Sunday, 13 August 2017

Jack Benny and His Violin

One of many comedy routines on the Jack Benny show (radio and TV) featured Benny scratching out some racket while practising on the violin, with teacher Prof. Le Blanc reeling in pain or annoyance. Listeners and viewers thought—“He couldn’t really play that badly? Could he? Just how well can he play?”

Well, yes, he could play better. But the question of how well he really could play is open for discussion.

The impression I’ve been left with is that to the average audience, Jack Benny was a very accomplished violinist. To professional musicians with trained ears, well, he wasn’t great, and never would be, but he was dedicated and serious about his love for music.

One person who would know the answer to the question better than I was the man who helped Benny improve his skills on the instrument. Larry Kurkdjie was a serious symphony musician who, somehow, found himself in Phil Harris’ orchestra on the Benny radio show. Jack seconded Kurkdjie to give him lessons. Someone thought to interview him about Benny’s violin virtuosity and it appeared in a newspaper weekend magazine supplement on November 13, 1960. Unfortunately, the scan is very poor; I’d love to have a better copy of the drawing of violinist Benny.
Benny's Fiddle Teacher Tells All

In speaking of Jack Benny's violin playing, the late Fred Allen made this classic remark: "Jack's a very funny guy. I love him. But he's the only violinist who makes you feel the strings would sound better back on the cat!"
Despite his almost three decades in broadcasting, audiences still do not know how to accept Benny: is he a virtuoso side-tracked into a career as a comedian, or is he a comic with a musical sideline?
Benny isn't talking. But what about Larry Kurkdjie? He is Benny's violin teacher, and shouldn't he have a pretty fair comprehension of which Jack is which? Of course, Larry is a funny man, too. He's rotund and jovial, and can it be a thing of seriousness when he and Jack, adjusted to laughing, put their fiddles under their chins and stare at each other?
Larry says it's serious. When he phoned TV WEEK from California, he pointed out that Jack practices his violin diligently, every day.
"Of course," chuckled Larry, "when we first started we used to have our lessons in the room where people take their Saturday night bath. Jack said that was the only appropriate place. But we've graduated now to Joanie's (Jack's daughter) quarters. Now, nobody objects.
"Also, when we first started we had to close the windows real tight. Now we leave them open. So you can see how well he's progressed."
But back to the original poser — is Benny a musician turned comedian, or a comic who likes to fiddle around?
Larry put it this way:
"I really believe that, as a comedian, he's one of the best violinists. Not the best violinist by a long shot, but one of the best — as a comedian. Jack gets by with difficult, technical passages that fool the layman. That's the beauty of his artistry, the way he covers up. His timing is absolutely beautiful. But he's a human being like the rest of us, and he makes lots of mistakes." Larry chuckled again. "And more so on the violin than otherwise!
"I've had a lot of people tell me they know Jack is a great violinist, and that he makes mistakes purposely. That's wonderful — let them think that.
Larry has been with Jack for twenty-three years, but only within the last four or five years has he been instructing Benny in the art of fiddling. That's because Jack has become serious about playing the violin.
"He recently bought a gorgeous Stradivarius," said Larry. "I'd say it's worth about $28,000. And he owns a beautiful bow that used to belong to the great Belgian violinist, Eugene Ysaye. So, the combination of the Strad (which Jack carries to rehearsals and practices in his dressing room when there's time) and the bow helps him get over the bad passages!"
During the 1960-61 season, Jack's calendar includes nightclub appearances and concert engagements with symphony orchestras in Indianapolis, Cleveland, Milwaukee and Cincinnati. He will, of course, be violin soloist, and his program will not include minor works such as "Love In Bloom." He will choose from such major fiddle fodder as the "Mendelssohn Concerto" (which Larry says is just about Jack's favorite composition) and some bowing exercises by Rimsky-Korsakov.
"He loves Brahms, too," said Larry, "but he hasn't tackled it yet. He likes any good music. He likes to play quartet, and plans on doing some trios — violin, cello, piano. All these things, he gradually plans to use on his TV shows."
Some of Benny's greatest fans include such bowmen as Jascha Heifetz, Mischa Elman, Isaac Stein and other distinguished musicians who count him "one of the boys."
Leonard Bernstein, conductor of the New York Philharmonic, says about Jack:
"Benny has done more than raise thousands of dollars to erase operating deficits of major orchestras. He has brought multitudes of people, who would otherwise not be there, into the concert halls (Jack does the concerts for free) to prove that good music can be entertaining and rewarding."
And the master violinist, Isaac Stern, says with tongue-in-cheek: "When Jack walks out in tails in front of 90 musicians he looks like the greatest of soloists. What a shame he has to play!"
The 66-year-old comedian's violin instructor also used to play with symphony orchestras, two of which were the Boston Symphony and Cleveland Symphony. Larry left Cleveland for Hollywood, and in 1938 he substituted on Jack's show.
"Evidently," said Larry, "he thought I did a pretty good job because I've been on the show ever since. I'm the first violinist — every time you hear that high squeaky fiddle, that's me.
"But Jack uses his fiddle playing to perfection on his TV shows. He's very serious in his playing. Tries very hard. He really plays to the best of his ability."
Larry hesitated, then couldn't resist another chuckle.
"Of course, at times the playing sounds funny, but still he plays to the best of his ability!"
When he was scarcely out of diapers, Jack began (at his father's behest) taking violin lessons and was soon considered something of a child prodigy. While still in grammar school, he became the only knickerbockered member of the pit orchestra at the Barrison Theatre in Waukegan, Illinois.
During high school he doubled between the school band and the Barrison pit, and at 16 he teamed up with Cora Salisbury, the Barrison pianist, as a vaudeville duo. When she left the act, Jack teamed with Lyman Woods. The team of Benny and Woods in due time became vaudeville headliners here and abroad.
Then what made him decide to be a comedian?
Larry explained that he didn't exactly. "One day he just stopped playing and started talking. They laughed."
The story goes that during the first World War, Jack was a sailor in grease paint, and his prime duty was the raising of funds for Navy relief. His routine in the Great Lakes Revue was musical, but one night during his performance the electricity failed and the lights went out in the auditorium. To keep the crowd from getting restless, Jack started to talk. The audience roared with laughter.
The rest is Humorsville history. The fiddler began his career as a comedian, and the violin probably gathered dust notes in Jack's legendary bank vault. But now, with the fiddle tucked neatly under his chin, Jack is both comic and violinist.
"You know," said Larry, "besides the public concerts he gives, Jack plays for benefits that the public doesn't hear about. For service men, hospital groups - he does a lot of that."
Larry used to give concerts himself, but "I've given it up. Takes too much practice!" He also used to play violin on other television shows, but now is only on Benny's. Although he jokes about Jack's violin playing, it is obvious that Larry does consider him to be a good violinist — as a comedian.
"Jack loves to fiddle," said Larry, "but he loves his show better than anything else. It's the first thing in his life, because he loves to make people laugh. He loves to see them happy.
"His second big love is his fiddle. His third big love is golf. I don't know where his wife Mary comes in!"
Then does Larry think that if Jack continues to practice and take his fiddling seriously, he'll turn out to really be one of the best violinists, comedian or not?
"As I told him," Larry said, "if he ever tries to be a greater violinist than he is, I'll punch him in the nose!"
Kurkdjie’s interview answers another question listeners may have had—Jack Benny was not the one playing those off-key scales and Kreutzer exercises on the radio show. Kurkdjie was. I always figured Benny was doing it because the studio audience might not give a good reaction if someone else at the back of the stage was playing the instrument. But Laura Leibowitz, the very knowledgeable president of the International Jack Benny Fan Club, pointed out in a recent interview (and this makes perfect sense when you think about it):
“[O]n television, he is playing the violin. Radio was different. To play, Jack had to put down the script, pick up the violin and settle it, under his chin, before he could play. After he played the violin, he reversed these steps.
“The set up and take down took time. It was hard to write-around the setup, which disrupted the flow of the show. On radio, Jack playing the violin was rarely feasible.
“Larry Kurkdjie usually played the violin for Jack.”
So it sounds like Jack played the violin during longer, non-dialogue parts (such as the middle commercial for the sponsor, or during his performances of “The Bee” and “Thanks For the Memory” in the ‘30s). Whatever the case, Jack’s violin playing resulted in millions of laughs—and millions of dollars for good causes.


  1. Seem to recall a closing bit on one of his later specials,where he played a very technical piece and the audience started,one by one,to walk out...priceless!

  2. There's an amusing late episode of Benny's television series in which Professor LeBlanc, Jack's long-suffering violin teacher, is seeing a psychiatrist, driven to desperation by his inability to teach Jack even the simplest thing about playing the violin correctly. To save LeBlanc's sanity, Jack plays a piece on the violin perfectly straight and quite well. Having done so, and having restored LeBlanc's will to live, Jack asks the psychiatrist to keep Jack's excellent violin-playing a secret. After all, Jack points out, he DOES have a reputation to maintain.