Sunday, 28 August 2016

The Comedian and the Agent

Stars don’t have lives like you and me. They’re little corporations. They have all kinds of people working for them in a professional capacity—agents, business managers, personal secretaries, public relations types.

Jack Benny had a number of agents. I haven’t really looked to see who handled what, but for many years he not only employed his brother-in-law by marriage, Myrt Blum, he was represented by Arthur Lyons. The pair-up began in the vaudeville days and continued toward the end of the 1940s when Jack approached MCA to set up a corporate tax deal just as it had done with Amos ‘n’ Andy. MCA agreed, provided Lyons was out of the picture. Lyons was bought out. When he died of a heart attack in 1963, Lyons was lauded in Variety as a product of another time, leaving the impression he was an earthy guy a few steps removed from the Garment District, as opposed to the fast-talking, insincere hype-ster of Madison Avenue.

Radio Guide devoted a great deal of space in its edition of December 19, 1936 to Arthur Lyons, Benny and their relationship. Here it is, including the pictures that accompanied the story.


GETTING Jack Benny to talk about himself is easy. Easy, like roller-skating up Mount Everest in a roaring blizzard. The man to talk to about Jack Benny is Arthur Lyons, his personal representative. He knows more about the humor king that Jack (born Benjamin Kubelsky) does himself.
A chat with Jack is pleasant, but sterile. He is so modest that it's devastating. Ask him about his success and he grins, rolls the ever-present cigar in his mouth, and murmurs something about it being "a long, hard grind." He has definite ideas about the kind of radio humor he purveys—it must be "high class and low down," he says—but he'd rather tell you what a truly superlative artist Georgie Jessel is. "Much better than I am at impromptu speeches," Benny says. And he means it!
Sure, it's fun to talk to a celebrity who is self-effacing, unspoiled by success, but if you want to get a peek at the real Jack Benny, the man who has been wowing the airwaves for plus three years now on his exuberant dessert program, who has a corner on the gentle business of toppling personal appearance records, whose stage and screen work brings whoops of joy, then you want to see Arthur Lyons.
Short, sturdy, compact Arthur Lyons is not Jack Benny's agent. Get that straight at the outset. He's something more than a mere "agent" or "manager." Lyons is a "personal representative." He explains carefully that he is not out for grabbing money for his clients (he has something like two hundred top-notch artists in all the artistic fields). He is building lasting careers for them. He'd just as soon turn down $22,500 a week for Benny as not. In fact, he has. A sponsor offered that much for Funmaker Benny's services. Jack didn't care that it was turned down. His honest opinion is that no man, artist or otherwise, is worth that much money a week. That gives you an idea of them.
EIGHTEEN years ago Benny was doing a "dumb" act. In show business, it's a vaudeville turn that has no talking. Jack, a skilled violinist, had been teamed with a fellow named Woods. Benny and Woods. He was then doing a solo skit. As for statistics, we don't need to tell you that Jack is a Waukegan, Illinois, boy who has made good. History tells, too, that Jack's poppa was a haberdasher; first name Mayer. His mother's name is Emma. He has a sister, married, living in Lake Forest, Illinois.
Jack had a friend named Phil Baker. Yes, the same. They were pals, playing the same circuit, but never the same bill. Know why? Phil played an accordion, then as now. Jack, with his violin, was a rival act. Vaudeville bookers never put two "dumb" acts on the same bill. In those distant days, when war clouds were coloring the eastern horizon, they were "curtain ringer-uppers." If either one ever played "No. 2" on a bill, he thought he was a big-shot. Professional rivalry there was between the two young fellows, but never personal rivalry—they were the best of friends.
ARTHUR LYONS, at that time, was trying to re-enter the show business. He had been out of it for several years, dabbling with the drug business (junior drug clerk) for Druggist Louis Schenk. Louis was Joe and Nick Schenk's brother. Lyons had been a part of show business for a few years (he had acted and produced) and it was in his blood. He had run away from his birthplace in Minsk, Russia, and gone to the Orient. In Pekin he got his first sample of theatrical life, and liked it. It wasn't much of a job, but it was show business. In the international colony's theater in Pekin, where so many foreign tongues are spoken, it was necessary for a boy to parade across the stage carrying an announcement in various languages of the next number. He was that boy.
Saving enough money, Lyons travelled steerage to New York from the Orient. It took him two or more months to make the trip. But he didn't mind. He had plenty of time before he joined up with show business in Manhattan. He was then ten years old! He was eight when he ran away from Minsk. He was seventeen when he first met Jack Benny. Lyons is now thirty-five, and a success. One year he and his firm, Lyons, McCormick and S. Lyons, Arthur's brother, did six million dollars worth of "actor business," as he calls it, netting six hundred thousand dollars for his organization.
He has been president and chairman of the Council of the International Theatrical Artists' Association; president of the Agents' Association of Actors' Equity; always an important figure in the advancement of his profession. If Benny, his old pal, is today an important figure, so is Arthur Lyons, although not as much spotlighted. Their success has been shared through the years. As one climbed, the other climbed with him. Their careers are so closely bound together that it is hard to tell where the guiding talents of Lyons stop and the artistic talents of Benny begin. Their abilities are perfectly fused. One complements the other.
OF COURSE, if Jack didn't have the superlative talent that he has, if he didn't know timing, voice inflection, all the things that make the master humorist, Lyons would have nothing to exploit. But if Jack did not have the omniscient Lyons to "groom" him, to guide his professional destinies, counsel him, chances are that he might still be making the $1800 a year that he was making when Lyons met him. Today, Jack is in the upper brackets, and very much so.
The scene shifts to nearly two decades ago. One day Phil Baker, then and now a Lyons client, brought to Arthur his friend, Benny. Jack was playing the Keith-Orpheum Circuit, a two-a-day, and Lyons was booking for Loew and Fox, three-a-day circuits. Lyons knew he couldn't better Jack's circumstances by making him play one extra performance a day in booking him on his circuits, but that didn't prevent the three from becoming friends. For several years they lived together, sharing a six-dollar room (two dollars apiece) at the Forest Hotel on 45th Street; at the National Vaudeville Club, or the San Rafael Hotel.
One day Jack told Arthur that he wanted him to handle his professional career. He felt that he had gone as far as he could sawing at violin strings in his present capacity. Lyons thought a minute. That was fifteen years ago. He's been thinking along those smart lines ever since. "Jack, we're going to get you a band," he said. "We're going to get you the best and biggest band that there ever was, and you are going to stand in front of it with your violin, but you're not going to play, you're going to talk. That will be our excuse, because you know how to handle a violin, for the most expensive band in theatrical history."
JACK had discovered, by that time, that his purring -voiced monologue had possibilities. Contrary to published reports that Jack's Navy Relief Society appearances, during his stretch as one of Uncle Sam's sea dogs, had showed him that he could wise-crack, Jack's first experience with the spoken word on the stage came when he was a part of the long -forgotten New York Winter Garden show. Charles King, then an ace singer, had an act with Jack wherein he kidded Jack into talking. "Why don't you say something?" he'd cue, and Jack would put aside his violin and talk. This was a Lyons idea, too.
They assembled the band. Using circus parlance, it was the "costliest aggregation of musical artists ever assembled into a jazz orchestra." Joe Venuti, now with his own band, was first violinist. Jack and Arthur made no profits; salaries for the band took them all. But it did just what the boys wanted. It established Jack as a personality. They kept the band one year, then dropped it. Jack was lifted from a "curtain raiser" to dignity. He could stand alone as a theatrical artist.
From that moment on, Jack Benny was a "prestige name" in show business. First a vaudeville headliner, a talented master of ceremonies, he became an integral part of musical shows, night-club entertainment, Earl Carroll's Vanities, a Sam Harris farce, films (Hollywood Revue of 1929, Chasing Rainbows, Trans-Atlantic Merry-Go-Round, Broadway Melody of 1936, The Big Broadcast of 1937, plus others). Five years ago Benny and radio discovered their natural affinity for each other.
AS FAR back as the glorified band era of Benny's career, Lyons has been grooming Jack for just the sort of success he is now enjoying. A dignified, respected position in the theatrical world. Jack Benny's name stands for decency, integrity. Integrity is the main plank in the Lyons platform for Benny. Lyons (and Benny, too) is proud of the fact that whenever an important office comes up in theatrical circles, a benefit, or something, almost without exception Jack is the first to be asked to head it. The theater world appreciates that quality in Jack. As for Benny, his biggest pride, just about, is his membership in the Friars' Club. It was Jack, incidentally, who reached into his pocket and saved the club from dissolution when its debts overwhelmed it. Jack didn't tell me, of course. He wouldn't.
If Jack has any fault, it is his generosity. Every month his auditor finds cheeks that are unaccounted for. "What does this mean?" he'll inquire of Benny. "Oh, tha-at," says Jack, wriggling a little uncomfortably. "Oh, yeah that's the fellow who did a tumbling act in a bill I played fourteen years ago. Met him on the street the other day. He's been having a tough time. It's just a little check I made out to tide him over the rough spots."
It is only by accident that these gratuities are noticed. Somebody whom Jack has helped tells someone else. The Lyons office does not believe in publicizing them. Jack cringes at the very thought of mentioning them. About the only thing that can bring Jack's blood to the boiling point is mention of his charities and his more than comfortable income. The recent unauthorized mention in a national magazine of Jack's plump bank-roll made Jack furious. His thought is "What about the man in the street?" Why do I want to shove my good luck in his face?"
JACK is definitely class-conscious. He even sees insurance agents. He said to me once: "I have to see them. They're trying to make a living, aren't they? If I won't see them, and no one else will, how can they sell anything?" He accepts his large salary because it enables him to distribute much more happiness, and to relieve more need, than he could without money.
If Jack is noted for his integrity, he is also noted for his overwhelming modesty. It [If] he were playing three months straight at the Palace Theater, which would be a record, Jack would probably say, off-handedly, if you asked him how he was doing, "Oh, all ri-ght," giving the impression that he was three leaps ahead of The Wolf.
Lyons, who keeps close tab on Benny's tours, tells of an experience, two years ago, in Chicago, that exemplifies Jack's overwhelming modesty. Jack calls Lyons, or Lyons calls Jack—they always talk together on the phone at least once a day, whether Jack is in Hollywood or Manhattan.
During the Winter of 1934, Lyons booked Jack into the Chicago Theater. When the week came for Jack to play the house, up blew the biggest blizzard the city had seen for years. Lyons cursed himself for booking Jack in the dead of a middle -western Winter. If he had waited until toward Spring, bad weather wouldn't confound the grosses. The blizzard was a honey. Snow knee-deep, wind howling along the canyons of State Street, blasting in from Lake Michigan a few blocks over. Who was bothering about a theatrical attraction when it was dangerous to step from your door? Lyons thought he might as well learn the worst. He phoned, from Los Angeles, to the Chicago's manager.
HOW are things?" answered the manager. "It's a sight. People in line since five o'clock this morning, standing in snow up to their knees. We've got fires burning to keep 'em from freezing. The newsreel men are busy photographing the mobs and the blizzard. We hard to open the theater doors at eight o'clock this morning, instead of eleven-thirty, as we usually do. They'd have frozen to death if we hadn't."
Lyons waited for Jack's first appearance before he phoned Benny. "How is it going, Jack?" he asked, confident of Benny's answer. He knew that his client was "knocking them over." Back came Benny's voice, small and discouraged, over the hundreds of miles of wires: "We've got tough competition, Arthur," he answered. "The worst blizzard in years. It's going to be hard."
"But I've just talked to the manager, Jack, said Lyons. "You're breaking good-weather records! You're doing sensational business. Let me talk to the manager again." The manager answered in a moment: "There are three thousand people standing in the snow to see him," he gloated. The Chicago Theater seats five thousand. Jack made $64,000 for the theater during the blizzard week. He returned, with another blizzard, on a second engagement three weeks later and the boxoffice took in $60,000.
Did Jack think that he was sensational? He did not. Oh, he was getting along, that’s all. He soft-pedals all mention of success. Won't admit it to his nearest friend. He has stricken the word from his vocabulary; that I know to be a fact. At least, when it applies to himself. What can you do with a guy like that? A regular Clarence Buddington Kelland hero. Lyons has been trying for years to make Jack argue with him. Just recently he succeeded.
LYONS was delighted when Jack began to argue out managerial problems with him. He has even arrived at the point where Jack will actually read through the film scripts submitted for his approval instead of skimming halfway through the script and nodding his approval. Jack's success, particularly in the current "Big Broadcast of 1937," is due to his representative's insistence that Benny sit in on the story and the selection of his director. Lyons, the omniscient, knows that any good director that Benny approves is not going to bother with a bad story, so there is double protection that Benny will get the kind of screen material he needs. When he finishes "College Holiday," Jack will shoulder the burden of an all -romantic role co-starred with comedienne Carole Lombard in "Tightwad." It puts him in the class of the important romantic male stars like Bill Powell, Fred MacMurray, and others.
Jack's great success lies in his knowledge of timing, says Lyons. He instinctively knows whether to read a line "up" for a laugh or to read it down." You've noticed his reading in his radio broadcasts. Some lines Jack gives a marked "down" inflection. Others he slides "up." But always in that creamy, poised, purring voice, with its boudoir overtones. Jack also has the ability, at a moment's glance, to see whether written copy has genuine humor. He writes some of his own copy. At the moment, he is training a number of young writers to supply him with radio material. His after -dinner speeches, which are excellent, are all written by himself. Then he brings them in to let Arthur see them.
THE most unusual feature of this Damon-Pythias friendship is that there has never been a written contract between the two. It's all verbal and sealed with a handshake. In show business, where competition is frequently cruel and unethical, this is a miracle. Only once was the professional association of Benny and Lyons broken. For two years Benny was handled by another organization. The personal friendship continued, but the two years were unhappy for the two men. Benny is now back in the Lyons fold without a written contract. Jack wishes, sometimes, that he had it down in writing. It would give him a secure feeling against some of the Hollywood wolves. But Arthur shakes his head. "It burns 'em up more this way, Jack," he says.
AS FOR the "boudoir overtones" in his voice, Jack is strictly a one -woman man. And Mary Livingstone, whom he married on January 12, 1927, is The Woman. If she has any rival, it is a little charmer of two, named Joan Naomi, the Benny's adopted daughter. If Joan said so, Jack would gladly toss up his career. Fortunately for us, Joan is just learning to talk, and she wouldn't demand that of her daddy, anyway. She doesn't demand anything of Jack, but gets far more that way. When Jack returned from a recent New York trip he brought Joan Naomi twenty-four new dresses, selected with care.
Mary Livingstone (born Sayde Marks) is as generous as Jack. She loves to buy things. Her pleasure is as much in their selection as in their presentation. Knowing her for so many years, Lyons says she has genuine literary talent, and, if she would set herself to writing, could make a name for herself. Lyons considers the Bennys an ideally happy married couple.
MARY has a brilliant wit. Jack adores people who make him laugh. He worships Mary, therefore. "Nat" Burns, known as George Burns, of the inimitable Burns and Allen, has that laugh -making ability. He can make Jack scream with laughter. They are the best of friends. Moreover, even their wives are good friends! George Jessel is another humorist at whom Jack cackles. "Cackles" is the word for it He has a chortle that rings out, and establishes him in any crowd.
The story of the friendship of Jack Benny and Arthur Lyons could spin on for pages. Lyons is full of anecdotes about his friend. Not only anecdotes, but genuine affection, the kind that springs from the heart and—yes, the soul. In a business where today's friend may be tomorrow's bitterest enemy, the deepness, the sincerity, the honesty of their friendship is something that can be described only as inspiring. The most inspiring part of the friendship is that it will undoubtedly last as long as they live.
Jack Benny may be heard Sundays over an NBC network at 7 p.m. EST (6 CST; 5 MST; 4 PST); and later for the West Coast at 8:30 p.m. PST (9:30 MST).

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