Sunday 23 December 2012

Jack Benny’s Christmas in Vaudeville

Ed Sullivan had what must have been one of the cushiest book deals with McGraw-Hill. He came out with a book he didn’t even write. Christmas With Ed Sullivan featured little holiday remembrances by Ed’s buddies. The book was published in 1959—just around the time that plugola on TV shows was being ix-nayed. So Ed couldn’t push the book on his show. However, it did get a nice three-page spread in Family Weekly, one of those magazine inserts in weekend newspapers.

Among Ed’s friends who wrote a short recollection was Jack Benny (J. Edgar Hoover was another). It’s legend that Ed gave Jack his first shot on the radio. That’s not true, but it apparently did lead to Canada Dry picking up Jack to emcee its musical comedy show with George Olsen’s orchestra. The story was published in Family Weekly, December 20, 1959.

Dear Ed,
When I think of Christmas, I remember Father O’Connell, a priest in Sioux City, Iowa. At his death a few years ago, one of my most treasured friendships suddenly vanished, but a Christmas will never come without my memory racing back over the years to Sioux City and the night we first met.
Christmas in a town where I didn’t have one friend wasn’t exactly my idea of a holiday. It was in the early 1920s, and I had been playing a vaudeville engagement there. To make things worse, the snow began to fall. It was a white Christmas all right, but I didn't share in any of the joy I saw around me.
On Christmas Eve, the rest of the troupe had started to leave the theater, but I sat in the dressing room, feeling a long, long way from my home and friends in Waukegan.
Of course, I had been on vaudeville tours at Christmas time before, but there were always a couple of friends on the bill, and we managed to talk ourselves into a good time and a celebration over Christmas dinner in some restaurant, even though we were far away from Mama’s apple strudel.
But that year, besides not knowing a soul in town, I didn't know anyone playing the engagement with me. As the theater grew silent, I dreaded the prospect of dinner all by myself the next day. I was growing more alone by the minute when suddenly there was a knock at the door.
“Come in,” I called, and looked up to see a priest standing in the doorway.
He was a smiling, ruddy-faced man who introduced himself as Father O’Connell. “Jack,” he began, adding uncertainly, “I hope you don't mind my calling you Jack.” Then at once he explained, “It’s just that I’ve seen you every time you’ve come to Sioux City, and I think your act is great.”
Mind him calling me Jack! We were friends before I had time to answer.
Hesitantly he suggested that in case I hadn’t already planned Christmas with someone, he would be very glad if I would have dinner with him.
I jumped at the chance.
Instead of a lonely little restaurant the next afternoon, I found myself at the rectory having a wonderful dinner with Father O'Connell and five other priests. I didn’t feel at all strange, though I am Jewish and it was the first time I had been inside a rectory. To this day, I can’t remember another Christmas so filled with laughter and real joy. Once dinner was over, the priests went to open presents under their tree, where I was dumbfounded and touched to find a small gift from every one of them for me.
Good will toward all men indeed!
In the years that followed, Father O’Connell and I became close friends. Whenever I played Sioux City, he was at the depot to meet my train and spend any time he could spare with me. I looked forward to bookings in the once-lonely town where I hadn't known a single person on Christmas Eve. With Father O’Connell’s sudden death, I lost a generous and dear friend, and I have often realized since then that Christmas away from home is not so very different for me than Christmas away from the warmth and unassuming kindness I had found in that distant rectory in Sioux City.
Jack Benny

Tomorrow: Hollywood’s Secret Santa.

No comments:

Post a Comment