Sunday 3 June 2012

Swoongoons for Dennis

The main players on the Jack Benny Show are well-known today because they all stuck with Jack for a very long time. Phil Harris was the only one who didn’t move to television with him, being tied up with a big contract on another network (Phil’s replacement, the affable undistinguished Bob Crosby, did).

Dennis Day was the last of the main cast members to join the show. He started as a clone of the previous tenor, Kenny Baker, but as time progressed, and running gags settled in for the long haul toward the end of the ‘40s, Dennis proved far more versatile and, frankly, better at dialogue. His character was so ingrained with Benny’s audience, he was able to carry it off on television when he was obviously older than what his character should have been.

So convincing were the Benny characters that newspaper stories invariably explained to readers the people really weren’t what they were like on the radio. Seemingly endless stories about Jack felt the need to inform people he really wasn’t cheap. And profiles of Dennis threw in that he wasn’t a sheltered mama’s boy. Here’s an Associated Press story from 1948.

Dennis Day Guided by Pure Irish Luck
HOLLYWOOD. March 13. The luck of the Irish has been guiding Dennis Day, both of whose, parents were born in Erin.
Take the time he was 6 months old, and nursing his bottle: The carriage toppled over and dumped Dennis into Hughes Ave., the Bronx. The bottle broke and gashed his nose so deeply that he lost nearly all his blood. The doctor filled out a death certificate and said Dennis couldn’t last the night. But the saints were watching over him—though the long scar is still noticeable.
Even a later appendectomy was pure luck. The operation kept him from enrolling in law at Columbia for a semester. To kill time, he began knocking around radio stations as an occasional singer. When Jack Benny needed a tenor in May, 1939, Dennis’ auditions record was one of 500. Luck again—Mary Livingstone heard it and liked it.
That emergency operation turned him toward a still-expanding career as vocalist, impersonator, comedian, recording artist and music publisher. Soon he’ll act in a movie, “Babes in Toyland,” and he’s preparing to get into television.
Black-haired, sharp-nosed and slender, Dennis is shyer and smarter than the naive youth he plays on the air. He was born Eugene Dennis McNulty 27 years ago in the Bronx. When announcers mispronounced his name “McNoolty” and “McNalty” he borrowed part of his grandmother’s name, O'Day, for professional use.
He lives in a Spanish-style stucco house with his pretty 23-year-old bride, the former Peggy Almquist, a U. S. C. student until their marriage last Jan. 29. Several bobby-soxed young residents of the neighborhood had been walking or bicycling by during my visit, and when I left there was a scrawled note in the mailbox: “Dear Dennis Day—We are the fans of you. We are what you call swoongoons over you. We want your autograph.”

It always seems odd to me that girls would be hot for Dennis Day. Irish tenors strike me as appealing to the more matronly type. Well, maybe grandmatronly. Before the turn of the last century, large waves of Irish immigrants arrived in the eastern U.S., bringing music with them. The direct-from-the-Auld Sod population aged and shrank as time progressed. People born afterward found their own culture and music.

Dennis commented about that to the North American News Agency in this column of March 5, 1960. He was still part of the Benny TV family, albeit occasionally.

Dennis Day—Last Irish Tenor
LAS VEGAS (NANA)—“I’m the last of the Irish tenors,” sighed Dennis Day, speaking in his normal voice, which isn’t at all high-pitched. “We’re the whooping cranes of show business. We’re practically extinct. Phil Regan’s out of the business now. Morton Downey’s retired. The old generation’s dying and no new tenors are coming up.
“Perhaps it’s just as well when you consider what’s happening to the good old Irish songs. On a jukebox the other day I heard a rock ‘n’ roll version of—hold your hats?—‘Danny Boy.’ Imagine that! What’ll they think of next—‘Mother Machree Cha Cha Cha’?”
Such worries to one side, Dennis has been headlining the show at the Riviera Hotel here where he concludes his act with—what else?—a medley of Irish tunes. Offstage, he is small, compact, unassuming and serious. His expression rarely changes except for the sudden flashes of wit.
Then you see the humor coming alive in his eyes, which are dark brown and very guileless. He started life, incidentally, as Owen Patrick Eugene Dennis McNulty. However, when announcers insisted on calling him “McNutley,” he became Dennis Day, his grandmother’s name having been O’Day.
We talked about his long-flourishing association with Jack Benny, now in its 21st year. “It’s the luckiest thing that ever happened,” Day said. “Kenny Baker has just left the Benny show. I auditioned for Jack and I got hired—me, a kid fresh out of Manhattan College, starting out on radio’s top show. What could be better?”
Day added: “Like all native New Yorkers, I was the world’s biggest hick. I’d never been north of Yonkers in my life. Being so green, so provincial, I had no trouble stepping into Kenny Baker’s role of the silly kid singer.
But how was he able to play the silly kid singer all these years? Day smiled and said: “The credit goes to Jack Benny because he’s the one who creates the illusion. I sure don’t look like a kid, silly or otherwise. I’ll be 42 this year. I’ve got wrinkles—and seven children at home. But on Jack’s show, somehow, people believe it, like they believe, well, sort of believe—that Jack is 39 and drives a Maxwell.
“The interesting thing is that I can only play the silly tenor on Jack’s show. But when I do a guest appearance elsewhere the writers take the easy way out and make me say things like ‘Yes, please?’ It never works. Without Jack Benny, there’s no illusion to make it funny.
People have asked me if I ever resent being toed to Jack Benny. How could I resent it? I’ve made a fine living with Jack. I’ve worked with fine people. And I’ve learned comedy timing from the master.”
Several years ago, Day starred in his own ill-fated show, which NBC pitted against “I Love Lucy,” then at the crest of its popularity. Cliff Arquette, as Charley Weaver, was featured on that particular series.
“In fact, we wrote the show around Charley,” Day recalled. “He was just as funny then as he was now. But nobody saw him. In those days, everybody was watching ‘Lucy.’”

Cynics might accuse Dennis Day of maintaining fame through nostalgia—nostalgia for the old Benny show, nostalgia for old Irish songs, nostalgia for the old movie stars he impersonated. If so, he wouldn’t have been the first and he won’t be the last. But he had to have something to get there in the first place and give the girls something to go swoongoons over many years ago.

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