Sunday 16 October 2011

Jack Benny in Vegas

For years, Sunday was Jack Benny day on the radio. He was so popular that, for a time in the major cities on the West Coast, he was heard twice a day. One station picked up his 4 p.m. broadcast designed for eastern stations (Sunday nights at 7) and another would broadcast the repeat performance that supposed to be for the West Coast at 9:30. At least on American stations. Once Benny’s sponsorship switched to an American cigarette company, Canadian stations didn’t, or wouldn’t, pick up his show. No matter. Seattle beamed into Vancouver with ease.

As today is Sunday, it’s therefore an appropriate day to post Jack Benny here on the blog. Jack’s character would appreciate my thrift in presenting old newspaper stories which I put up elsewhere on the internet over the last several years.

Jack had received offers to play Las Vegas and turned them down because wife Mary Livingstone wasn’t crazy about the gambling atmosphere. But then Noel Coward played Vegas, so Jack or his people decided there was nothing wrong with Jack Benny doing the same (and collecting a large cheque). So he opened at the Flamingo in June 1957. And it was a huge success, as if anyone had any doubt.

One of Broadway’s great entertainment columnists, Earl Wilson, devoted a whole day’s effort in 1958 to Jack and his best friend, George Burns, in Sin City.

On Broadway
Gaming Tables Won’t Get Jack Benny's Bucks

LAS VEGAS, July 19—Jack Benny, on vacation here from television, gave me an exclusive explanation of his secret system of not losing at the dice table. (He doesn’t play.)
Actually, he doesn't play much. He'd been sitting in the Flamingo coffee shop with George Burns about 5 p.m. when he yawned and George said, “What are you going to do? Take a nap?”
“I think I might go lose $20,” he said.
And so one of the richest men in show business, in shorts and sports shirt, was seen leaning over a hot dice table a few minutes later, risking a few silver dollars—while next to him several nonentities with much lesser fortunes were betting $50 chips.
“I limit myself to $100 a day,” Jack told me earlier. “And if the $100 is gone by noon, that's still my limit. If I didn’t—being here a whole month—I could get killed.”
In his Flamingo night club act —a big sellout—he tells it somewhat differently.
“We all get about the same salary here but I take mine home,” he says. “Oh, I may risk a few dollars. But by that time, the house has bought me four cigars and six drinks, and I’m ahead. I may become an alcoholic but never a gambler.”
Jack’s fascinated by the highrollers. We discussed a well-known figure who won $1,000,000 in a card game.
“That guy can't sit down to lunch without making a bet—such as how many seeds there are in his slice of watermelon,” George Burns said.
“Or whether the waitress will serve you or me first,” Jack said, “Those guys know how to gamble. I don’t.”
Jack’s playing it safe, too, by starring here in a cafe show. “I was such a big hit the first time they brought me right back only 11 months later,” he says.
JACK WORKS with fellow fiddler Gisele MacKenzie—and has something fresh and novel for cafe crowds: The Jack Benny fan club from Yermo, Nev., a small town near here. The Jack Benny fan club turns out to be, Jack says, “dames all about 80 years old.” Actually, some are only 60.
“I tried to get them to work nude,” Jack tells his audience.
When the fan club is invited up on stage, one fan titters “I haven’t been so excited since I danced with President Buchanan.”
They invite Jack to the convention of the Jack Benny fan clubs which, they say, is to be held in Minnesota.
“Why Minnesota?” asks Jack.
“Well we’ve tried other places,” one of the “girls” says, “but we seem to do better the nearer we are to the Mayo Clinic.”
Jack also tells his audiences that he conducted a poll to find out whether people preferred his TV show live or on film.
“I was surprised,” he says, “by how many didn’t like me at all.”
The truth is that Jack’s looking forward to another big year on TV. “There’s no way of changing my format because I have no format,” he said.
He felt one of his best shows last year was his takeoff on Jackie Gleason and “The Honeymooners.”
“I’d like to repeat that in New York!” he said. “And get Gleason to come on at the end. I’ll have tell Gleason to stay fat so I can do it.”
“Jackie's slim again,” I said.
“That would be better!” he decided. He thought Audrey Meadows was great on that show.
“If they want an exciting new star on Broadway, they should get Audrey Meadows,” he said. I think she’s sensational.”
JACK’S WIFE Mary came over at this point to say she’d been on the phone all day. “Do you know what all those calls were for?” she said. “Reservations, what can I do about them, Jack?”
“You can’t do a damn thing,” Jack said. The room where he performs has a sign over it saying, “Jack Benny’s Vault.” The lettering is in pennies. The club even removed chairs from Jack’s dressing room so more customers could be accommodated.
Jack asked me how I liked “The Music Man” and I told him about a man in it who drops a valise with a loud crash. When asked what he does, he says, “I’m an anvil salesman.”
“Isn’t that an old vaudeville bit?” I asked Jack and George Burns.
“I never saw it,” both said.
“But I think it’s very funny,” Jack said. “If it were given to me, I’d do it.”
George Burns sucked his cigar. “I’m going to do it!” he announced. “Not only that, I’m going to wire them and tell them to take it out of the show because I originated it and it’s mine.”
Jack laughed for two minutes.
That’s why they say he’s the world’s best audience and one of show business’ nicest people.

The Honeymooners parody was broadcast on January 26, 1958. It really showcases what talent Dennis Day had. He spoofs, but captures, Art Carney as Ed Norton. Benny’s Ralph Kramden is pretty funny; he’s got all the mannerisms down. Audrey Meadows makes a guest appearance to add some authenticity. And Benny’s Art Director Robert Tyler Lee has come up with a great imitation of the dingy Kramden apartment.


  1. In general, I fund the Benny shows that hold up the best are the ones where Jack's supposed to be away from the stage/studio and dealing with/being plagued by his regular supporting cast (Eddie, Mel, Frank Nelson, Artie Auerbach, Benny Rubin, etc.). Of the episodes that are more in the variety show/skit mode, something like "The Honeymooners" works because the series itself was so strong we immediately recognize the characters 55 years down the line.

  2. They have the advantage of being worked out on radio first then adapted for TV. And you expect to see them there. You don't expect to see Jack with Johnny Ray or the Smothers Brothers like on the TV show.

  3. True, plus the "stage" shows tend to be a little less outrageous, as far as the gags they would try with the non-regulars, usually preferring to do something relating to what the audience knew the star by (the wild gags in those 'guest star' episodes do stand out when they are tried, like the workers dismantling Jack's ageless body in front of Johnny Carson, or Peter Lorre, disguised as Jack, murdering Mel Blanc, Don Wilson and then the stage crew).