Sunday, 19 March 2017

He Brought the Show Up When It Was Down

Alois Havrilla is the answer to a trivia question. The question is: “Who did Don Wilson replace as the announcer on the Jack Benny show?”

When the change was made in 1934, Havrilla was the better known of the two. Wilson’s fame had come from announcing the Rose Bowl games on NBC in the early ‘30s. Havrilla was a top announcer and in 1935 received an award as the best radio announcer in the U.S. “from the standpoint of pronunciation, articulation, tonal quality, accent and general cultural effect.” Wilson went on to spend several lucrative decades with Jack. Havrilla ended up reading news at a small station in New Jersey and died in 1952 at the age of 61.

Wilson was hired when the Benny show changed sponsors from Chevrolet to General Tire. He was an inspired choice. Almost from the start, Jack had incorporated his announcer into the show’s banter. Wilson started off with the same “character” as Havrilla and Howard Claney before him—someone so enthusiastic about the sponsor’s product, he’d shoehorn it into the programme whenever possible (and inappropriate), usually as a pun based on a previous line of dialogue. But Wilson had the advantage of a friendly, up-beat and natural delivery (Claney, in particular, stiffly shouted at listeners) which made it easy to expand on his character. And when General Foods took over, Wilson was a natural spokesman. Everyone listening at home could picture a jolly fat man, quickly scooping up those six delicious flavours of Jell-O.

Jack and his writers used Donzie as the centre-pin of a number of radio shows either celebrating his anniversary in radio or with Benny. A particularly funny one was broadcast on January 10, 1954, where everyone but Jack insisted the show was “down” until Wilson came in and brought it up. Benny was not one to shy away from re-using whole bits of old programmes; the radio show in question contained routines from broadcasts in 1945 and 1949 (including the “down” running gag). So it was one of the ideas he borrowed from the radio days for a TV show. It aired January 13, 1961 and featured a walk-on at the end by CBS’ What’s My Line? host John Daly, who was also the vice president for news at ABC at the time the show was filmed.

CBS got out its publicity machine to plug this particular episode, making Wilson available for interviews. Let’s reprint three of them. First up is a United Press International story that first appeared in papers on December 30, 1960.
Honor, but No Pay Boost for Wilson On Anniversary

U. P. I. Hollywood Correspondent
HOLLYWOOD (UPI) — Don Wilson celebrates his twenty-seventh anniversary as Jack Benny's sidekick soon, but there's no salary raise in sight.
The rotund Wilson started with Jack on radio as part of the Benny “family” that included Dennis Day, Eddie (Rochester) Anderson and Phil Harris.
Day and Rochester appear occasionally these days on Jack's TV show but Wilson still hangs around as a regular and quite often the butt of Benny's jokes.
TO HONOR Wilson for years of faithful service, Benny thought it would be nicer, and CHEAPER to give Don a remembrance rather than something crassly commercial such as a salary boost. Tightfisted economy is Benny's onstage credo.
Of course, everyone knows Jack is just the opposite in real life.
So, Benny turned over the Jan. 17 show to a live "memorial" to the slenderizing Wilson.
“I don't know of anyone in this business who would do this, to set aside a whole show and use the anniversary as a theme,” Don said, as he sipped on a calorie-free ginger ale in a Beverly Hills hotel.
“THE PROGRAM will constitute a flashback and show how our association came about,” Don added. “The program also will show the bigness of Jack.
“When I think back over the years and other comedians I've worked with, I remember that they were the only ones who got the laughs. But Jack started working me into his show right away and I became part of the laugh family.”
Recalling the time 27 years ago when he went to work for Benny in New York after an audition, Don said, “There's been an awful lot of water over the dam since then” as he laughed about Jack's threats to “fire” him.
“FOR YEARS, he threatened to fire me on the air and hire Harry Von Zell who worked for George Burns,” Don said with a nostalgic chuckle. And George would do the same thing to Harry.”
Even so, Don never fretted about the lack of job security working with the violin playing Benny.
“I'm just probably the luckiest guy in this business,” he said. “Let's face it, what better luck could a fellow have than to be associated with a top man like Jack all these years.”
Our next stop at the newsstand is at the Boston Globe for January 15, 1961.
Benny Salutes Don Wilson On 27 Years Of Association
One day last June, there was a great hullabaloo on the West Coast. Jack Benny put another show on videotape, but this particular one was special.
Benny saluted his announcer and supporting funnyman, Don Wilson, on the occasion of Wilson’s 27th anniversary with the Jack Benny Program.
Tonight, CBS viewers will see the anniversary telecast as it unfolds on Ch. 5 at 9:30 o’clock. The entire program belongs to Don, and well he deserves the honor.
* * *
“Jack has been very good to me,” said Don, in a call from the Coast a couple of days ago. “He goes out of his way for anyone, for that matter. He is very considerate.
“I remember the first time, and times after that, when I played Broadway. Benny made it very easy for me to tape the shows on the Coast. I had only to go back once a week to the Coast and Jack gave my show great publicity, which helped a great deal.
“Jack has had a long and successful career in radio and TV. Of course, his writers are second to none. It’s surprising how well the radio shows have stood up. This was evidence when some of the ones we made 10 and 15 years ago were brought out for repeats broadcasts.”
* * *
By way of explanation of why a show taped last June is showing this January, Don continued:
“Jack takes it comparatively easy these days. Last June we started taping TV shows for fall showing and 11 were put on tape. Our shows are taped before a live audience, and long before the present TV season closes we’ll have everything done. Along about May we’ll put shows for the coming season in the can and take time out for a fine Summer vacation during July, August and part of September.”
Don will watch the TV show tonight, on which he reigns as king. “Funny,” said he, “how you forget what transpired when shows are taped so far in advance. It will seem like a new show to me!”
Don and his wife live in an apartment building. They have a standard size poodle that is a prize winner, and a new addition—and apricot-color toy poodle is being groomed for the prize ring.
“You’d never know they are in the house,” continued Don. “They get along beautifully. Only one problem though:
“When we go to the movies, it has to be the outdoor kind. You see, we have to take the poodles with us!”
Wilson is a winner of every major award available to TV and radio announcers. He has been singer, emcee, announcer, sports commentator and actor.
He has had starring roles in “The Great Sebastians” (1959) at the Pasadena Playhouse; “Make a Million” (1958); on TV he impersonated a pompous confidence man in the Hollywood Bowl production of “The Vagabond King.” Also on TV, he has been on the Perry Como and Red Skelton shows.
Don is married to the former Lois Corbett, an actress, and it was she who interrupted Don on the phone to remind him about their taking poodles to the outdoor theaters. (E.L.S.)
Now to the Atlanta Journal of the same date.
Faithful Old Cue-Cardless Don Hailed on Benny Show

Atlanta Journal TV-Radio Editor
It’s about time Jack Benny did something splendid for Don Wilson, his faithful second banana for 27 years. The golden-throated, oval-shaped one has the toughest announcing job on TV. But he never falters.
Wilson is the only announce in Hollywood who has to rattle off a formal commercial without a teleprompter or even a cue card for a crutch. He told me via phone recently as Benny prepared to make him King for a Day:
“Jack despises idiot sheets. He has never allowed one on his TV show and never will. So it all has to be in your noodle. That really puts the pressure on the announcer—and you can’t afford to fluff and make the sponsor mad. Yet a commercial is harder to commit to memory than any other speech.
* * *
Don’s delivery is usually flawless. Benny the idiot-sheet-hater, on the other hand, often hems and haws through his routines while he searches for the next word in the script. Ironic?
Tonight’s show (WAGA-TV at 9:30) is a half-hour salute to Wilson. He described it in confidential tones:
“I get the full treatment—dressed in royal robes and crown, and of course when I sit down on the throne I got crashing through the bottom, supposedly because of my weight . . . which is only 235 pounds, incidentally (steady for 30 of his 60 years; he was a 190-pound tackle in high school).
* * *
THEN WE USE THE FLASHBACK technique and show my audition for a job with Jack in 1934. It’s gagged up for that Jack hires me because I laugh at the right places in his jokes. Actually I had to beat out some pretty tough competition.
Don was a rising young announcer with NBC, New York, when Benny signed him to an exclusive contract. He had been “discovered” while helping Graham McNamee broadcast the Rose Bowl game of 1932.
He first assisted McNamee in the 1929 Rose Bowl when Roy Regals of California made his famous wrong-way run that led to a win for Georgia Tech. He was the only man in the booth who spotted when happened when Tech got its safety and that made him McNamee’s boy.
* * *
DON ALSO RECALLS WORKING THE Notre Dame-Southern Cal game in 1931 with Atlanta’s Bill Munday—“a wonderful man, give him my warmest regards.”
Wilson then grew nostalgic about his years with Benny: They were the first to rib their sponsors, the first to work their commercials into the program’s continuity and among the first with a singing commercial.
How does Don feel about having a whole show based on him? He let out a jolly chuckle.
“I’m thrilled pink—at last I think the time is ripe to ask Jack for a raise.”
Wilson carried on with Benny through the end of his TV series in 1965 and appeared on a few specials, though Bill Baldwin took over the straight announcing role. Donzie and Lois moved to Palm Springs where they hosted a TV show for a number of years until, in a move far too typical in broadcasting, they suddenly weren’t on the station any more. Wilson was 81 when he died in 1982.

Click on the arrow below to hear “The Don Wilson Story” on the Benny radio show of January 10, 1954. Mel Blanc, Frank Nelson, Hy Averback and Sandra Gould have uncredited supporting roles.

1 comment:

  1. Recently saw Don in a departure of his image. He was playing " Fats ", the owner of a club that Peter Lorre and his gangster boss were trying to buy. Complete with dark suit and white brimmed Panama hat. 1946's " The Chase " with Robert Cummings.