Sunday 14 October 2012

A Parade of Jack Benny, Part One

The January 10, 1954 broadcast of the Jack Benny show featured this bit of dialogue:

Rochester: We just got a copy of Parade magazine and your picture is on the cover.
Jack: Parade magazine? Oh, yes, yes. And my picture’s in color, isn't it?
Rochester: Uh, huh.
Jack: How do my eyes look?
Rochester: Green.
Jack: Green?
Rochester: There’s a spinach ad on the other side of the page.
Jack: A spinach ad?
Rochester: When you hold it up to the light, it looks like you’re peeking through a hedge.

Parade was a magazine supplement with all kinds of feature articles and pictures that appeared in Sunday newspapers. It published a rather lengthy biography on Jack, divided over two consecutive editions. In 1954, there were no books about Jack’s life; the piece in Parade may have been the lengthiest to date (Life and Look also did feature stories about him).

We’re going to present it in two parts, just as Parade did. Unfortunately, I don’t have decent copies of the photos that accompanied the article, including a fine tux-clad photo of Jack on the front cover, so I’ve added some other ones. There’s a photo of Jack and Marilyn but not this one.

So sit back, relax and pretend you’re with a Sunday paper of many years ago.

The Secret Life of Jack Benny
How old is he? What’s the story behind his violin-playing? Is he stingy? …Here are the answers in his own words.


JACK BENNY has become as much a part of America as pumpkin pie. For years, he has delighted millions by portraying himself as a rich skinflint. What’s behind that stage mask Benny wears? In a two-part story beginning today, PARADE reveals the secret life of Jack Benny, once described as a man “with a great talent for doing nothing—brilliantly.”
THE TIME has come to ruin one of the oldest jokes on the airwaves.
Jack Benny, who has been convulsing millions of people for more than 20 years with his deadpan claim to be 39 years old, will celebrate his 60th birthday next month.
And, now that Benny is admittedly taking on the role of an elder statesman of comedy, perhaps the time has come to explode the rest of the illusions he has fostered during an unparalleled career before the microphones
But, if you’re like the hat cheek girl Jack ran into at the Earl Carroll cafe here not long ago, you won’t like it. Years of listening to the Sunday evening Benny program had convinced her that Jack was the world’s stingiest man
So she was stunned when the comedian tried to give her a dollar as he left the restaurant. The girl handed the money back and pleaded, Please, Mr. Benny, Please leave me some illusions.
In the interests of truth, however, it must now be divulged that Jack Benny is not only a generous man in private life, but is also a better than good violin player.
In fact, there was a time back around the turn of the century when the Kubelsky family in Waukegan, Ill. had visions of seeing their son, Benny, step onto the concert stage in white tie and tails. They were encouraged by the fact that one of the lad’s favorite books was the Horatio Alger epic, “Phil The Fiddler.”
When Benny in his early teens began to show marked dislike for both schoolwork and serious violin practice, the Kubelskys were distressed.
Opened a Saloon
Meyer and Emma Kubelsky had both come to Chicago from Europe with their respective families. They met and married there, and then settled in Waukegan where they had friends.
“I think Dad started in as a peddler,” Jack recalls. “Then he operated a saloon. It was the toughest saloon in Waukegan, and my mother never liked it. One day a man came into my father’s saloon and wanted a drink. The man was drunk, and so my father refused to serve him. The outraged customer picked up a billiard cue and laid my father out cold. That was the end of the saloon business. After that he ran a department store and then a haberdashery.
We always lived in cheap houses. I remember one was a flat over a butcher shop. Business was never very good. We were never very poor, but we never had it too good.”
As in many Orthodox Jewish families, music was held almost sacred by the Kubelskys. So when Meyer Kubelsky brought a half-size fiddle home for his six-year-old son, Benny, he expected it to be used with reverence.
“It was a cheap fiddle, says Jack. “I took lessons from a guy named Professor Harlow, a big, old, bald-headed man who charged a dollar or two for lessons twice a week. Later I used to commute to the Chicago Musical College to study with a man named Hugo Kortchak.
“I can recall that all my teachers thought I’d make a fine violinist if I’d only practice. When I was 15 my father bought me an imitation Amati, a pretty good fiddle. I think he paid $75 for it. I’ve used it for 45 vears.
But you know my mother didn’t live to see any thing good come of me. Maybe if I had practiced hard I’d have been something before she died
Modest Start
ACTUALLY, Jack’s years of sawing away at the violin were far from wasted. They opened the door of show business.
He started in a modest way by playing parlor concerts for friends. When he couldn’t get a real audience he would set up eight or more chairs in the empty living room and perform. And when his long-suffering but devoted grandmother came out from Chicago for visits, Jack played to her
“I’d make out the living room was a theater, and I’d put on shows for her,” he recalls. “I’d play the violin and say some lines. Never comedy though. I always wanted to be the straight man, the guy in the straw hat and classy clothes.
“We had a legitimate theater in Waukegan. I tried to go to all the shows. I started off in what you might call show business by working in the Barrison Theater as in usher then as a stagehand. I got no pay in either job. But to me it was wonderful, the whole stage atmosphere.
“Finally I got a job playing in the orchestra pit when I was 15. I think I got paid $8 or $9 a week. Before that, I played in a kid orchestra in stores on Saturday afternoons. I’d make $1.50 an afternoon. I also used to work with Hapke’s Orchestra out in Libertyville on Saturday nights for $2 or $3 a night.
By the time Jack, still in knicker pants, landed in the orchestra pit his mother was quite upset at the way things were going. The clincher came when Jack was expelled from high school for sneaking off to play at matinees
“I wish I could have had both education and success,” Jack says now. “But somehow that doesn’t seem to work out. There are very few college graduate comedians. The college grads just don’t have that ‘ain’t quality,’ as Will Rogers used to call it.”
Aside from his excursions into show business, Jack was a fairly normal, healthy child.
“I never got into any scrapes,” he says, “because I couldn’t lick anybody. I never did much in athletics except play baseball with the kids. I played every position except catcher. I guess I was a tiny bit shy—and sensitive. I was never very good at anything, and I wasn’t ever the life of the party type. This I’d never been even today.
Jack s real start in the entertainment business came when he was 17. The Barrison Theater closed down. So Cora Salisbury, a vaudeville entertainer who was leading the pit orchestra decided to go back on the road. She took 17-year-old Benny along.
The act was called “Salisbury and Benny—From Grand Open to Ragtime.” Jack’s dreams were fulfilled. He first appeared on the stage in a posh, double breasted blue suit and, later, in a fancy white suit. He was a smooth straight man.
“In this act I played a medley of grand opera tunes and also ‘The Rosary’ under an amber spotlight,” Jack says. “Then Cora and 1 would do a ragtime melody with a little humor in it I'd flirt with the girls in the box seats while playing my violin.”
Jack earned $15 and expenses each week. From that time on—with a few interludes—Jack rose as steadily and undramatically as a banker. His stage career is completely without the usual Hollywood touches.
He Sold Clothes
SALISBURY and Benny broke up in about two years when Miss Salisbury’s mother fell ill. Benny went back to Waukegan and sold suits in his father’s store until he joined a piano player named Lyrnan Woods. Benny and Woods made up to $200 a week on the Orpheum Circuit until Jack got word his mother was dying
“I got home just a couple of days before she died,” Jack remembers. “I guess she was still disappointed in me. I had a great love for my mother.”
Jack enlisted in the Navy at the Great Lakes Naval Station near his home. He soon found himself in the Great Lakes revue. He played his first comic part—“Izzy There, the Admiral’s Disorderly.”
When he was mustered out a few weeks after the armistice Jack struck out on his own. He changed his name legally from Benny Kubclsky to Jack Benny.
Jack started out in a little Chicago theater at $125 a week. “I was kind of nervous going out there alone for the first time,” he says. “1 came out wearing a tight fitting suit and a little sailor hat. The stage was dark then the lights went up and there I’d be with my back to the audience, practicing scales on the violin. Then I’d turn around and say—‘Well, I guess I'm on’—and I’d play the violin and make a few jokes of the monologue type Well, gradually I started adding more jokes and playing less violin.”
By the time Jack got booked into the Palace in New York, he was making $250 a week and just using the violin for a prop. Shortly after that, he teamed up with the famous Nora Bayes They toured across the country to California (with Jack’s income rising to $450 a week) where Jack met a girl named Sadie Marks.
It was the beginning of Jack Benny’s big romance, the kind of romance that is even rarer in show business than Jack’s banker-like career For Jack Benny is still married to Sadie Marks who is known to the world as Mary Livingstone.
THE BENNY romance is no secret, of course. But few people know that Mary once hated Jack. The night they really met, as Jack puts it now, he had a date with Nora Bayes.
But for some reason Nora couldn’t make it. So Jack called Mary’s sister, Babe, and her husband, Al Bernovici (who also had a violin act). Babe persuaded Mary to go on a double date.
It took persuading because Mary, who was selling hosiery in a Los Angeles store, not only disliked actors in general, but she scorned Benny in particular. Mary remembered the night years before when Jack visited in the Marks family home in Vancouver, B.C., while he was touring with the Marx Brothers.
“Zeppo Marx invited me to come to dinner at the Marks’ house,” Jack says. “I thought it was going to be some big party and 1 got all dressed up. I came there and found a 12-year-old girl, Mary—who insisted on playing the violin for me because I was company. I didn’t want to hear any 12-year-old play a fiddle. I was bored—and showed it. Mary was very mad at me that time and she remembered it all those years. I didn’t give her a tumble. When I met her that night in Los Angeles, she reminded me of it.”
But, despite Mary’s reluctance, they had a good time. “We danced and ate and danced some more, and I had a feeling that she liked me a little bit,” Jack says. “I realized right off the bat, here was a girl with a great sense of humor. Besides, she was very pretty—and a good listener. 1 don’t think I tried to kiss her goodnight that time; she was going steady with another fellow then.”
Jack went back on the road. He didn’t keep in touch with Mary until he met Babe in Chicago. She told him Mary was engaged.
“I didn’t want to get married, but I didn’t want Mary marrying anybody else,” he explains. “I suggested that Babe call her sister up and ask her to come east for a visit. When Mary came to Chicago, I asked her to marry me.
“I took her to visit my Dad in Lake Forest, and in the living room I asked her the question. It was kind of sudden—I think it took her by surprise; but she said yes. She really wasn’t sure she should do it. She was engaged to someone else, after all.
“Well, we set the date for Sunday. But then I knew if we waited too long it might not happen. So I said, ‘Let’s get married right away.’ I didn’t even have a ring for her. I used my mother’s ring. We got married on Friday, Jan. 14, 1927. Mary wasn’t sure until the last minute that she’d go through with it. Just before the ceremony she wrote her fiance in California, saying: ‘By the time you get this, I may be married ...’ “I’m glad I did it this way. I didn’t want to lose her.
Mary didn’t know what hit her. She was a pretty bewildered girl. I was kind of dazed, too—it was tough for me to realize I was actually married.”
“The first year was rough—for Mary. She was often lonely. But I don’t think that Mary and I ever had a fight all the years of our marriage big enough to cause us even to think of divorce. Each year after that first year got better. Mary always wanted children, but for some reason or other we never got around to it, so we adopted Joannie. Right after that, Mary became pregnant, but she lost the child. The doctors said it wouldn’t be good for her to try any more . . .
Wanted More Children
“WE SHOULD have adopted more children; we were just negligent. I’ve missed not having more. As a matter of fact, I’ve wanted another daughter—and also a son . . .”
By the time, Jack and Mary were married, he was definitely “big time.” He was doing a 12-minute spot in Jake Shubert’s “Great Temptations.”
After that came another session of vaudeville (during which he first got Mary into his act as a “dumb kid”) and then an $850 a week contract with MGM to appear in “The Hollywood Revue of 1929.” Jack left Hollywood to become one of three stars in Earl Carroll’s “Vanities”—at $ 1,500 a week.
But Jack got fed up with touring. So he asked Carroll for a release. “I went back to New York without a job,” he says. “Vaudeville was kind of dead by now.
“At that time Ed Sullivan had a radio show in which he was using guests. I don’t think he was paying for the guests; I didn’t get paid. I sat with Sullivan and prepared the little ‘spot.’”
The little “spot”—Jack Benny’s first words to radio audiences went like this: "Hello, folks! This is Jack Benny. There will be a slight pause for everyone to say, ‘Who cares?’”
That was in 1932. Many people did care. And millions more care now.

Next week’s PARADE will take you behind the scenes to show how the deadpan comedian’s voices are born—and why they’re funny.

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