Word association time: what comes to your mind when I say “Jack Benny” and “impression.”
You probably think about Rich Little. For years, an impression of Benny was in his act. Of course, he wasn’t the only one. As far back as the 1930s, KFWB announcer Jack Lescoulie did an impersonation of Benny; he even did it (uncredited) on a tribute to Jack’s 10th anniversary on radio on NBC on May 11, 1941.
Many other impressionists must have done Benny, considering his fame. But none could have had a more unusual path to the comedian than Bob Blasser.
Blasser was a native of Fred Allen’s home town, Boston. After graduating from high school, he studied at a Catholic seminary, but dropped out to attend Boston State College and then taught English in high school. Teaching didn’t pay a lot, so he did impersonations in commercials and at parties. Then he hit on an idea to get noticed.
It’s related in this syndicated newspaper column of December 3, 1963.
Clever Mimic Wins Benny Spot
By HARVEY PACK
The next call was to Garry Moore. Benny wanted Garry to help perpetrate a joke on their mutual friend, restaurateur Toots Shor. "We'll have dinner at Toots' place, then I'll refuse to pay the check." he suggested. "I've hired an actor, dressed as a policeman, to throw us out."
During the next few days, several of Benny's friends received similar calls. But when George Burns answered the phone and found himself talking to Jack Benny, he was understandably confused. Benny was, at the time, seated in Burns' living room.
That was the first time Bob Blasser failed to convince one of Jack's cronies that he was, indeed, the famous comic. But instead of ending Blasser's hoax, it prolonged the imposture. Blasser, a Boston entertainer with an uncanny gift for mimicking Benny's vocal mannerisms, will appear on his victim's CBS-TV show tonight.
Long Chance Pays Off
"I took a long chance and it paid off," explained Blasser, a sandy-haired young man in his late 20s. "For 10 years, I tried to establish myself as a comedian. I worked in night clubs, summer resorts and local radio and TV stations all over New England. I sent press clippings, pictures, tapes and hundreds of letters to the producers of the top TV variety shows. But the answer was always the same, a polite brush-off. You know the routine, 'Don't call us; we'll call you.'"
Finally, the frustrated comic obtained the phone numbers of some 30 top television personalities—and, one by one, he called them, claiming to be Benny. The reactions were interesting.
"Gleason pal'd me," Blasser recalled. "He said, 'Gee, pal, I wish we had time to tape a spot, pal, but I hate to blow this Florida trip pal.' Perry Como was taken in, too. When I finally broke down and admitted I wasn't Jack Benny, he screamed with laughter. Then he put each member of his staff on the phone to talk to me."
Another comedian who fell for Blasser's adroit impersonation was Red Skelton. When Blasser confessed, he refused to believe it. "Stop putting me on, Jack, and tell me how Mary is," Skelton insisted.
Phoned Jack Benny
Blasser's final phone call, after the George Burns incident, was to Benny himself. "He wasn't there," Blasser noted. "So I left a message for Jack Benny to call Jack Benny, which really baffled his secretary. By that time, Jack knew all about the fake phone calls. He called back and invited me out to Hollywood."
If Blasser's vocal mimicry was good before he went to California, it's even better now. For a week, he was coached by an expert on the subject, Benny himself. "We worked on words like ‘Hmmm’ and ‘Well’ for hours," Blasser said with a smile. "Jack insisted I had his reputation to uphold."
Although Blasser is delighted with the results of his brazen experiment, he doesn't want to be typed permanently as Jack Benny's alter ego. "Mimicry is a sideline with me," the improper Bostonian explained, "My real forte is satire, topical humor mixed with pantomime. The idea behind this hoax was to force people to listen to me. Now that I've got a showcase on the Benny program, I hope I'll get to do other things on the air as well."
As for Benny, he still hasn't recovered from the imposture. "At first, I was surprised by the nerve of the guy," he admitted, "Then, when I actually listened to him, I was shocked. It's an eerie feeling to hear your own voice coming out of another man's mouth."
Only one of Jack's friends, aside from Burns, insists he wasn't fooled by the hoax. That's Benny Rubin, who worked with the comedian in vaudeville, and has appeared sporadically on his show for 30 years. "I knew right away you weren't Jack," Rubin told Blasser, "because the call wasn't collect."
Blasser appeared on the Benny TV show in December 1963. He told syndicated columnist Alan Gill “They wrote me into a routine with Dennis Day, where Dennis is seeking some revenge on Jack. Then I've got three or four minutes at the end, where I do a couple of Red Skelton bits, some Frank Fontaine, Alfred Hitchcock and Liberace.” Blasser told Gill in 1963 he had been trying to break into the national spotlight for ten years. But after he got there, he didn’t seem to want it, or it didn’t seem to want him. He made appearances on several talk shows in the ‘60s and then seems to have disappeared. During part of the time, he was taking post-grad courses at Boston College. Perhaps he achieved his goal, and moved on to something else.