Sunday, 8 November 2015

Memorials to Jack Benny

If social media and multiple TV news channels existed when Jack Benny died in 1974, they might still be doing stories about him.

Benny was so loved, admired and respected that newspapers didn’t just punch out a wire service obit when cancer claimed him. Many papers had multiple stories, and continued coverage for several days, something highly unusual at the time. They analysed his comedy and his place in the world of show business. There were personal remembrances. And there was mourning, too, in the regular pages, in the editorial section and in the entertainment columns. That’s how big he was.

The San Bernadino County Sun ran two Benny stories on one of its pages in the December 30, 1974 edition (the rest of the page was taken up by movie and lounge act ads). Let’s pass on both of them. Part of the story from the National Enterprise Association was incorporated from the syndicate’s archives and published in 1970. Both are different in focus but both capture something of Jack Benny.

Jack Benny in appreciation

Gannett News Service.
Dammit, Jack Benny's gone.
Benny was our best comedian for four decades. Of all the great stand-up comics who came out of the 1930s, including his good friends Bob Hope and George Burns, Benny endured perhaps better than any of them. The times and the audiences changed, but Benny kept on being funny.
Jack Benny was in a restaurant across from NBC's Burbank studio one October afternoon in 1970. It was a lunch break midway through a day of rehearsing for what was his 20th anniversary television special. Timex, the watch company, was sponsoring the show.
"Frank Sinatra sent me this Timex watch last year and said it has a battery in it and you don't have to do anything to it. It'll run for a year. I can't wait until it quits running because I'm going to send it back to him and tell him to buy the battery."
He paused for just a second.
"No, I'll send him a bill. He'd keep the watch." Benny grinned, completely satisfied with that extra fillip on his story. He plunged ahead with the interview, which wasn't an interview at all. It was Benny finding relaxation in simply talking spontaneously.
"When I play the violin," he said, "it's like I just had a nap. I wish I could get to the point where I just do concerts. Just with symphony orchestras."
Several weeks later, I talked to George Burns about Jack Benny. Burns, who met Benny while dating Gracie Allen, flipped the ashes from his cigar. "I don't know why he does it. He just loves the business."
Another drag on the cigar and Burns was into the story of how he and Benny became friends. Benny had started dating a girl who was rooming with Gracie.
"The first time I met him, actually, was on the phone and we were disconnected. That made him laugh. Up until then, I didn't know I was a comedian."
Burns inevitably gets to the violin.
"He's mad about it. The other things he does are just a sideline. His big therapy is the violin. There's nothing that Heifetz has that Jack doesn't have, but when they play, it's an entirely different matter."
After lunch that October afternoon, Benny stood in the center of Rehearsal Hall 5 absently drawing on the strings of his violin as the cast and crew sauntered back from their break.
"Jack, I have to tell you this," said one of the writers on the show. "At lunch today, somebody asked how old your Stradivarius is. I said, oh, it's about 250 years old. Jack bought it when it was new."
The writer broke up. "Maybe we can use that," he said.
Benny smiled. "I think I've heard that before. Only more subtle." Pretty soon everybody was rehearing again. The old Benny gang from radio had turned out for Benny's 20th anniversary television show. There was announcer Don Wilson, who had been with Benny since 1934; Eddie Rochester Anderson, Benny's man since 1938, and all the others—Benny Reuben [sic], Frank Nelson, Dennis Day, and Mel Blanc. Only Phil Harris was missing.
Wilson hadn't had an opportunity to introduce Benny on television since their weekly TV series had left the air in 1964. It was now six years later.
"Never a phone call," bellowed Wilson. "Not one. I gave that man the best years of my life and he drops me like a hot potato." On the sidelines, Benny smiles broadly, loving it.
"There's no other comedian living who would allow himself to be knocked like this," whispers Reuben. "And it's his idea."
"Even after all these years," Wilson said later, "it's fun. They don't have this type of humor anymore. It's Americana. Just great entertainment. No message. Just good solid fun."
Wilson stood and watched Benny working for a moment. "Isn't it fantastic? A man of his age. He's so young at heart." That year Benny would give two concerts in Israel, be toastmaster at dinners for Johnny Carson and George Jessel, do two weeks in Las Vegas, four days at Lake Tahoe, and play London.
He would also do another television special, but I remember that he sensed that his television days were about over. Not because of his age he was 77 then but because he knew he wasn't invincible in that all-consuming medium. "I could have one of the best half-hours on television and then along comes a piece of junk. Suddenly people say we've seen Benny, let's watch this . . . Why would I want to take a gamble? . . . How am I going to buck the whole country?" He was probably right. And now he's gone.

Despite Other Successes, Benny Was Shrewd Creation of Radio

New York Times News Service
NEW YORK — Although he was successful on television, in nightclubs and even on the stage in "one-man" shows, Jack Benny was perhaps the most enduring and astonishingly shrewd creation of radio. For anyone growing up in the 1930s and 40s, Sunday night at 7 meant Jack Benny and "the gang."
Week after week, the cast regulars went through a series of thoroughly predictable routines. Week after week, listeners at home laughed along with the studio audience. The brilliantly calculated Benny persona, offering magnanimous displays of the hilariously petty, was being fixed securely in the public's affection.
His radio years began in the Depression. Radio was concentrating on entertainment. There were very few regular news formats in those days. Not surprisingly, the center of the entertainment spotlight was held by veterans of vaudeville. In addition to Jack Benny, there were Eddie Cantor, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Al Jolson, Ed Wynn and Phil Baker.
By 1937, Jack Benny had edged out Eddie Cantor for top position in the "Hooperatings." In 1950, a couple of years before the television explosion, he was still No. 1 in the ratings. Meantime, he had used radio to develop a national character of rare longevity.
The vehicle consisted of nothing more than sound and, with the Benny sense of faultless timing, silence. The old Maxwell auto sputtered and coughed. The endless series of locks protecting the cellar bank vault squeaked and clanked. The pay telephone and cigarette machine in the living room noisily consumed coins. The immediately recognizable Benny family was created by a group of performers standing in front of microphones.
The effect was a combination of intimacy and elusiveness, a combination still unique to radio. The disembodied voices became personal friends, perhaps vaguely linked to faces in press photographs. The contexts and settings were constructed in the imaginations of the listener. The very lack of visual literalness expanded the possibilities for radio.
All of that changed, of course, with television. The new medium proved considerably more devouring than the old. Seeing the old Maxwell was not quite as funny as hearing it. Seeing it a second time was not nearly so funny as hearing it for the 100th time. The quality of elusiveness was lost.
The Benny program and other radio formats did have respectable runs on television, but the medium was bestowing its "blockbuster" successes on more "visual" material—Milton Berle's mugging, Sid Caesar's skits, the pandemonium of "Laugh-In." But the blockbusters, too, were eventually devoured. None were as long-lived as the old-time radio favorites.
The Benny persona, however, survived. It did not depend on one-line jokes or energetic physical routines. He could still show up on his own specials or as a guest star getting incredible mileage out of his penny-pinching routines or deadpan silences.
On one of his last television appearances, in an Anne Bancroft special called "Annie and the Hoods," he played a psychiatrist listening to the silly prattle of a patient. He didn't utter one word. He didn't have to. The radio character had become a national institution.


  1. Reruns of The Jack Benny Program are currently broadcast by Antenna TV. Jack will never fade away.

  2. The Jewish Channel (JLTV) also airs "The Jack Benny Program".