Jack Benny didn’t exist until 1920. Before that, Benny Kubelsky used several other stage monikers as he made his way from town to town on a non-stop journey to entertain.
The New York Post looked at Benny’s early years in the second of a six-part series on Benny’s life. This was published on February 4, 1958.
The Jack Benny Story
By DAVID GELMAN and MARCY ELIAS
The 1895 edition of Longman's Gazetteer of the World describes Waukegan, Ill., as a pleasure resort gurgling with mineral springs, situated on a bluff 80 feet above Lake Michigan, a favorite residence of Chicago business men, active in the manufacture of iron and steel goods, with a burgeoning population of 5,000.
No mention is made of Waukegan's most celebrated tourist attraction, but the omission is pardonable on the several grounds that Jack Benny was born only a year earlier, that the event actually took place in a hospital in Chicago, 36 miles to the south, and that his real name, Benny Kubelsky, was not calculated to make the social notes of the 19th century Midwest.
The first-born of Mayer and Emma Sachs, Kubelsky, Benny grew up in fairly comfortable obscurity, disturbed only by his parents' ambitions for him as a concert violinist.
Mayer, the proprietor first of a saloon, then of a clothing store, was solvent enough to buy his son a $50 violin on Benny's sixth birthday, and while it was never quite put to the use for which it was intended, it re-paid the initial investment several thousand times over in the course of the next 58 years.
"We were not well off," Benny recalled recently, "but we weren't poor. I've always said to anyone who wanted to write about my life that I didn't have to sell newspapers barefoot in the snow. There was always money for my violin lessons and we had all the necessities."
With a reckless disregard for the conventions of modern show business case history, he continued:
"I had a perfectly normal, pleasant middle-class childhood. We were a close and affectionate family but there was nothing unusual about that I suppose you'd describe ours as a happy home. My mother was a very sweet woman most of the time but she had a terrific temper sometimes and it was usually directed at me ... My father was a very gentle and angelic man. But my parents had nothing to do with shaping my life and neither of them had any great influence on me."
"I was very bad in school, I hated it," he said. "I had practically no education. I was disinterested . . . And," he added with the pride of the millionaire who was voted least likely to succeed, "they threw me out in the second year of high school because I skipped classes to play with the orchestra in a Waukegan movie house.
"All I was interested in doing was playing the fiddle. I always loved the violin and I was good, but I was like a golfer who would rather play than practice. I'd get bored with long exercises. As a matter of fact I enjoy practicing the violin now more than I did then."
After his premature and unceremonious departure from high school, Benny, at 15, began spending most of his time at the Barrison Theater, Waukegan's only movie, vaudeville and miscellaneous entertainment emporium.
"I was irresistibly drawn to the theater but I didn't realize it," he said. "I would do anything from being a doorman to a porter to be there."
Between assignments with the orchestra Benny did do just about everything at the theater. One week, when he was 16, the Marx Bros. played an engagement there and their mother asked Benny if he would like to join their tour as orchestra leader. The Kubelskys refused him permission to go.
On the Road
He got his second chance when the theater closed down and Cora Salisbury, a spinsterish woman in her 40s who conducted the Barrison Orchestra, offered to team up with him as a vaudeville act.
With an obviously distressing recollection of that first and final leave-taking, Benny said:
"There wasn't much of a row with my parents, but there was a scene—but I went anyway."
His sister, six years younger than Benny (she is now Mrs. Florence Fenschell, wife of a Jello Co. executive in Chicago), recalls that when he announced his decision to the family, his parents were stunned and Mrs. Kubelsky bitterly accused him of using the money they had spent on his violin lessons to make himself "a clown on the vaudeville stage."
Peace was restored when Cora herself came to the house for a heart-to-heart talk with Benny's mother. "She promised mother that she would take care of Jack and I think mother consented because she had so much confidence in Miss Salisbury. But looking back on it I don't think she ever changed her mind about vaudeville. Her heart was set on my brother becoming a great violinist."
"If there is one disappointment in my life," says Benny, "It's that my mother, who died at the age of 47, died believing nothing good was happening with my life.
"My parents thought I'd never get anywhere in any business. When my mother died, I had even given up playing the violin in vaudeville to do comedy and my career was kind of at a standstill. She died disappointed. Fortunately my father did see some good come out of my comedy."
Mayer Kubelsky lived past his 80th year, and saw not merely good but fame, early retirement and winters in Miami come from his son's comedy. In his latter years he had so completely forgotten his early disappointment," Benny says, "that whenever he went to Florida, he would always make them listen to my radio shows Sunday night and if they didn't like a show he'd get very mad at them. And he'd always make them take autographed pictures of me whether they wanted them or not."
Benny Rubin remembers how he used to put up at Mr. Kubelsky's house whenever he played Waukegan.
"Jack's father was what Jack is—an angel," he said. "He was as gentle a soul as you could find. But one thing killed me, I used to get him a box seat to watch me perform and I'd work like hell out there to please him. Invariably when the show was over and I'd see Papa, I'd say, 'How didya like the show?' And just as often he'd say, 'I got a letter front Jack today ...' and go right on as if I hadn't said a word."
A year after the unlikely sounding team of Salisbury and Benny (Jack's first stage name was Ben K. Benny) took its theatrical vows, Cora was forced to return to Waukegan to care for her ailing father. Abruptly set adrift in the lowlands of vaudeville, Benny quickly attached himself to a Chicago pianist named Lyman Woods. Benny and Woods attracted considerably more attention than the earlier combination and the team got such widely scattered bookings as Seattle, Wash., and the London Palladium.
But Benny and Woods were put asunder by the untimely advent of America's entrance into World War I. Benny joined the Navy and was assigned to a special services unit whose specialty was entertaining the troops.
In any case, the doughboys soon became familiar with "Corporal Izzy There" (Benny), who usually made his entrance by asking, "How's the show going?" and when the audience replied, "Fine," he would say, "I'll fix that." It didn't lay them in the aisles but it had a certain charm.
After the war Benny went out for the first time as a single and began his real vaudeville apprenticeship on the tank-town circuit. A couple of times, when his comic invention seemed to be wearing thin, he took a stab at serious fiddling again. But the wave of the future cast him continually among comedians, an element in which he was always more at home.
His friendship with Gracie Allen and George Burns sprang up in the early Twenties, and the latter began almost immediately to exert the hypnotic power of laughter over Benny that he still retains.
"Jack has a very peculiar sense of humor off-stage," says Burns. "I remember a time he had a date with this girl who was one of Gracie's roommates [Mary Kelly]. Jack had just come in off the road and he and the girl got into a fight. The girl called him everything and started to cry just about the time the room service waiter arrived.
"So, with the tears running down her face she started ordering: large orange juice, scrambled eggs, bacon crisp, hashed brown potatoes, rye bread, large pot of coffee. And she bawled him out again when she finished ordering. All this time Jack was on the floor laughing his head off."
Once, Burns said, when he was in Chicago and Jack was playing Milwaukee, Jack sent a wire asking Burns to meet him at the Chicago station at 9 a.m. on a certain day. "I wired back, 'I'll be glad to, what time are you coming in?' He wired back, 'Be in at 9.' I wired him, 'Skip it if you don't want to tell me what time you're coming in.' Suddenly I began getting wires from people like Nora Bayes, Sophie Tucker, J. C. Flippen and Belle Baker, maybe 25 telegrams in all from all over the country, saying, 'Jack Benny will be in at 9 o'clock.'
"I didn't meet him. When Jack walked in he said, 'Why the hell didn't you meet me?' I said, 'Because I didn't know when you were coming in,' and he collapsed on the floor laughing."
Sending and receiving gag telegrams seems to have occupied at least half of Benny's time in those days. But just before Christmas in 1925 he got a wire that was in dead earnest. It was from the Vaudeville Managers Protective Assn., informing him that he had to give up the name of Ben Benny because another comic fiddler had a prior claim on a very similar name—Ben Bernie.
After a not too strenuous session of thought, he came up with the name of Jack Benny. There have been no further complaints.