Sunday, 3 April 2016

Dogs, Elephants and Don Wilson

A pair of Dons joined the Jack Benny show on April 6, 1934. Don Bestor replaced Frank Black as the band leader and Don Wilson took over from Alois Havrilla as the announcer. Bestor stayed until 1935. Wilson remained until the show left television in 1965.

Wilson announced on other shows—he appeared with Frank Sinatra at one point—but none with the ratings or the lasting fondness of the Benny show. He topped polls for years as radio’s favourite announcer. Somehow, you just knew he loved that Jell-O he wanted you to try. And in the “sitcom” days of the later ‘40s, his role changed from the kibitzing straight man after the show’s opening to the touting straight-man, urging Jack to hear what vocal and musical concoction for the cigarette sponsor his quartet had come up with this time (musical director Mahlon Merrick was actually responsible).

When Jack went to occasional specials, Don was around for a while, but his presence was more nostalgic than anything else. Bill Baldwin, who had been at the Blue/ABC network during radio’s golden era, served as the announcer, but strictly with a just-the-facts-ma’am script.

Wilson retired to a place familiar to Benny radio listeners—Palm Springs. The resort was featured on a number of Benny, generally around Christmas time in the later years, and it was a spot where Benny and his writers would seclude themselves for several days at a time.

Here’s a pleasant story from the Los Angeles Times syndicate, published in one subscribing paper on April 2, 1975.
Don Wilson Going Strong at 75

Los Angeles Times
PALM SPRINGS, Calif. — The same rotund, jovial announcer of Jack Benny radio and television days for 35 years running is a big name in television in this desert resort.
Don Wilson's Town Talk each afternoon from 5:30 to 6 over KMIR-Palm Springs has been a daily feature since Oct. 26, 1968.
It's a talk show produced by Don's wife, radio and Broadway actress Lois Corbet, featuring celebrities from all walks of life vacationing or living in the Palm Springs area.
Wilson is 75 and looks and acts like 50. The weight on his 6 foot 2 inch frame — “the same as it has been the last 40 years” — is 233 pounds.
“Jack had me built up fat as Andy Devine," said Wilson with a convulsive laugh that turned back the pages of time. "He had everybody believing I weighed at least 300.”
Wilson has guests from time to time who had never appeared on a previous talk show — like Alice Faye.
“I've had many scoops out here in our little valley,” he said.
“It’s strictly a local show reaching a 180,000-population market area. People from Beaumont to Bombay Beach on the eastern shores of the Salton Sea catch KMIR’s signal.”
That’s a slice of desert stretching 100 miles and 30 miles across between the San Jacinto and Santa Rosa mountains to the west and the Little San Bernadino and Chocolate mountains to the East.
Wilson and his wife have been married 25 years. They worked together in radio and on stage for years before they were married.
Mrs. Wilson played many familiar radio roles — Mummy on Fanny Brice's Baby Snooks show; the mother on Date with Judy and the Corliss Archer programs and appeared as a regular on the Alice Faye-Phil Harris shows.
As for Don, his career over the airways began in the days of crystal sets over KFEL in Denver, in 1923.
“I started as a singer,” recalled Wilson.
By 1929 he was head of the announcers department at KFI in Los Angeles. Then he became a sports announcer.
Ted Husing and Don Wilson were the top sports announcers in the country from 1929 to 1933 on coast-to-coast radio.
“I did the play-by-play sportcasting of '31, '32 and '33 Rose Bowl games,” Wilson said.
“In the spring of 1933 I really got lucky. Jack Benny selected me to be his announcer.”
The relationship with Benny continued through 1968, first on radio, later on television.
“Mary was with Jack in the beginning, of course. Frank Parker was his original singer and Don Bestor the bandleader. We recorded the show in New York until 1936 when we moved to Hollywood.”
Dennis Day and Rochester joined the show after Wilson.
When the regular Benny show closed out, Wilson and his wife moved to Palm Springs.
“We had been raising championship poodles and thought of devoting full time to that,” Mrs. Wilson continued.
“But John Conte, a friend from radio days and an announcer as well, owned KMIR here in Palm Springs. He asked Don to join the staff as assistant to the president.”
Wilson agreed and it wasn't long after that his daily Town Talk show was on the air.
Guest performers have included Benny, Fred Waring, Tim Conway, Ginger Rogers, Dinah Shore, Bill Holden and most of the movie and TV colony in Palm Springs. Wilson has interviewed top business and political leaders, famous chefs, authors and opera stars and just plain people from Palm Springs.
“I’ve had about everybody and everything on the show, including horses, cows, dogs and elephants,” said Wilson as ripples of laughter rolled down his face. “We were worried about the elephants. We were scared to death they would trumpet and knock us off the air. Luckily they let out a blast just as the program ended.”
In his office is one of those famous sketches of Benny playing his violin signed: “To Don and Lois. All my love, Jack.”
There's a photo of Wilson with Dwight D. Eisenhower and Lyndon B. Johnson on a Palm Springs golf course.
“Johnson was President then,” explained Wilson. “And Eisenhower had just made a hole in one. Ike was elated over that hole in one.”
Had he ever thought of retiring?
“I'd go stir crazy,” said Wilson.
Sadly, Don did retire the same year he gave this interview. He and Lois left KMIR-TV and spent six months on KPLM-TV doing the same interview show. And that was it. A local newspaper writer in 1978 cryptically put it: “The Wilsons no longer do the television show.”

Donsie didn’t go stir crazy. He and his wife spent their time enjoying cruises and telling stories to fans at old-time radio functions. No doubt he made them laugh just as loudly as Jack Benny made him laugh on a radio show that’s been gone for 60 years.

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