Sunday, 16 April 2017

How To Treat A Guest Star

Television was new and scary for many of the big stars in Hollywood who weren’t contractually banned from the small screen. They were used to the comparatively leisurely pace that film work offered, but also concerned about the future of the studios with people simply staying home to watch entertainment. They didn’t want to make a false step.

The Jack Benny Program may have been the best outlet for them. For one thing, Jack made sure the guest stars got the laughs. For another, some had already been on his radio show, so they were familiar with how he worked. And for another, he had a big audience and large exposure didn’t hurt.

The Los Angeles Times talked to Jack about his use of guest stars in a story published Dec. 20, 1953. The article has an answer for something I wondered about. I’ve heard the radio show on October 10, 1948 where Jack announced at the end that the Colmans didn’t appear that night “due to unforseen commitments” but would be on in a couple of weeks. He never gave a reason on the air but this story explains it.

Benny and his writers used the Colmans so well. Even when they weren’t on, the script would refer to them and they’d still get laughs. Occasionally, the Colman’s butler Sherwood (usually played by Eric Snowden) would appear on the show, making it seem to the listeners that the Colmans were right there when, of course, they weren’t.

Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall gave a very funny performance on Benny’s radio show. As for the television show mentioned in the article, not all the critics were kind. For one thing, the picture died on the coaxial cable so easterners only got sound. The West Coast edition of Variety opined “It was not one of Benny’s better shows.” Variety editor Abel Green and Jack Gould of the New York Times disliked the fact the show’s sketch portion featured Bogie plugging the sponsor’s product. Donald Kirkley of the Baltimore Sun was even more disdainful, sniffing “Mr. Bogart was so much dead wood, sullen, unfunny, and out of his element.”

Benny Demands Parts Fitted to Guest Stars

When Jack Benny first became a top figure in the entertainment field as a radio comic he established his own creed that could serve well as a pattern to other producers in the interest of better televiewing.
“Fit the star to the part, not the part to the star.”
That’s all it says. But its meaning is so powerful it has helped establish Jack as the man to be seen with on television these days.
Top Stars Appear
Among the top names in the entertainment industry who consented to appear before the video cameras first with the Waukegan comic are Claudette Colbert, Ben Hogan, Barbara Stanwyck, Mr. and Mrs. Jimmy Stewart, Marilyn Monroe, Humphrey Bogart and Isaac Stern.
There may be more but at lunch the other noon Benny managed to recall these as definite “firsts” on his TV shows during the last three years.
“I have to have an idea before I even think about trying to get a guest star for my show,” Benny began. “This way they are protected by a script and I’m protecting my own show at the same time.”
Wrong Way Around
“Most producers get into trouble by hiring name stars for shows and then finding they have no material with which to exploit their talents. It isn’t fair to the viewers and it certainly isn’t doing a performer’s career any good to have to stumble through a weak situation.
“Why one time I was offered Clark Gable free by his studio for a guest spot. The only requirement was that we plug his new picture. It was a great chance but I turned it down because I had no script ready that would put Gable at ease on the show. Imagine, me, tightwad Benny turning down Gable for free. People said I should have my head examined. Maybe I should have.
Bogart Much Sought
It is a well known fact around Hollywood that both Ed Sullivan and Milton Berle were hot on the trail of Bogart for his TV debut. He was a valuable piece of property and both Easterners had the bulging checkbooks out and in working order.
But Bogey decided he wanted to play it safe in television. He put all his eggs in one basket with Benny for his TV debut and the reviews more than justified his faith in the old maestro.
It has been the same situation with the other stars who chose the Benny routines for breaking into TV. All said they felt at ease with Jack and knew he would give them more than an even break in material.
In the early days of his radio career, Benny had his writers bring Rochester on for one broadcast. That was when Benny was moving his family and radio show to California. Rochester was supposed to be a Pullman porter on the train. It was the luckiest day of Rochester’s career because the public clamored for more and Benny solved the problem by hiring him as his valet.
A situation arose where an English-speaking couple could be used in the script. Benny asked Ronald Colman and his wife, Benita, if they would do the part.
Material Changed
“Ronnie had just come off a guest spot with adverse reports,” recalled Jack. “He did not want to do my show but I persuaded him to try it. I guess he has been one of my most faithful guesters ever since. He knows now that I’ll never call him unless the part is right for him.
Once he advertised the Colmans as his Sunday guests but at the Saturday rehearsals Jack had a feeling that something was wrong with the script. He couldn’t put his finger on the trouble and finally suggested that Ronnie and Benita take a raincheck. They agreed and that night an entire new story line was written without the Colemans. Jack finally solved the problem, corrected the trouble and two weeks later the Coleman’s [sic] were back on the show.
“My show is built around characters who have become so well established that the audiences look forward to hearing them again and again,” Jack pointed out.
“If they don’t show up on one show, people tune in again to hear them on the following show. But there’s always a familiar voice around to satisfy the audience while they’re waiting.”
Mary Severe Critic
Jack confided that he doesn’t expect his wife, Mary, to do very much more radio with him.
“She’s my greatest critic but she just doesn’t care about doing any acting,” he said. “If I want to know whether a show has been good or bad, I just have to talk to Mary for a few seconds. She puts me straight. She’s real tough and certainly knows all there is to know about show business.”
Just to prove that the Benny influence works both ways, guess who will be Bing Crosby’s guest when Crosby makes his first filmed solo appearance on television Jan. 3? None other than Jack himself. Crosby could have had his pick of guest performers but he came up with the old master. To borrow a phrase from a Crosby competitor, “Bing could be sure with Benny.”
Benny does his next television show next Sunday. He’ll feature his usual New Year’s Eve type show on KNXT (2) at 7 p.m. He’s also set to make an appearance at the Times’ National Sports Award Dinner Dec. 28 in the Cocoanut Grove. Who knows, maybe he’ll bring a real surprise guest with him.

1 comment:

  1. Jack Benny died 42 years ago. Give me another two or three years an I'll finally be used to the idea.