Sunday, 22 January 2017

The Life and Times of Jack Benny, Part 3 of 6

Achieving national fame in vaudeville must have been quite a feat.

There was no radio (let alone television) to give someone national publicity. About all an act could hope for when it arrived in town for a week was its name in a theatre newspaper ad was recognised from the last time it played.

The term “big time” comes from vaudeville. Circuits were known as “times,” such as the Gun Sun Time. The biggest one on the West Coast was the Orpheum circuit, which was affiliated with B.F. Keith’s in New York. Jack Benny played not only the Orpheum, but the Keith’s, and other interrelated circuits (WVMA was one).

It was during a stop at the Orpheum Theatre in Vancouver that Jack first met Mary Livingstone at her parents home on Nelson Street a half block from Denman. The house was torn down to make room for ‘70s style low-rise apartments. They re-met a number of years later at a May Co. store in Los Angeles, which provided jokes galore for the Benny radio show.

Jack’s later vaudeville career and courtship, such as it was, of Mary was the subject of the third part of a series in the New York Post, published February 5, 1958. As a side note, the only time the Marx Bros. and Jack appeared on the same bill at the Orpheum in Vancouver was during the week of March 8, 1920. Jack was still billed as Ben K. Benny then.

We’ll have part four next week.

The Jack Benny Story

One advantage the old-time vaudeville performer enjoyed over his television descendants was that he didn't have to wait long for his rating. Usually he got it by direct vocal reaction.
Among the toughest of audiences was the boisterous brotherhood of park-bench warmers who frequented the Academy of Music on 14th St. back in the Twenties, mainly as a temporary refuge from the wintry blasts along the Bowery.
Jack Benny once played an engagement of historic brevity at the Academy. Reluctant to accept a booking there because of its reputation, Jack was finally persuaded to give it a try by the manager of the theater who loved his act.
On a particularly cold Saturday night, when the theater was thick with the smoke of hand-rolled cigarets, Benny emerged from the wings, fiddle in hand, and began walking toward mid-stage in his rather elaborate gait, at the same time uttering his familiar opening line, "Hello, folks."
He hadn't gone very far before the catcalls and lip-razzes were rattling the ancient timbers of the Academy. It didn't give Benny a moment's pause. In fact he kept right on walking, said, "Good night, folks," and disappeared into the opposite wing. The catcalls turned to cheers but Benny never returned to find out whether the crowd was applauding his presence of mind or his departure.
He had other traumatic encounters, like the time in Sioux City when a man stood up in the middle of one of his monologues, shouted, "You stink!" and stamped noisily out of the auditorium. But for the most part, Benny found his audiences receptive to what was then considered the advanced humor of the stand-up, wise-cracking comedian.
The Big Time
For an approximation of what the act was like, one would have to catch Henny Youngman, the last of the comic fiddlers, whose stock performance is a kind of concerto for violin and voice in which he continually interrupts his playing, creating a frustration for which the joke is an immediate catharsis.
It calls for a certain precision of timing and it was probably here that Benny developed the complicated rhythm of exclamations, gasps and pauses that distinguish his comedy talent.
The other well-known Benny mannerism—the vague, loose-jointed waving of the hands—developed as a sort of memorial pantomime after he gave up the fiddle as a full-time prop. Jack's longtime friend (and present employe) Benny Rubin recalls:
"When Jack started doing a single he would come on stage with the violin tucked under his left arm and the bow dangling from his right. He did that for years but then he decided not to play the fiddle until the end of his act. He would give the fiddle and the bow to the conductor before the show and then take it from him later as if he were borrowing it."
The new routine, however, left Jack's hands hanging in midair for a good part of his act. For the next few months he experimented unsuccessfully first with a straw hat and a cigar and then with his hand in his pockets.
"From that point on," said Rubin, "Jack started waving his hands in front of him, or touching his nose with his left hand and holding his right palm out where the fiddle neck used to be."
"Very few performers can work without something in their hands," explains George Burns, who still does monologues while scrutinizing a cigar held between his thumb and index finger.
Benny, with or without a handprop, never lacked for bookings on the big-time vaudeville circuits. He toured back and forth across America and parts of Canada with a varying success that depended on the sophistication of his audiences. He was the smart young comic of his day.
Twice he played the Palace, the end-all of show business, and twice, stricken with stage-fright, he flopped resoundingly. On his third try he employed the novel approach of kidding the other acts on the bill. This time he was a smash, and before long he was commanding an upper-bracket fee of $350 a week as a suave variety emcee.
First Meeting
Not the least reason for his sudden eminence was the fact that by the primitive economic standards of the 20s, Jack was among the best-paying employers of gag writers, and top men in the field like Al Bosberg generally gave him first crack at their services. His respect and consideration for good writers was simply another aspect of the over-all professionalism that provided the foundation for his remarkable durability in the business.
As a prosperous, handsome young bachelor ("He was gorgeous in those days," says Mrs. Jesse Block, the "Sully" of Block and Sully), Jack quite naturally had a devoted following among the ladies, and quite naturally, he returned the compliment.
In 1921, Jack was playing Vancouver as the second half of a bill that starred the four Marx Bros. In Vancouver at the time lived an attractive 13-year-old girl named Sadie Marks, whose father was the head of the city's Jewish temple. It was Mr. Marks' custom to invite visiting actors of the faith to share the Sabbath dinner at his home each Friday night. Accordingly he asked the Marx boys to the house and they in turn asked Benny to join them.
Little Sadie, who today of course is better known as Mary Livingstone Benny, still speaks of that first encounter with her future husband with visible resentment.
"I've never forgotten the one remark I overheard him make to, I think, Zeppo," she said. "He said, 'Why did you bring me here with all these kids?' I don't know what he expected ... Dames, or something."
As a matter of fact Jack today indicates he was expecting dames or better. Apparently, he was under the impression that his friends were taking him to a less legitimate establishment. In any case, the only other thing Sadie, or Mary, recalls about the evening is that Jack "left very fast."
"A few nights later I went with a bunch of kids to see Jack at the theater in town and I wouldn’t let any of them laugh at him because I was so angry at the remark he'd made. I told myself then that the next time I met him I’d never let him forget it. "
Mary didn’t meet Jack again for six years. By then her family had moved to Los Angeles where she was working in the hosiery department of the May Company. Her sister Babe, who had married an actor, began badgering her about "a guy named Jack Benny they knew who was handsome, wonderful and talented and she wanted me to meet him."
Babe finally arranged a meeting but Jack was with another girl and Mary accompanied them to dinner as a fifth wheel.
The next day Jack turned up at Mary's hosiery counter and asked her for a date.
"I liked him," Mary said. "I remembered we'd met when I was a kid but I didn't tell him that then, He was very handsome, he was fun and a good dancer, and he was in show business, a combination I'd never seen close up before."
"I liked her a lot," said Benny, "because she had a great sense of humor and we had a lot of fun together. I decided then that if I ever got married I'd marry that girl."
There followed then a complicated, frequently interrupted, often long distance and by no means whirlwind courtship during which Mary broke off with her steady date, a Los Angeles lawyer, got engaged to a Seattle business man, and postponed the marriage because her family felt she was too young; Jack announced his engagement to Mary Kelly of the comedy team of Swift and Kelly after unplighting his troth to another performer, Leila Hyams, of the team of Hyams and McIntyre, and then parted company with Miss Kelly as well.
During this free-wheeling period, Jack's favorite hostelry was the Forrest Hotel, a theatrical hang-out of the day, on W. 49th St. in Manhattan. Whenever he played New York he shared an entire floor with the people who were then and are now among his closest friends: Jesse and Eva (Sully) Block, George and Gracie (Allen) Burns, Eddie and Ida Cantor, Ted and Ada Lewis, Benny and Blossom (Seeley) Fields.
"We'd all meet there after the shows we did," recalls Block, "and we'd send out to the Gaiety Delicatessen for sandwiches and soda and we'd sit around playing cards and charades far into the night.
"All we had together was laughs and that's all we wanted. We did so much laughing that the house detective used to pop in all the time and he was always disappointed because he couldn't find any liquor around."
Marriage—and Love
Into this affectionate, inbred, soft-drinking fraternity Jack eventually brought Mary, and as a non-show business initiate she showed at first little tolerance or sympathy with the group.
"Mary looked all of us over, she watched us talking show business and laughing, and she thought we were nuts," said Block.
To the outsider they were indeed a little nuts. But, possibly because their roots lay in an age when neurosis was less communicable, they stood together like a rock of stability through the next quarter century and they remain today a "unique family of entertainers, their friendship as close-knit as ever, all of them happily married for 30 years or more—a personal record in which they take frequent, pardonable pride.
Jack and Mary were married in Waukegan on Jan. 14, 1927. Moments after the ceremony was completed, Mary fainted—it was an adjustment she sometimes, made under the stress of incertitude. (Later, she occasionally fainted during rehearsals for the Benny radio broadcasts.)
Jack barely had time to revive her before he rushed off to keep an engagement at the Shubert Theater in Chicago where he was emceeing "The Great Temptations," a hit variety show of that year.
There was no honeymoon, and Mary retained for years afterwards a stubborn mistrust of show business, and a reluctance to make any concession to its demands on her husband's time. So evident was this antipathy in the beginning that most people said the marriage would not last six months.
Mary herself possibly considered that an overestimate.
"I don't know why I married Jack," she said recently. "Maybe I married him because he was an actor and he was nice, and because I wanted to have a little freedom like all 19-year-old girls. My family had been very strict with me. I had never been any place really. I know I wasn't very much in love with him. How can you be in love with anyone whom you hardly know? My love for him came after."
A year later, when they had disproved even the gloomiest prophecies, Mary let Jack in on a secret.
"She told me," Benny recalled, "'You know I met you when I was 13 years old.' When I asked her why she hadn't told me that while we were going out together, she said, 'I waited until you married me because that's my way of getting even with you for forgetting.'"
TOMORROW: The Radio Star.

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