Sunday, 11 September 2016
Not Really 10 Years of Benny
Somehow or another, the start of his tenth season in 1941 morphed into ten complete years for publicity purposes. NBC celebrated it by throwing him a huge dinner (part of which was broadcast in a special programme), while Variety devoted part of its April 30, 1941 issue to Jack. It wasn’t altogether altruistic; it sold space for congratulatory ads.
Here are a bunch of articles dealing with his life and career, with some one-liner tributes as well. And I’ve included some of the full-page ads. Jack had done several shows with the Quiz Kids around this time, hence the reference. And whoever paid for Rochester’s ad (he had his own quarter-page) seems to think he talked like Amos ‘n’ Andy.
For Benny It Was Big Time Or Nothing; He Wasn't for Coalminers
By ROBERT J. LANDRY
In 1910 Jack Benny was a theatre usher in Waukegan, Ill.
During the war he was in the U. S. Navy.
Somewhere along the early path he seriously played the fiddle in a dance orchestra.
In 1918 there was a two-act, Benny and Woods, which seems to be lost in the debris of theatrical records.
By 1921 Benny was doing a single, breaking in at Procter's 5th Avenue.
From 1921 onward his career was steadily progressive, spreading outward from vaudeville to include Broadway musicals, films and, finally, radio.
His previous obscurity, the lack of identification prior to the sudden click In vaudeville, gave rise to the legend that Benny was never on the small time but sprang, full-born like a Greek god from Olympus, to strut on the big time.
Actually, there is grounds for the legend. For in substance and style Benny was 'big time or nothing.'
His style was subdued, his delivery one of the first examples of modern 'throw-away,' He was poised, unhurried, seemingly effortless.
From the earliest days he was also an 'afterpiece' comedian. One of his earliest exploits was appearing in the lineup of a group of Arabian tumblers, hiding his identify altogether in costume but gradually working into a laugh routine.
Old time lovers of vaudeville remember with nostalgia the week Nora Bayes was on the bill with Benny at the Palace. The by-play when Benny stepped into Miss Bayes' act was of a smartness seldom encountered today. The pair were virtuosi of vaudeville crossfire.
Thomas J. Fitzpatrick, then and now a vaudeville agent, handled Benny for years. Significantly Fitzpatrick also handled Burns and Allen, Barry and Whitledge and other slick acts of the day.
Benny was preeminently a holdover act. He stayed weeks at a time at the Palace, New York, or the Orpheum, Los Angeles.
It is doubtful if Benny's vaudeville routines were ever written down into formal scripts. He was not an ad libber, in the general sense. He prepared his stuff ahead but changed it frequently, infused it with topical allusions.
But he sounded ad lib. That was one clue to his artistry as a vaudevillian.
He was what used to be known as a natty dresser. His only props were a cigar which he didn't smoke and a fiddle which he didn't play.
He was not a night club performer, although he did do a spell at the old Little Club. During the gin-gargling era of prohibition he demanded too much attention and quiet. The dives patronized by the bon ton of the twenties weren't big timey enough for Benny.
Benny could play the Joliets and the Sioux Citys and adapt himself but there were levels that were definitely not for him. Once he appeared before an audience of coalminers. They gaped and Benny gulped.
Benny was in George S. Kaufman's 'Bring on the Girls' which brought on the moving men in three weeks.
His early broadcasts for Canada Dry weren't marked off as the greatest event in that company's history. He was also-ran for that honor with 'Information, Please' (years later).
CANCELLED BY DETROITER
A Detroit motor nabob gained a sort of oblique fame in the early thirties by dropping Benny on the grounds he wasn't funny.
Benny represents himself on the air as a tightwad. In four and a half years he paid one gag-writer, Harry W. Conn, $170,000.
Benny used to drop in for coffee at the old Wolpin's in Times Square.
His favorite waitress was an old-timer, May Stewart, who knew every actor, agent and booker in the Keith office. Years after Wolpin's demise Benny with his agent, Sam Lyons, went into another restaurant, looked up, saw May. Still rushing java. Under the cup when he left the restaurant May found a $10 bill.
Both Paramount and Fox contracted for the comedian not long ago, an unusual situation for Hollywood.
Benny has used several changes of radio writers. But Bill Morrow and Eddie Beloin have been with him for five years.
General Foods (Jell-O) has negotiated a series of unique contracts with him. The latest carries him into 1942 and assures him, as an actor, that his prize time spot, Sunday, 7 p.m., on the Red, goes with him to his next sponsor.
Benny is, like all good troupers, very audience-conscious. He never rehearses his air routines in front of Phil Harris musicians. They are part of his audience, too. And he likes to see them laugh.
That's part of the reason he doesn't like re-broadcasts. The freshness is partly gone, the lassitude of familiarity may set in. (Vaudeville actors always loathed audiences, especially kids, that sat around through more than one show.)
Down front at the Hollywood studio when Benny goes on the air every Sunday night are such regulars as Mary Livingstone's sister, Benny's lawyer and his brother-in-law, Myrt Blum.
Benny's radio tempo has always been the fastest in the comedy race and only Bob Hope in the last couple of seasons has attempted anything like the same pounding pace.
Benny married outside the profession but ultimately eased his wife into the act. The outsider, Mary Livingstone, began surprising vaudeville old-timers and then radio with the expert timing of lines.
Benny exploits running gags to make dozens of laughs sprout from one root. A recent example revolving around a pet bear is 'where is the gas man?' It sounds anything but funny but all America convulses. On another occasion he used the plaintive complaint, ‘I told you to phone the little woman.’
The Benny formula established situational comedy on the air. ‘Joke-tellers’ were corn when the Benny formula began to flower.
Periodic infusion of new showmanship elements keeps the Benny program from lagging. Perhaps his greatest program developments of recent seasons were (1) the pseudo-feud with Fred Allen, (2) the discovery and embellishment of the flip Negro butler-stooge Rochester (Eddie Anderson) and (3) the current exchange with Lou Cowan's Quiz Kids of Chicago and Alka-Seltzer.
On May 9 in Hollywood at the Biltmore Bowl 1,000 celebrities will salute Benny's 10th year (beginning) in radio. Clarence Francis of General Foods, Chet LaRoche of Y. & R., and Niles Trammell of NBC will toast the comedian.
Amos ‘n’ Andy were the symbol par excellence of radio's starting-down-the-boulevard period. The blackface pair achieved radio's first big, class line-jumping audience. It is the distinction of Benny that he has been the comedy king, the giggle-master of the great years of fabulous expansion that took radio from the startling omens of 1930-33 to the astonishments of these latter years.
Along the way Benny, the next-to-closer of the Palace, became, thanks to radio, one of the great personalities of his era.
$3,478,492 FOR BENNY TIME
Jack Benny got $1,500 per broadcast for his first radio sponsored series (Canada Dry, 1932). Today General Foods on behalf of its Jell-O product pays Benny $17,500 a week. Out of both figures, the smaller and the larger and 10 years apart, Benny paid for the writers, the supporting cast, the stooges, etc. Benny was among the first of the 'package shows' which are bought by advertising agencies and sponsors because of their self-starting, self-driving showmanship. Benny and his aides are first of all a producing unit.
Estimates are hazardous on Benny's personal earnings over the 10-year period since the radio build-up assured him his niche in pictures (see Arthur Ungar's account of the many false beginnings of that career from 1929 onward). Benny may have made less and had a lot more expenses than, say, Major Bowes so far as radio was concerned. But his film duties have now become a lush source of income.
Jack Benny is, of course, one of the actor-millionaires of his generation. (He did well in vaudeville, jumping up from $150 around 1921 when he first became a single to around $1,250 as a next-to-closer.)
In the following table, prepared by VARIETY'S Information and Research Service, summer replacement program costs (he was NBC except for 1932-1933) have been subtracted from the annual totals (wherever necessary), so that the dollar volume actually applies only to the Benny show in person.
1932....Canada Dry $133,968
1932....Canada Dry 71,838
1933....Canada Dry 32,568
1934....Gen. Tire 203,314
T o t a l . . . . $3,478,492
Films Had Hard Time Deciding That Jack Benny Was Boxoffice
By ARTHUR UNGAR
Hollywood, April 29.
Waukegan's ‘first ranking citizen,’ Jack Benny, came to filmdom's starring circles the hard way. Benny came to pics from vaude. Metro used him as a master of ceremonies in the ‘Hollywood Revue of 1929.’ He was no b.o. cyclone. He had plenty of top-seasoned film names surrounding him in the east. His main job was through a trick camera shot pulling Bessie Love out of his pocket. It did not help Jack in the cinema belt. He was new to the biz. His smart quips and wisecracks were not in line with film requirements, the tops thought. So he went back to vaude.
In 1930 Metro tried him again in 'Chasing Rainbows.' Charlie King, Bessie Love and Marie Dressler were the names. Benny was brushed off In a VARIETY review:
Jack Benny was a humorously dry stage manager. Poor Jack, though a good lookin' guy and a shrewd showman, was handicapped. He was not a young Lothario, and therefore was just a sustainer of audience interest so far as the pic was concerned. He worked in a couple of shorts, that meant nothing much, nor did a job he did for Tiffany in the summer of 1930 in 'The Medicine Man.'
Hollywood just had a lapse of memory so far as Jack and his talents were concerned. They saw no reason for figuring out how this showman would fit into the cinema picture, so Jack again headed east.
Then radio via the Canada Dry Program discovered him. He got around $1,500 a week for the chore and paid his writers out of it and probably took care of the Mary Livingstone coin, too.
JUST IN THE CAST
Later he hit around Hollywood again and did some Vitaphone shorts, also a pic 'Mr. Broadway" in 1933 for Broad way-Hollywood production. That one featured Eddie Sullivan, Johnnie Walker and Josephine Dunn. Walker directed it. He had a lot of screen and vaude names and our hero was just mentioned with Mary Livingstone as among those in the cast.
Along came Edward Small in 1934 and gave Jack an m.c. job in 'Trans-Atlantic Merry-Go-Round.' Pic was not much, but Jack got an okay notice for his toil.
Then gradually Benny became more popular on the radio. Metro having a ‘Broadway Melody of 1936’ to make figured Benny now had a little draught through his radio and cast him in this picture. With his value potent Benny topped the featured cast. In it he played the role of a columnist and with dramatics entwined in his role he took a couple of socks on the button from a young guy named Robert Taylor. In its notice on Benny's performance VARIETY said:
'Benny's usually decisive delivery is punchy, but it might be a good idea to give him an assignment which won't let him wind up with an apple and a morning paper for the finale.'
So Benny still had not arrived as far as films were concerned. He was just being used to draw them in as a result of his radio rep which was becoming more and more important. However, Metro knowing it had a good thing in that direction tried him again. He was a star this time in an opus called 'It's in the Air,' made late in 1935. Cast support was none too strong. Neither was the picture. It had plenty of laughs, but it was too slow to get anywhere in the coin taking belt.
PARAMOUNT SIGNS HIM
Along came 1936 and Paramount, too. They saw that Benny really meant something. That in meaning something, something must be done in preparing material for Benny that meant something. Studio got close to Benny. It knew that he was a showman, and that a showman knows how to sell himself as well as the merchandise he has to deliver. First chore to prove the fact that the guy from radio meant something was in making ‘Big Broadcast of 1937,’ which was released in October, 1936.
This was a sock picture. It had in the cast with Benny, George Bums, Gracie Allen, Bob Burns, Martha Raye and a lot of sure-fire talent. Paramount then knew it was right, the Benny method of thinking was right, also the Benny box-office value, too, as by this time he was the No. 1 guy in radio. It followed through with another Benny hit on top of this one, ‘College Holiday’ being released just around the Xmas holidays of 1936, and then with a one-a-year until the present time.
Benny throughout his entire film career never was jealous of anyone or his ability. He always figured showmanship and consequently managed to develop talent both on radio and in films that was helpful to him in both branches of the biz. Phil Harris, who was his orchestra leader, became an important cog through the Benny buildup and got into pictures as well, and is now reaching the point where he will top the cast of an ‘Ice Follies’ picture for RKO. Then Eddie Anderson (Rochester), who was one of the Fanchon & Marco unit standby's, also appeared on the scene with Benny. He hit instantaneously in both films and radio. Don Wilson, who was an Earle C. Anthony announcer around here at $75 a week, got into the Benny camp. He was given his chance, has been a featured player in Harry Sherman pictures that Paramount now releases, and is even desirous of spreading his acting historionics [sic] to more film work.
Those seven pictures that Benny has made for Paramount since 1936 have been both helpful to Benny and those who worked with him as well as the coffers of the company.
His last Paramount release brought Fred Allen to play opposite him in 'Love Thy Neighbor,' after a long radio 'feud' between the two. And Allen, too, thought Benny was great, compared with comics and others he had chored with in pictures. Result, Allen was the guy who sponsored the present Jack Benny 10th Anniversary in VARIETY. And that's the story of Jack Benny to date, outside of the job he starts at 20th Century-Fox May 14 in "Charley's Aunt,' and then another chore for Warners.
It took radio to make Benny important in pics, and films should be mast grateful for Benny.
Bill Morrow and Ed Beloin Admit Benny Is Useful
By JACK HELLMAN
Hollywood, April 29, Gags are where you find them, And who should know better than Bill Morrow and Ed Beloin, who have been dreaming them up for years for Jack Benny and his Jell-O cohorts.
But where to look for them is still the moot question. They've tried every corner of the continent sailed the blue Pacific and hied away to odd places in quest of the elusive spark to touch off a comedy situation or a running gag.
The frightening bugaboo is staleness and milked-dry locale. When inspiration doesn't come they start looking around. Close-by Palm Springs seems to be a favorite haunt with the gagsters and with the head man along ideas seem to come easier and they can whip out a script in good sitting whereas three or four days are required to keep the repartee flowing smoothly.
Ask the team where they have the best success and they'll let go with a gag, but not the answer.
‘If we knew that,’ puts in Beloin (he's the one with hair on his turret), ‘our worries would be over.
Why we'd just go there and that's all there would be to it. No headaches, no fears of ulcers, no more corrugations in the brow.’
The boys will admit, however, that Palm Springs holds some attraction for them. There's only one attraction for a gag writer, and that's where the gags come as fast as the beads of perspiration. Whether it's the cacti, the balmy air or the remoteness from civilization, so-called, they know not.
If They Only Knew
‘If we knew then our worries would be over,’ sighs Morrow. ‘Hey, that's my line,’ interrupts Beloin.
‘Yeh, but ain't we a team?’ and that puts that ripple to rout.
Truth be told, they're probably the non-scrappingest writing team in the biz. That from those who know them well. They're the highest salaried combo spinning gags on the air and it's their smooth-working teamwork that has helped produce such astonishing results.
It's really a triumvirate that whips up those chuckles, week in and week out (with 13 off for the summer). Headman Benny, his writers admit, is sort of useful. ‘He can spot a gag a mile away and make a spot piece of biz run on and on,’ chirped Morrow, ‘One of us picks a piece of funny business out of the cold air and once it's warmed over by Jack it's ready to go into the script And it's generally a sock. He can call the turn on them as fast as we dream them up.’
One might say that 10 years on the air must have taught him what the public likes and what rolls around like an egg. That's no more so than trying to name a few others, on the air much longer, who're still trying to woo that winning formula. Benny captured it almost from the start.
Gag-writing, Morrow and Beloin will tell you, is serious business. It's an occupation like digging ditches or packing apples. When mental inertia sets in that's when it realty puts one back on his heels.
‘When putting those gags together comes hard and your head is spinning, that's when we know we're in a tough racket,’ sez Morrow. Benny knows it as well as they, and that's when one reads that the trio has packed up for Palm Springs, or New York, or Honolulu.
Tributes, Hollywood Style, Poured Out and on Fellow Radio Artiste
Hollywood, April 29.
John Barrymore — 'Jack Benny should have the luck with his writers that I've had with my wives. Egad, he'd still be playing 'The Bee' on Waukegan street corners for the Salvation Army.'
Bob Burns—'Ten years! Why I used to break in my act in two weeks'.
Frank Morgan—'There are comedians in the radio business who won't let making less money and rating lower in the Crossley stand in the way of their congratulating Jack Benny on the 10 years he's managed to stay on top. We've learned to take our Angostura bitters with the sweet.'
Irene Rich—'Has it been 10 years? What did he do before Rochester?'
Jim Jordan (Fibber McGee)— 'Ten years, hey? With or without a toupee?'
Jerry Colonna—'You could be taking delightful naps every afternoon in your own clothing store in Waukegan now, but you had to go and open your big mouth. Now you'll probably have to stay in radio 10 years more. Disgusting, isn't it?'
Bob Hope — "Congratulate Jack Benny? Certainly. He deserves it After 10 years in radio he's still got his stomach.'
Bing Crosby—'Any comedian who can stay on the radio for a decade without alluding disparagingly to my horses deserves the world's greatest tribute.'
Rudy Vallee—'What other man could make us eat Jell-O and like it? What other man could have a bear eat a gas man and make us think it's just good clean fun? What other man could be so funny with only Rochester. Andy Devine, Mary Livingstone, Phil Harris, Don Wilson, Dennis Day and the best gag writers in the business to help him? The Sealtest cast salutes Jack Benny.'
Fanny (Baby Snooks) Brice—'Congratulate Jack Benny? Why, daddy?'
Al Pearce—'Happy days, supersalesman, and no returns, I hope, I hope, I hope.'
Amos ‘n’ Andy—'After blowing out candles on nine other birthday cakes you ought to know enough not to get too close. Hair will stand only so much singe. Good luck.'
Hedda Hopper—'It took him 10 years to work up to being a Quiz Kid.'
Edgar Bergen—'Ten years! He should have gotten life.'