moon-shot. He would add those, and a few local references, to the basic script, which remains generally the same. Hicky has worked for Jack off and on since 1939, and their exchanges consisted of fragments and tag-lines:
“How about, ‘I got so excited I called Mary and told her to buy a TV set.’ And then, ‘I got tired of watching in front of a store window.’ Chuckles. “No, I got a better one for Bob Hope. “How about something on what the moon looks like? Dean Martin’s liver. Yeah.”
AT THE open-air Starlight Theater they got out and greeted stagehands who glanced up from their hammering and painting and murmured off-hand greetings. The gray sky looked more threatening than ever. “Why, damn it,” said Jack, “they still haven’t got a cover on the stage.” He stalked to the front of the stage and gazed out over the seats. Three years ago he opened there in pouring rain before a packed house of 4,000, and his opening line, as he stood before the mike in raincoat and umbrella, was, “Anybody else in the world would have returned your money.”
After briefly inspecting the dressing room, he returned to the stage and fretted silently, arms folded.
“Why, it’s going to be two hours before we can rehearse,” he said. “You know, you’d think they would have put something over the stage. At least that. A tarpaulin. You could drape something over...”
It turned out that Shani Wallis, the “Oliver” star who was the other part of the show, would not rehearse because she wasn’t feeling well. Furthermore, she would use her own pianist, which would complicate things. As the hammering and sawing went on, Jack strode about with increasing irritation, ordering a standing mike and glancing at the sky. Finally he called Hicky over.
“I’m not going to wait around.” he announced. “It’ll be two hours. The hell with it. I’m going back to the room.”
They had never worked with the house orchestra; there were a lot of new lines; it was opening night. Hicky shrugged.
ON THE way, Jack talked, answering questions easily, but not initiating subjects. Several times he had to have a question repeated. He doesn’t mind the autographs or the gags about money, he insisted, but he stops signing when there are too many. He drinks hardly at all. He doesn’t eat much before show-time but has a big dinner afterward. He doesn’t get jittery, just a little nervous on openers. He smokes cigars, though when one made him cough he threw it away immediately, with apologies to the man who gave it to him.
One question was about his father, Meyer Kubelsky, a Polish immigrant who was a Chicago peddler — a back-pack peddler — before becoming a Waukegan haberdasher, and who bought Jack a $50 violin when the boy was only 6.
“Meyer Kubelsky — what was he like? What do you remember about him?”
But a conversational curtain came down. “Well, you know Jewish fathers,” said Benny. “They all want their kids to be musicians or doctors or lawyers. He died years ago. My mother died very young. She never saw me anywhere, never saw me in concert.”
Silence. A question, repeated. By now he was saying, “Huh?” to every question, abstractedly. “Jack, you’ve got it made, you have plenty of money, you’re 75. Why do you do it? Why do you play the sticks?”
Benny answered, “Why do I do it? It’s fun. What else do you get out of life? It keeps me young.”
IRV FEIN, Benny’s top aide, was asked the “why” question later. His reply was, “He has to. Jack’s got a big nut (theater lingo for overhead), in the hundreds of thousands a year. He has to maintain a staff. He’s been in the 90 per cent tax bracket for years. You can’t work New York all the time. If he could afford it, he’d take a year off and do nothing but charity concerts. Music is his love. He loves it.
“You’re meeting him in the lobby at 7 and the show’s at 8.30. He’ll be early. He’s like a firehouse. Wait’ll you see him come on stage. You think he looks young now.”
At 6:55, Benny was pacing around the suite he shares with Hicky and his son, eating free peanuts (available free at the hotel’s beer-and-oyster tavern). In the adjoining room was a rumpled bed, a silk dressing gown, a pile of magazines, from “Playboy” to “Saturday Review,” the music for Rimsky Korsakov’s “Capriccio Espagnol,” a box of violin rosin and, on the dresser, 12 bottles of pills for colds and sore throat.
“This is not good,” says Hicky said to Jack. “You didn’t eat any lunch. You can’t go all day on breakfast and peanuts. Tomorrow we gotta change this. Tomorrow we do it different.”
Jack pops another peanut. Tilting back his head.
“And the cast party tonight.”
The comedian’s preoccupied air intensifies at the theater as he moves into the dressing room, tunes his Strad with new strings and ripples competently through “The Bee” and a hoedown version of “Sweet Georgia Brown,” scooping outrageously.
Laconic notes written on a file card he before him as he applies the tan pancake. They stand for the order of his routines. The black bowtie which he would have left behind but for Hicky, can’t be made to work, so Jack impatiently jettisons the tux idea and wears a blue suit. He worries if the bald spot at the back of his head is darkened enough.
While Fein checks the house, Jack consults with the conductor, asks for a faster pace. By 8:30 it is still full daylight—Indianapolis had something called double daylight, which advances the clock two hours—and the outdoor theater is nearly full. The rain threat is over.
“One minute,” calls a hand. Jack, Hicky and Irv Fein wait silently together in the wings, heads down, looking separate. Someone says Margaret O’Brien is in the audience.
“Stand by,” murmured the stagehand.
Jack said, “Let’s go.”
WHEN JACK walked off and Shani took over, he let Hicky to talk to him. They agree the audience is too slow, it’s too light for them to concentrate. The Apollo stuff went by too fast, and next time it would be moved along to later in the program.
After the intermission when darkness had fallen at last and the stage lights dominated, Jack pulled the audience along with his regular routines until he could turn the laughs on and off with a glance. At one point he stared, motionless for 90 seconds, as the laughter built steadily, and just as it began to fade he took, off his glasses, wiped them, put them back on and stared some more. The laugh redoubled.
One of his best bits involves Hicky, who comes on as a stagehand and corrects his delivery of a joke. Jack finally reveals Hicky’s identity, adding, “He’s been with me so long because we both have the same type blood.” Later Jack plays the violin (“If it isn’t a Strad, I’m out $110”) and goes into the finish. “It’s really simple to end a show,” he tells the audience. “It’s no trouble at all. You don’t need to end with a big scream. All you do is start your theme song (he begins to play “Love in Bloom”) and — see? (The orchestra joins him.) It’s easy.”
It is delicate, deft and neat and somehow touching, but the Indianapolis audience failed to catch the poignancy and laughed, unmesmerized, and soon after began to bolt.
ABOUT midnight, Jack appeared at the cast party, which one had visualized as an elegant buffet for 30 people or so, but which turned out to be a stampede, a lawn party for 500 with a tent and Japanese lanterns. Nearly everybody else had been there for hours (not having bothered to patronize the show) and was half-plastered. The host, Edward P. Gallagher, 6 feet 6, (“I own seven insurance companies but I made my money digging oil”), introduced Jack to some guests. Benny made the rounds slowly as people, including a few Negro servants, diffidently came up to him.
It was 12:40 a.m. before Jack got something to eat. He sat with his group around a table, and the guests reached in over shoulders to shake his hand Dinner was salad and some kind of bland Midwestern lasagna.
Aside: “Is there anything else to eat but this?”
Told that there wasn’t, Jack lets his plate be filled a second time.
A half hour later he was sitting at another table talking to three pretty girls. He wasn’t saying much, and in fact the girls talked to him more than he talked to them. But they were an audience.