Sunday, 1 January 2017

No Benny Ban In Boston

Jack Benny made more money out of vaudeville when it was dying than when it was living.

During the early years of his radio show, Benny would pack up his cast and take it on location to some city and do a broadcast. But the real reason for the visit was to bring his tour company to town, appear for several days at a local theatre and rake in the Depression dollars. In Benny’s last real vaudeville gig before radio in 1932, he got paid a lot less than headliner Lou Holtz. Now, his popularity on radio allowed him to charge a theatre as much as he could get away with, and record crowds showed up, adding even more cash to his bank account. As the song goes, “Ol' Man Depression, you are through, you done us wrong!”

So it was the Benny entourage stopped in Boston at the end of April 1936 where Jack talked to reporters. The Boston Globe’s story is interesting in what it doesn’t say. A good portion of the interview is about Mary Livingstone, who isn’t even there. She couldn’t be bothered to wake up early enough to catch the train to Boston. If you think about how often he toured in his later years, Jack spent an awful lot of his life away from Mary; at home, they had separate rooms. Yet, as far as anyone knows, they were in love for the rest of their lives. The other interesting comment is the one about not depending on an author and writing a lot of radio material himself. Benny had plenty of highly-paid writers he depended upon through his career. But when Jack made this particular comment, his writer, Harry Conn, had walked out on him only weeks before. The “official” reason was Conn was sick, but soon he surfaced in someone else’s employment, telling anyone who would republish his comments that he made Jack Benny, a claim that proved ridiculous.

Jack talked of retiring. He never did. He worked until he died. Mary, of course, pulled out when she finally convinced Jack to let her.

This story appeared on April 24, 1936, two days before the broadcast.
Jack Benny Can’t “Take It Easy”
Radio Topnotcher Finds Movies Relief

Jack Benny would like to take a vacation from being “radio’s funniest comedian.” He is surfeited with being elected the most popular radio attraction on the air, and he thinks he would enjoy a year away from the ether waves. Motion pictures seem to him a welcome relief—a real holiday—after the “mental agony” of putting on a successful radio program every week.
And Mary Livingston, his wife, who is considered one of the most amusing and popular personalities on the air, admits that she would like being just Mrs Jack Benny for a change. If Jack Benny decided tomorrow that his charming little wife should retire to private life, to be merely the mother of little Joan Benny, Miss Livingston wouldn’t say a word in objection. Her idea of being on the radio is merely to please her husband.
Mary Still Surprised
Yesterday afternoon Mr Benny received the press at his Ritz-Carlton suite. Mary hadn’t been able to get up early enough to make the train, so she wasn’t due in Boston until many hours later. However, Mr Benny did all the talking for the Benny duo. And he was insistent upon one thing—that Mary Livingston Benny never was a show person, and still hasn’t any idea what being a celebrity is all about. Each time she comes to a new city and people press about her admiringly, she is enchanted anew. It is like becoming a fairy princess overnight, and Mrs Benny can’t quite realize that appearing briefly on her husband’s radio hour has won her this delightful acclaim.
This week, commencing this morning, Jack and Mary are starring in a revue at the Metropolitan Theatre. Mary enjoys the excitement very much. But she would be just as happy at home, listening to her husband expound his theories on entertainment. In other words, Mary Livingston is just a home girl who has become a public character and can’t quite realize it yet.
Can’t “Take It Easy”
Mr Benny says that being on the radio, and trying to life up to being a star, is the hardest job a man can have. He would rather be “among the first few headliners,” since it would mean less worry and trouble for him. If you stand at the top you must try to stay there, and it is always very difficult.
Eventually you are going to topple over and some one else will take your place as radio’s most popular star. That will make news, too, and it is the first step toward oblivion.
“I can’t take it easy,” complained Mr Benny, “and that is one of the reasons why I’d like to go into pictures. The film stars may tell you how hard they work, but it is all bunk. The hardest work is mental, as everybody knows. And there’s no mental agony connected with a film role. It would be just another vacation for Mary and me.”
When Jack’s radio author is ill it is Mr Benny himself who must step into the gap. “If I depended upon an author then my act would be weak,” he said. “A star must write a lot of his stuff himself if he expects to remain a star very long. Otherwise, his author can switch to a new personality, at an increased salary, and make a bum out of the former headliner.”
On the evening of the 23rd, Jack and Mary were apparently expected to appear at the Kirkland House Spring Dance where Cab Calloway was playing but weren’t spotted, according to the Harvard Crimson.

Not all of Jack’s radio cast was in his stage show. Orchestra leader Johnny Green found a way to make some extra cash by spending time at a Boston department store autographing his Brunswick 78s for customers who bought them. Mary wasn’t generally in the show and, more often than not, Benny employed a vocalist other than whomever was on the radio show. The Chicken Sisters, a hardy concept that Benny utilised in television and years later in Vegas, included Blanche Stewart, who was a regular secondary player on the radio show through most of the ‘30s and then again in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s. Who assembled the act? Did Jack audition people, such as the acrobats? Questions I can’t answer.

This review of the opening night of the revue was published in the Globe on April 25th.
Jack Benny’s quiet humor, his engaging personality, and the delightfully “dizzy” poetry of Mary Livingston hit the spot in superlative vein with audiences at the Metropolitan Theatre yesterday where a record for attendance was equalled only by the record of enthusiasm with which these stars of the radio were greeted.
The fact that Mr Benny and his “poetess” wife were in Boston a comparatively short time ago has not the least dimmed their drawing power nor the responsiveness of their devoted and loyal boosters.
At any rate, Jack was right at home, cavorting with the very clever Liazeed troup of Arabian tumblers and acrobats; playing his beloved violin, acting as “straight” man for the famous Chicken Sisters, and praising the singing of golden voiced Kenny Baker. Mary Livingston had a poem about Boston for her local audiences, in which she managed to combine beauties of fish cakes and Boston girls, Harvard University and Boston baked beans and other lyrical outbursts. She also sang “Eeeny Meeny Miny Mo”—which is just the sort of song one would pick out for this fluffy-minded young woman.
Opening with the spectacular Stuart Morgan dancers, the revue this week is a masterly presentation of first rate entertainment and excellent showmanship. Jack Benny doesn’t make his admirers wait until the final number of appear, but strolls out earl to act as master of ceremonies and to wise-crack throughout the remainder of the revue. There is no doubt but that Jack understands what audiences like, and he gives it to them with as little flurry as possible, to their gratifying appreciation.
One person’s name that is noticeable by its absence is Don Wilson’s. All that was mentioned on the show was that “Don Wilson couldn’t make it;” no reason was given. Someone else filled in for him, and therein is an interesting tale. The fill-in is Pat Weaver. Yes, the same Pat Weaver who later became president of NBC. In 1932, Weaver had been a continuity writer (including comedy) at KHJ Los Angeles before moving into producing shows. He was transferred to KFRC San Francisco where he did the same thing. In October 1935, he arrived at Young & Rubicam in New York where he was soon supervising its radio shows. He was directly involved with the Fred Allen show but oversaw Benny’s programme for General Foods. That means Weaver was the man at the agency in charge of Benny when Harry Conn walked out. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that Weaver reacted to help protect Y&R’s investment by taking the train to Boston, helped Benny write the April 26th show on an emergency basis, then, as he had been on the air in California, filled in for Wilson that evening. It’s the only time the man later credited with creating NBC’s Today and Tonight shows had any direct, on-air involvement with one of NBC’s top radio comedians.

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