Sunday, 14 August 2016
Jack Dempsey and Jack Benny
There won’t be much here that will surprise people familiar with the details of Benny’s early life and rise to fame. What may be interesting is the in depth conversation with heavyweight Jack Dempsey, which author Jim Tully indicates was a turning point in Benny’s career. There were a few references to Dempsey on the Benny radio show, specifically to the “long count” fight with Gene Tunney in 1927 (the broadcast of which came out of his radio in 1950 after being stuck inside all those years).
Radio's Number One Man
Close-Up of Jack Benny
Jack Benny, just voted the most popular radio entertainer by the radio editors of America for the second successive year, is one of our most unique personalities. In this intimate sketch Jim Tully, distinguished author, journalist and screen writer, who is a close friend of Benny, gives us cut insight into the career of radio's number one man.
After being voted the most popular person on the air by the radio editors of America, Jack Benny announced that the high honor did not please him, his reason was, “There's no place else to go.”
He is happily married to his able radio helper, Mary Livingston. His wife calls him “Doll”. “To be different, I call her “Doll.”
He is not superstitious, except that "I don't like to sleep more than thirteen in a bed." His diversions are bridge and casino.
He engages an entire new troupe each year for his radio act. Except in unusual circumstances, he rehearses only once. "To rehearse more often takes the spontaneity from the act."
Harry Conn has written all his radio patter for three years. Previously, Benny wrote everything. The strain became too great. "Conn is well named," says Jack.
Sauve and charming, Benny has enormous good breeding. Ten years his close friend, I have observed in him the fine sensibilities of the born gentleman — courage without bluster and tact without deceit. His real name is Kubelsky.
His father was a small merchant; he now is living in retirement at Lake Forest, Illinois. It is about ten miles from Waukegan, where Jack was born. Mayer Kubelsky has a passion for music. When Jack was six, his father bought a violin for him.
“There was never much money in our homes, but we always found enough for violin lessons.”
He was dismissed from high school in the second year. His father was not chagrined. His son would still be a great violinist.
Young Benny took his violin and went to the local theatre in Waukegan, where he was employed — as a doorman.
Jack continued to study the violin, and was eventually rewarded with a promotion — he was placed in charge of the property room. Within a year he was given a position as fiddler in the orchestra.
"My father was pleased. My genius was at last being recognized. He remained a year, augmenting his small salary by playing at dances throughout Lake County. A turn came in his life. He met Arthur Freudenfeld, the manager of a rival theatre.
He took a job with Mr. Freudenfeld, at an increase in salary and the promise of a golden future.
During his third week, four famous brothers played at the theatre. The name was Marx.
After the show, they wanted Jack to accompany them.
"No," returned Jack, "I've got a good job here."
The Marx Brothers went on their chaotic and highly successful way. The theater closed in two more weeks.
Despondent, the young man soon sighed for more worlds in which to be conquered. Finding none, he went to work in his father's haberdashery store. Growing restless, the boy who had been brought up to be a great violinist went on tour through the rural sections of Illinois and Wisconsin, doing a "single". His classical playing fell flat. After several months it remained "just another small-time act." The war, changing so many lives, did not miss the son of Mayer Kubelsky.
The young fiddler enlisted in the navy, and was sent to the Great Lakes naval training station near his home.
An entertainment was held. All the dignitaries, including the officer in charge, Capt. William A. Moffett, attended. Jack volunteered to appear with his violin.
There was another young fellow from Milwaukee at the naval station. His name was Pat O'Brien. In a dilemma, Jack went to the future screen star. "I can't give them classical stuff," Jack admitted to O'Brien.
"You don't have to. Put your violin under your chin, pretend to play—then single out sailors in the audience and kid 'em."
“That's dangerous,” said Jack.
“No, it isn't—it's all in fun.”
Jack went on, put his violin in place, drew the bow with elaborate ceremony—and did not play.
The audience was expectant. He made another pretense—and did not play.
“I was having an argument with Pat O'Brien this morning about the Irish navy.”
In this way Jack went through the entire performance and did not play a single note.
When the entertainment was over, Captain Moffett sent for the young sailor.
"I believe," said the world traveled commandant, "you have found something new—don't play at all—keep pretending—you'll get laughter through the element of surprise."
"I told you," said O'Brien.
The war over, the sailors-for-a-day went their wandering ways on land again.
After several years in the "sticks," Jack at last made the "big time." He appeared second on the bill at the Palace theater, New York, then the mecca of all vaudevillians.
Jack had his first case of stage fright. The same sort of repartee that later was to make a radio nation laugh did not click here. "I died the death," he said.
A dismal week followed. He changed his repartee, played classical music. To no purpose.
He was sent to Scranton, Wilkes-Barre, Altoona. His act was again successful. Again he returned to the Palace at New York. The act died again.
In despair, the young trouper remained, trying vainly to conquer the city. Weeks passed. He was out of work.
At last he was offered booking in Toledo. He did not have railroad fare.
"My father had his own troubles." He went to a man who had been loud in his friendship. Could he borrow $25.00? The man refused. "He saw my act at the Palace," explains Jack, smiling.
Bewildered, his appearance in Toledo 30 hours away, he explained his predicament to another trouper, who was also out of work. "I've forgotten his first name," says Jack. "He was the brother of Eddie Webber."
"I've got $48.00 dollars left. I'll loan you $25.00."
He reached Toledo on time.
He wired the loan to young Webber out of his first week's salary. In two months he received word that Webber had committed suicide. "Out of work and no money." The incident touched Jack. "If he were only alive now," says the famous master of radio wit.
He might not have appeared in New York again for a long time, except—he met the champion of the world, Jack Dempsey.
"Why don't you try New York?" Dempsey asked.
"I did and flopped twice."
"Put her there," said Dempsey—"so did I. It's stage fright—the people are the same there as anywhere else—I found that out—it was me. Go on back and lick 'em."
"I tried that too," said Jack Benny.
"But you didn't lick yourself first," returned the champion.
Benny returned to the Palace. This time he was not the same. The taut, nervous manner had gone. The second week he was moved to fourth on the bill.
"How'd you do it?" I asked.
"I kidded Brooklyn," was the answer.
Always he carried his violin—and did not play.
One afternoon Bert Wheeler hid his violin. "I had to hurry out and borrow another one before I could go on."
The violin act became famous and had many imitators in the vaudeville world.
Now a headliner, he again met the Marx Brothers in Vancouver. They took the young vaudevillian with "the line of patter" to the home of Mary Livingston. They saw something of each other during the week. A desultory correspondence followed, and then stopped.
He later played Los Angeles—for six weeks. He met Miss Livingston again. She was then the competent young buyer for a "style shop."
They were married.
Harry Rapf, M-G-M official, was in the audience during Jack's last week. He was casting for "Hollywood Revue of 1929"—and signed Jack to a long-term contract. He next appeared in "Chasing Rainbows." Then idle for months, at $1500 a week, he became restless.
Getting an offer to appear in Earl Carroll's "Vanities," he asked and obtained his release from M-G-M. He might have gone on for two years at the huge salary, but "I preferred to be busy."
He appeared in New York with "Vanities," and later went on the road. "Then I got the radio bug."
His contract with Carroll had several months to run. Given his release at the cost of many thousands to himself, he returned to New York "to try radio." A long period of idleness followed. He could not "catch on." Advertisers considered his repartee "too smart" for so wide an audience.
A New York columnist, Eddie Sullivan, asked him to appear as "guest artist."
"Many have been given credit for getting me my first break; it belongs to Eddie Sullivan."
They remain friends today, another proof of the age-long friendship between the Irishman and the Jew.
His idea of radio comedy is unique in that he is always "on the spot." He allows any members of his company to "get a laugh" at his expense.
In his current film, "Broadway Melody of 1935," he plays the role of a columnist who is knocked down several times.
"They made a sucker of Jack," was the shrewd Walter Winchell's comment.
Jack Benny's wife is the most exceptional woman in Hollywood. She has no desire to appear in films with him. "My baby and the radio are quite enough," she explains.
When asked if Hollywood was inimical to married life, she smiled, "Not if you're married to Jack Benny."
The Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio officials are preparing Jack Benny to follow in the footsteps of the debonair William Powell.
This seems like a large undertaking. But they know Jack Benny.
The radio and screen star has but one regret. His mother died at the dawn of his success. Father and son talk of her every time they meet.