Sunday, 8 September 2013

Kenny Baker's Farewell to Footlights

Kenny Baker was supposed to appear on the final Jack Benny Show of the season on June 25, 1939. He never made it. His name was mentioned but his absence was never explained. Within three weeks, Baker had signed an exclusive contract with his other radio show, The Texaco Star Theatre. He revealed several years later he didn’t like playing the role of a dope on the show, though some newspaper columnists of the day out-and-out said Baker was a prima donna who wanted more air time and something other than pop standards to sing.

There was certainly no hard feelings on Jack’s part to Baker’s departure; by all accounts, Jack Benny was never the kind of man to have a grudge, let alone hold one. References to Baker kept popping up on the show over the next dozen-or-so years. During that time, Baker bounced around a bit (and had his own starring show in “Glamour Manor”) but finally retired as television was taking over from radio.

The question of “Whatever happened to Kenny Baker?” was answered in the January 1955 edition of TV Radio Mirror. Baker penned a story himself, or at least got the byline, focusing on his family (the Mirror doted on stories of the family lives of the stars) and his spirituality. Oh, and he got in a plug for his records and his show on the Mutual Network. The only puzzling thing is—if Baker was forlorn about the strain touring was putting on his family, why didn’t he simply get a TV show in California? He would have been able to see his family when he came home at night, just like countless other stars with children (Ozzie and Harriet Nelson, for example). It could have been, for whatever reason, television didn’t come looking for Kenny Baker. Or, like Phil Harris, he may simply have had enough money where he didn’t need to work and therefore the luxury of enjoying life instead.

We're Really LIVING!
We've found the things that mean so much more than bright lights and applause . . . our own fireside, love, understanding—and faith

You've heard the saying, "He's really living!" But have you ever asked yourself what really living means?
Well, I did, one day about six years ago. I was standing under a flashing red neon sign which was blinking out the message, "Kenny Baker—appearing nightly!" I asked myself, then and there: "Kenny, boy, you call this living!"
My answer was: "Hardly—hardly living at all."
Sure, I was making thousands a week. My name was up in letters two feet tall. And every night I was bathed in the glow of the footlights, had my ego buoyed up as it rode the crowd's warm wave of applause.
But what was there to look forward to when the theater lights went off? What did I do then? For months at a time I was three thousand miles away from my wife, children, and home; after the show, I had nothing except bare hotel room walls, a lonely dinner in a restaurant—and, the next night, another taxi to the theater.
That was the routine for years. There was Reno, New Orleans, Washington, New York; each a lonely carbon copy of the other city. True, every so many months, I might be lucky enough to find myself playing in Hollywood, my own home town—or I might just find two weeks between shows to race to the West Coast, laugh and play with my family for ten short days, and race back to the show again.
But was this living? No, it wasn't. It wasn't even existing. I might as well have been dead; and in the eyes of my family I was dead—for, in the days and months I was away from home, they had learned to live without me! That flashing neon sign may have announced to the world in general that here was a real, live and kicking Kenny Baker. But the time came when I realized it was simply a blinking, animated, neon headstone. Following me from city to city, that sign had become my ambulating epitaph.
So that night, about six years ago, I decided to make it read: "Kenny Baker, Appearing Nightly Where He Belongs—in his own living room with his wife and three growing kids."
And, if someone were to ask me today what living really is, I think I could tell them: It's a trailer vacation in the great North Woods; it's being a father to your sons—yes, and even being a boy again with them; it's evenings with a living room full of family; afternoons encouraging both sons and daughter with their problems; and it's a morning hymn around the breakfast table. That's really living.

But all wasn't sweetness and light when I gave up the roadshow footlights for my family. When I came home to play the role of father to my children, I received a shock: Since they were my children, I thought I could give them all kinds of advice and direction and, just by putting in the time, everything would turn out okay.
Unfortunately, I was wrong. When my son, Kenny, Jr., was in high school, I tried to point him in a certain direction. He was taking language courses, for example, such as Latin and French, and I thought he was capable of getting better grades than he showed.
Poor Kenny, Jr. was as unhappy as we were. He wasn't interested in Latin or French, and hence didn't put any time in on them. But, when it came to automobile mechanics, working on his car, or playing on the football field or in the swimming pool, that was something else again.
So what did we do with Kenny, Jr.'s problem? We did the only thing we knew how: We waited and we prayed—no pressure, nothing. We simply recognized that Kenny was a capable boy, that we weren't anything superior in the way of parents and that, if we gave our problem over to the Power from which all intelligence stems, the answer would be forthcoming.
And the answer did come: Somehow, someone suggested that Kenny take a series of aptitude and interest tests. I'd never heard of them but, in our experience, they have proven themselves both scientific and worthwhile. The tests give a series of scores in different learning areas —for example, in language, mechanical, mathematical and reasoning abilities. We learned that Kenny was a capable boy (as we had confidently expected all along) , but his best area was the mechanical-engineering field, not in languages!
What we had been doing was to force our young man into an area that didn't fit him. As a result, this force was destructive to his happiness—it made him feel inferior, a little rebellious.
But, as a result of the abilities tests, today he is doing well as an engineering student at the University of Southern California. He has been selecting his own courses, he has been happier doing it, and has been getting good grades. He's even in the Naval ROTC—a decision he made.
Fortunately for our younger children—Susie, 16, and Johnny, 12—we learned about our mistakes through our older boy, Kenny, Jr. We have discovered, for instance, that, while both youngsters enjoy music, they don't have the inclinations toward it that I had at their age. So there has been no urging on our part for one of them to "carry on the family name" in music.
They like music, yes. But they like other things better. Johnny, for example, has already shown the same aptitude and abilities toward structural engineering in which Kenney, Jr. had won his success Sure, he plays the accordion and he studies it, too. But this is more of a joyful escape for him, something he likes to do once in a while. It's not the thing he wants for a vocation, and we are not foolish enough to push him in that direction.
We learn from experience, and both Geraldyne and I learned from Kenny, Jr. that children can't be pushed. This has helped us with Susie and Johnny. As a result, Johnny is a happy twelve-year-old —actually, a happy young man. It's a pleasure to watch him grow, to develop. He has his studies, and they are at such a level that I can help him with them. We sing duets together; we go to ball games; we fish and travel in the trailer. In short, we have a close father-son relationship—again, this is
really living!
And Susie, at sixteen, is quite a young lady now. She enjoys music, too, plays the piano well, but she has no wish to become an entertainer. Her main ambition is to be a successful mother and housewife. She's learning to cook and keep house. She and Geraldyne are like two sisters with the chores around this place, and Susie is doing a good job learning the household skills. So this is the family I came home to, six years ago. In that time I've watched the boys grow into young manhood, and my daughter become a young woman. Every summer of those six years we spent traveling together in our trailer to the national parks on our West Coast. Believe me, the time we've spent in Sequoia or the Big Sur, surrounded by the giant redwood trees, listening to the peaceful songs of the forest, have been moments when we knew we were near our God. And when a family shares this experience, I call that really living.
But some may ask the question: Did I retire from the entertainment world when I came back to Hollywood and my family? Of course not. I had worked in and around Hollywood for years before taking to the road—in fact, the first several years of my professional career were spent making auditions in the Los Angeles area.

I was born in California; so was my wife, Geraldyne. We went to Long Beach Junior College together; she sat across the aisle from me in class. I went on a blind date one night with a pal of mine, and Geraldyne, the pretty girl I'd been watching for weeks, showed up as my date!
I remember that first date: My pal and I were in a school minstrel show, and our girls were to come along to help us put on make-up. Geraldyne spent the early part of the evening putting black cork on my face, so I could go out and sing, "Look down, look down, that lonesome road . . ." which, I might add, we've gone down together now for twenty-one years—not all of them "lonesome"!
Those audition years were finally topped with my first big break around 1932. I won a contest sponsored by Texaco which gave me a guest spot with Eddie Duchin at the Cocoanut Grove. This led to the Jack Benny Jello show (I still have a box with the signatures of all the cast on it), then the Texaco Star Theater and more radio shows, then motion pictures—"The Mikado," "Hit Parade," "The Harvey Girls" —and, finally, the Broadway production of "One Touch of Venus," with Mary Martin and John Boles.
For some time, while doing the road shows, I had been harboring the desire to record an album of sacred music—hymns that people loved. So, when I came back to Hollywood, this was the first thing I turned to.
The results of these recordings were beyond all expectations: I heard from people all over the world—Saudi Arabia, New Guinea, Africa and Iceland. One woman sent some of the records to a deaf friend of hers in Indonesia. Later, that woman came to this country and visited us here at home. She hadn't heard a sound in years; but she went into the den, put her hands on the record machine, and nodding her head she said, "Beautiful—most beautiful music I've ever heard."
That was one of the most satisfying experiences I've ever had.
(Editor's note: It is only fair to mention that eight albums of sacred songs have been made under Kenny Baker's Ken-Art label. Most of the material has been turned over to the Christian Science Publishing Society for distribution. It was most rewarding to Kenny to hear that Army generals, chaplains throughout the Armed Services, and hospitals all over, have requested records of his sacred songs. And it is gratifying, too, for him to hear—as he does daily—from these organizations expressing their appreciation for having Kenny Baker as their church soloist, in cases where groups could not afford to have a soloist as part of their church services.)
My experience with the sacred records had a sobering influence on my thinking —especially in regard to the field of entertainment.
You know, with as much practice as I've had, it was easy to go out on a stage, to put on a show that would make people laugh. And this is definitely one important aspect of entertainment. But the records have helped show me that there is something more than mere entertainment. It's from this idea that our Mutual radio program, The Kenny Baker Show, arose. Besides the songs, the wit, wisdom, and helpful hints, we've hoped that there would also be something to encourage and inspire you, our listeners. That's the "little more" we'd like to leave with you.
Having left the roadshow footlights, I'd like to think now I've been a successful father in those six years. I know I've been a much happier man. I'd also like to think I've been successful in this final stage of my career. So, if you find you enjoy our program whenever you hear it, we hope you'll let us know. Your reply will certainly assure us that we are
really living!

A boy in the ROTC. A girl who wants to be a housewife. How can you tell it’s America 1955?

Kenny Baker died of a heart attack on August 10, 1985, age 72.


  1. Kenny did everything he could to ruin the Marx Bros' "At the Circus." He's lucky he had a career at all.

    1. Baker was a step down from Allan Jones in "A Night at the Opera" and "A Day at the Races" though to be fair, Jones had a more central role in his films with the Marx Brothers, especially in the first movie. But Kenny definitely did not light up the screen with his performance, so it would have been questionable if he would have fared much better on the small screen if he had stayed in Hollywood through the early television era.

  2. Dennis Day was a big improvement over Baker.

    1. I agree- Dennis Day's character, his acting skills, his comedic timing were awesome and I'm a huge fan of his body of work. Strangely though, I have always much preferred Kenny Baker's voice/singing. Genius Benny realized he wasn't hiring a singer, he wanted a talented entertainer. So many life lessons can be learned from the great JB.

  3. I'm not sure that Benny wasn't upset about Kenny Baker leaving the show. Whenever his name came up as a gag there always seemed to be a touch of bitterness to the punchline. Kenny also did the Fred Allen show for a few years after he left the Benny Program and he didn't become a big star in Hollywood.