Sunday, 11 December 2011

It’s a Great Honour Being Here Tonight

“Dean Martin put the ‘moan’ in ‘testimonial’,” a Hollywood observer once yowped. There was a time when you couldn’t get away from Dean Martin TV roasts, complete with vaudeville-era jokes (all on cue-cards), Foster Brooks’ tedious drunk act, Ruth Buzzi constantly bashing someone with her handbag, and the same guffawing reaction shots edited in throughout the broadcast. Despite all that, the shows were a huge success because viewers loved the stars no matter how weak and contrived the material was. (As an aside, I really love Ruth Buzzi. Her ability to stay in character in all these shows is a testimony to how underrated a talent she is).

The TV roasts descended from the show biz fraternity roasts put on by the Lambs, the Friars and so on. The roasts had a more stately moniker of “testimonial dinner” at one time. One was given in Jack Benny’s honour to mark his tenth year in broadcasting in 1941 (see below).

There’s a fleeting mention of Jack in this column which appeared in newspapers starting April 20, 1948. But the star is really Eddie Cantor, who tells great old stories that only the great old comedians could tell.

HOLLYWOOD—(NEA)—Everything runs in cycles in Hollywood except producers, who run in circles.
Right now Hollywood is having a testimonial banquet cycle and if someone hasn’t given you one you just ain’t anybody. (Or else you aren’t eating anyway. They never give a man a dinner until he can afford one.)
As of today there have been testimonial dinners for Jack Benny, Eddie Cantor, Al Jolson, George Jessel, a radio editor, a lady columnist, and Bob Hope, who thinks there will probably be one soon for the janitor of the Friars’ club.
Oscar winners Ronald Colman and Edmund Gwenn are next in line. They get a stag banquet at the Masquers’ club April 28.
Cantor was getting two poached eggs on toast—“they look just like me”—when I cornered him at the Brown Derby. As a veteran banquet-goer for 30 years—“always a bridesmaid but never a bride until now”—Cantor was full of testimonial dinner lore.
Testimonial Chickens
In fact, Eddie thinks there are chickens raised especially and laid aside for testimonial banquets. “Especially skinny and especially tough.”
Eddie remembered a testimonial banquet in 1924 for someone whose name he didn’t remember. The famous New York lawyer, Max Steuer, was toastmaster. One of the speakers talked for nearly an hour, then apologized, saying, “I’m sorry. I didn’t bring a watch with me.”
To which Steuer replied, “Why there was a calendar right behind you.”
This one Eddie says he’ll never forget. Will Rogers was invited to be toastmaster at a Jewish charity drive banquet. To the surprise of everyone he accepted. But the big surprise came with the banquet seven weeks later.
Will stood up and didn’t speak a word of English all evening. Everything he said was in Hebrew. He had spent the seven weeks learning a language for just one evening.
Cantor and George Jessel once promised a pal they would attend his testimonial banquet at a New York hotel. It was on a Saturday night and they were anxious to get back to their gin rummy game. So they rushed into the hotel, went to the back door of the banquet room and said to the first man they met:
“Put us on right away. We’ve got a date.”
Wrong Party
The fellow beamed, said, “Of course,” and shoved them onto the stage. They told jokes for half an hour and then rushed back to their cards. Next day the pal called Cantor and said., “What happened to you? Where were you last night?”
“Where were we?” yelled Cantor. “We told jokes at your banquet for half an hour.”
In their rush, Eddie and George had gone to the wrong banquet room and had entertained somebody else’s pal.
The great Caruso was given a testimonial banquet at the Friars after World War I. There was a long program intended to entertain him. Caruso listened for a while, then stood up and shouted:
“Why nobody ask me to sing? I am a professional. I will show you programs where I worked.”
And with that, Caruso walked onto the stage, collared a pianist and sang for nearly an hour.
“Caruso,” said Eddie, “was just an Italian Al Jolson.”

Johnson referred to the Jessel dinner among the items in his column later in the week:

Gags flew high, wide and handsome at the George Jessel testimonial banquet. Jack Benny, the m.c. , recalled his own career with Darryl Zanuck, Jessel’s boss, and quipped,
“Zanuck traded me to Warner Bros, for an assistant director and a polo mallet.”
Sam Goldwyn insisted, “Jessel has been around so long there’s a story that he’s the actor who shot Lincoln. But if Lincoln had heard Jessel sing, it would have been the other way around.”

Frankly, I’d rather have seen that testimonial dinner than Foster Brooks belching his words for the umpteeth time. I’ll bet Ruth Buzzi would agree.

To listen to the Jack Benny 10th Anniversary Dinner broadcast of May 11, 1941, click on the audio player below.

And Jack’s show of November 4, 1951 revolved around a testimonial dinner with Jessel guest-starring. The supporting cast includes Mel Blanc, Bea Benaderet, Frank Nelson and a young boy playing Jack Benny that’s still busy in show biz today. His name is Harry Shearer.


  1. The first couple of Dean Martin roasts actually were pretty good, because they were originally just one-off things. Once they decided to make it a regular feature of the NBC lineup, the material got old in a hurry and they beat the bit into the ground enough to carve out a new Grand Canyon.

    It's interesting to see the Jessel barbs from the late 1940s and note the same "he's ancient" spin was being used then as in the 1960s and 70s, when I was hearing it (it was also similar to hearing all the jokes in the 60s and 70s about Guy Lombardo and his bad being for and by geriatrics, and then watching 1938's "Porky at the Crocadero" and finding out that was pretty much the same view a generation earlier).

  2. It's very easy to offer a poor critique of those in whose tracks you could never follow-however, as generations to come find these to be their introductions to these wonderful entertainers, it will be none other than your incipient article that are old and beaten...and, to say the least, tedious.

  3. Hi, Anon. Next time I praise Tex Avery's brilliantly funny cartoons, be sure to tell me I don't know what I'm talking about because I never aspired to be a cartoon director.