Sunday, 28 April 2013

Before Jack Benny Sold Canada Dry

We’ve spoken before on this blog that it’s pure bunk that Jack Benny made his radio debut, as he long stated, on the Ed Sullivan radio show on March 29, 1932. You can read about a 1931 broadcast here and a 1929 programme here.

But before Jack’s Sullivan appearance morphed into a legend, there was another claim of a “first” Benny appearance. It was published in the Pittsburgh Press of June 16, 1937 and related a broadcast on an unspecified date in 1931. Considering how meticulously planned the Benny shows were in later years, reading this account is somewhat surprising.

Jack Benny’s Radio Debut Is Recalled In Cincinnati
Newspaperman Who ‘Interviewed’ Clown Hasn’t Recovered From Seeing Carefully Penned Script Snubbed

Jack Benny’s first appearance before a microphone was a riotous, ad lib affair on Cincinnati’s WFBE (now WCPO) with Frank Aston, managing editor of The Post, as his ‘straight’ man.
Few people know that the memorable day in 1931 that Benny had the engineers and announcers of WFBE rolling on the new studio rugs, and radio fans throughout the city in tear-jerking hilarity, marked the famed comedian’s initial broadcast.
Jack was appearing in Cincinnati at the time with Earl Carroll’s Vanities, playing the Shubert. Frank Aston, then drama critic on The Post, was to interview the vaudeville headliner on WFBE. After a weary afternoon at the typewriter, trying laboriously to be as funny as Benny, Mr. Aston finished the script for the broadcast.
Makes No Carbon Copies
Benny appeared at WFBE five minutes before time for the interview to go on the air. As was the custom of that early day in radio, only one script had been prepared. (Incidentally, Jack makes no carbon copies of his program to this day).
Mr. Aston handed his brainchild to Mr. Benny with the comment: “Here’s the script we’re going to use.”
“Ummmmm,” said Mr. Benny. “Ahhhhhh,” as he preceded the critic to the studio. Two minutes to go before broadcast time. Benny still pursued [sic] the script. Frank was getting fidgety. One minute. A green warning light appeared above the studio door.
“We’re on in one minute,” the nervous Mr. Aston hissed.
“Yeah,” said Benny, still studying the lines.
The red light flashed. Aston and Benny were on the air and Aston still couldn’t see the script to read his opening lines.
Aston Up to Occasion
“I guess we can get along without this,” the comedian said, and forthwith hurled the Aston interview over his shoulder, scattering its many pages about the studio.
Mr. Aston’s spirit sank with the falling pages. But he was up to the occasion. He gave the trooper [sic] an extemporaneous introduction. John Koepf, promotion editor of The Post, who was standing in the WFBE control room watching the broadcast, can carry on from there:
“Benny took the ball after Frank’s introduction, and did he carry it! It was the best program I have ever heard out of the fellow and I don’t miss many of them. Frank made the perfect straight man, too. I’m still surprised that Benny didn’t sign him up on the spot.”
Mr. Koepf, following the program, rode down on the Hotel Sinton elevator with the vaudeville headliner. They paused for a moment in the lobby to converse before parting.
“Do you know,” said Benny, “that was the first time I ever did a radio program.”
Recognizes Mike’s Might
“Benny went on to discuss his plans in radio,” Mr. Koepf recalled. “He said he recognized the might of the microphone and saw in it a possibility to get even further on the stage.”
Jack told John that he planned to approach radio in a business-like fashion. “As soon as I get a few ideas glued together, I’m going in for this radio stuff,” he said.

Benny celebrated his 10th anniversary in radio on his broadcast of May 4, 1941, with Don Wilson stating that the actual ten-year mark was May 9th. The rest of the show had a made-up scenario about Jack’s debut for a buggy whip company.

A huge gala took place at the Biltmore Bowl in Los Angeles. But a story about the anniversary in the May 4th edition of the Kingsport Times reads in part:

But radio didn’t want Jack Benny until one night in 1932 when Broadway Columnist Ed Sullivan presented the jester as a guest over a New York Station.

No matter how you do the math, you can’t get ten years between 1932 and 1941. Certainly people must have been able to add back then and see that something wasn’t right. Jack never mentioned the Cincinnati show in any interviews that I’ve found. He always gave credit to his buddy Sullivan, originally for giving him a spotlight that helped him land the M.C. job on Canada Dry programme (debuting May 2, 1932) which then evolved into a tale of his “radio debut.” So what “debut” was he celebrating in 1941? We may never really know.


  1. The article says that he was celebrating his "tenth year in radio" on May 9, 1941. If, as he alleges, his first year started in 1932, and his second year started in 1933 (3rd in '34, 4th in '35, 5th in '36, 6th in '37, 7th in '38, 8th in '39), his ninth year would have started in 1940, and his tenth year in radio would have begun in 1941.

  2. The Benny broadcast of May 4, 1941 begins with Don Wilson announcing Jack "who next Friday, May 9th, celebrates his 10th anniversary in radio." He would have had to have started in 1931. His first anniversary would have been 1932 and so on.