Sunday, 19 July 2015

Burns On Benny (Again)

Cagey, clever and quick, that George Burns. He allowed old age to turn him into a celebrity raconteur with a zillion funny stories that netted him a pretty publishing penny. He told all kinds of tales about Jack Benny in his various books. Like a vaudevillian testing out a new act in Altoona, Burns reeled them out in interviews. The ones that went over best were kept and later found places in his best-selling remembrances.

Here’s an interview that ended up in Family Parade, a weekend newspaper supplement, of November 27, 1960. If you’ve read Burns’ books or seen clips of him on old Johnny Carson shows, some of these tales will be familiar. But they’re always fun to read again.

My Friend Jack Benny
as told to Peer J. Oppenheimer
IT SEEMS LIKE only yesterday that I was sitting in my dressing room in Chicago and received Jack Benny's wire from Milwaukee: "Am arriving at 10 a.m. Meet me at the station."
I promptly wired back: "Glad you're coming to Chicago. What time do you arrive?"
A couple of hours later, Jack's second telegram was delivered. "I'll be there at 10 o'clock."
My second message went out by return wire: "If you don't tell me what time you're coming, I'll see you later at the hotel."
Three hours later, about 35 wires, sent by actor-friends of Jack, arrived simultaneously from all over the United States: "Jack Benny will be in Chicago at 10 o'clock."
I didn't meet him at the station, but I plastered the telegrams all over my dressing room. When Jack came to my room the next morning and wanted to know why I hadn't met the train, I said: "Because I didn't know what time you were coming in."
Jack and I exchanged such crazy—and expensive—communications for years until my Gracie and his Mary—his wife of 34 years—insisted we'd go broke if we didn't stop. So we switched to the telephone.
I would call him from almost anywhere, then hang up in the middle of the conversation. After a while it ceased to be funny, but I continued doing it because if I didn't Jack would think I was angry at him.
When Jack played Milwaukee once, comic Benny Rubin was there in a show and Jack made Rubin a $25 bet that if he phoned me I'd hang up in the middle of the conversation. Rubin took the bet, went to his room, called me, and told me about it. He went back, and Jack phoned me. I talked to him for about half an hour. Finally Jack said: "George, aren't you going to hang up?"
I said: "No, I've got half of Benny Rubin's bet."
A few years ago, Gracie and I played the Palladium in London. Unknown to us, Jack flew all the way to England to surprise us on opening night something of an accomplishment because it isn't easy for anyone as prominent as Jack to sneak into England without reporters and photographers spotting him.
The night before the opening. Val Parnell, managing director of the Palladium, gave a party in our honor. The affair was about half over when Val came over and said there was a phone call for me. When I picked up the receiver, a deep voice with a Cockney accent said a Mr. Benny was calling from Beverly Hills, Calif. A moment later, I heard Jack's voice clearly.
"Hi, George," he started out, "how do you feel? How's Gracie?" And he hung up. I went beck into the living room and told the other guests what a crazy fool Jack was, calling me all the way from Beverly Hills and then hanging up on me. And who was mingling among the guests? Jack—who had made the call from the kitchen!
This little gag of his should prove at least one point about Jack—he's not stingy at all. Flying back and forth for that opening must have cost him several thousand dollars at least.
In fact, he is probably the most generous guy in the world, although you'd never know it from him. He just doesn't talk about it. I don't know of any charity he has ever turned down. He has collected over $2 million for musicians' funds for symphony orchestras in numerous cities and has flown back and forth to New York City six or seven times a year to play charity concerts on the behalf of musicians. This takes about six or seven weeks a year out of his time, and at Jack's salary that's giving up a lot.
THERE ARE many misconceptions about Jack—like the one that he is a hypochondriac who's constantly worried about the state of his health.
This isn't true at all. The idea is probably based on his yearly visits to the Cedars of Lebanon Hospital for a checkup. Actually he spends four days a year at the hospital just to get a rest. Mostly he watches TV.
After his first night at the Cedars, Jack usually sneaks home for dinner and then returns to the hospital. It's expensive to eat at home and watch TV at Cedars of Lebanon for four days.
Talking about eating, if you eat with Jack, he's never happy with what he orders: he always wants what you order. Don't ask me why—he's just that way. If you order the same thing he has ordered, he's heartbroken.
That "other-peoples'-pastures-are-greener" attitude even extends to the houses we live in. That was proved about 25 years ago when I built an Early American-style house for Gracie, our son Ronnie, our now-married daughter Sandra, and myself in Beverly Hills.
When Jack saw our h he said: "Would you like to sleep in my bedroom?"
I said: "No, then you'd want to sleep in mine." He likes what the other fellow orders, no matter what.
Jack hasn't really changed much since I first met him 38 years ago, before I married Gracie. By the way, it was Gracie who introduced us. She used to live with two other girls, one of whom was a friend of Jack.
He was already doing well as a single, making $400 a week. We hit it off as soon as we met. I laughed at him on stage, and he laughed at me off. He was even telling stingy jokes then, and I remember one of his favorites about taking his girl friend out to dinner: he said something funny, and she laughed so hard at it that she dropped her tray.
Other comedians have gotten rid of their old material. Jack is a courageous comedian. When he gets a gag rolling, he keeps it going for years—like gags about his Maxwell and his money vault.
Our families have always been close. His daughter calls me "Uncle George," and my children call him "Uncle Jack." Our wives, Gracie and Mary, are very good friends, too. Mary's a sharp businesswoman, and Jack talks over everything with her and has a high regard for her opinion. Of course, Jack himself has a keen mind for business and is a good judge of people.
UNLIKE MANY close friends, we don't play cards together. The reason? Simply because I don't play gin, and Jack doesn't play bridge, and this is one time he doesn't want to sample my favorite.
We always go to each other's opening night, no matter what part of the country it's in. Jack usually drives his car, and I fly. Jack likes to drive—why, I'll never know. I drove with him about 10 years ago, and he smacked right into a wall. I looked at him and said, "Jack, you still drive better than you play the violin."
For the past 20 years, everything that has happened to Jack has been big, important things. So they ceased to be important, and the little things became important. Recently he was at his lawyer's to sign a contract for probably a million dollars. When he got home, he was very excited he had found out that if you drive down Wilshire Boulevard at 20 mph, you miss every red light!
That's my friend Jack Benny—he misses the lights but hits the walls.

1 comment:

  1. George always had assistance from whatever writers were working for him at the time to fashion these articles [and later, his various books]. I believe Norman Paul and brother Willy were among those who helped him on this one.....