Sunday, 8 May 2016

Blah About Benny

Jack Benny’s radio show had top ratings through much of its life. Poor numbers didn’t take it off the air in 1955; the main reason was the sponsor wanted to put more of its radio money into television.

The show generally got good reviews, though as time wore on some critics griped a bit about the sameness of the shows from year to year. Still, Benny knew what routines the audience wanted and that’s what he gave them. “39”, “the Maxwell” and poor violin playing never wore themselves out like Jack Pearl’s “Wass you dere, Sharlie?” or Joe Penner’s “Wanna buy a duck?” did in the 1930s.

One person who was miffed at the Benny show was PM’s columnist John T. McManus. Well, he wasn’t miffed at the show per se. He was miffed that when Jack Benny brought his touring show to New York City in 1947, it was a warmed-over radio show, not a real vaudeville act. In a way, he had a point, but it doesn’t look like Benny was promising much more than his radio show. It certainly wasn’t as elaborate and electic as his touring company of the mid-‘30s.

The show debuted on May 21, 1947 at the Roxy Theatre. This clipping isn’t dated, but I presume it was from the next day’s edition of PM. McManus saves his praise for Benny’s “rival,” Fred Allen, who was hired to be part of the show. We thank Kathy Fuller Seeley, who scanned this from Allen’s personal scrapbook collection.
Allen Steals Benny’s $40,000-a-Week Show
As carefully planned for Jack Benny’s stageshow opening at the Roxy yesterday morning, his radio rival Fred Allen popped up in the audience and aimed a few amiable ad libs at Mr. Benny, the audience, the press, etc., utterly convulsing even Mr. Benny.
Mr. Benny’s show—including Phil Harris, Rochester, the Sportsmen Quartet from the radio cast and Miss Marjorie Reynolds as an added blonde attraction—is one of those things only a week-in-and-week-out radio fan could really love.
I recognize that no man is an Islande, as the old poem goes, and the virtually no American with his ears in working order can have entirely missed a weekly occurrence such as the Benny program.
Yet for that unhappy (or happy?) man existing the year ‘round in an aural null, should he happen into the Roxy during the next two weeks, the Benny show I feel sure would prove interesting almost entirely because of the rest of the audience’s joyous appreciation of much seemingly inexplicable stuff. Mr. Benny comes on, following the Gae Foster girls and their squires, blows kisses into two microphones on stage, and informs the audience that his last Roxy stage appearance was 12 years ago.
“I was such a big hit,” he says proudly, “that they brought me back!”
That is broadly funny enough, I guess, for an opening line. No so funny, but at least topically alert, was the next crack, about the style in which he is living at the Sherry Netherland.
“I’ve been living so well since I got to town,” he says, “that people think I’m on relief.”
From there on, Mr. Benny mainly saunters on and off while others of his troupe do their stints.
Rochester does a song-and-dance that wouldn’t get within a mile of the stage on its own, and Marjorie Reynolds’ parts is solely to be passed from the arms of Mr. Benny to Mr. Harris in a very painful competition in kissing techniques.
As for Benny himself, his main fascination still seems to lie concealed somewhere in his professed inability to play Love in Bloom on the violin. Allen’s scheduled intrusion came yesterday almost at the conclusion of the Benny troupe’s act. he rose from somewhere down front in the audience during one of Benny’s false starts on the violin and strode up on the stage.
A half-dozen or so photographers clustered in front of the stage. Allen, fedora hat in hand and the inevitable bundle of newspapers under his arm, peered down at them through the glaring footlights.
“What is this, PM?” he inquired. “Who’s watching the office? They’re all here!”
Mr. Allen eventually demanded his 80 cents admission back. The ads promised, he said, that he would die laughing at the Benny show.
“I’m still alive,” he complained. They finally settled for a 12-cent refund of which Benny borrowed back a dime. Then Allen left, after no more than a four-minute visit, to a gust of applause such as I have seldom seen.
Benny’s act closed with the blare of newsreel music blacking out his last, futile efforts to fiddle Love in Bloom.
Just to show you how inflation gets around, the Benny troupe collects a total of $40,000 a week for their act at the Roxy. Repeat, $40,000.
From a radio audience viewpoint, the Benny stage engagement is heaven-sent, since it can accommodate many thousands unable to attend a Benny broadcast. But strictly from the angle of an old vaudeville fan, $40,000 a week is terrific recompense for not being able to fiddle Love in Bloom.
Whether this audio clip is from the show McManus witnessed is anyone’s guess, but take a listen, along with other snippets of the Benny-Allen feud.







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