Sunday, 1 September 2013

The Jack Benny Story, Short Version

The life story of Jack Benny was told many times over the years in magazine and newspaper articles and later in at least four books. When the earliest version was, it’s impossible to say at this late date. But here’s an early one in what must be a syndicated newspaper article that was published in the Mexico Independent of February 11, 1937 (Mexico is in New York state in this case). It’s pretty bare-bones due to the limits of newspaper space but covers the highlights to date. Jack and Mary first met long before the May Co. episode that Benny describes and it’s notable that he says Ed Sullivan gave him his first “break” in radio (the tale somehow morphed into his first “appearance” on radio and that was definitely not the case). I don’t recall the comment about ad-libbing before.


IT may sound funny to some people, but the first thing I remember about myself was a desire to be a good fiddler. Years ago in Waukegan, where I was raised by my parents after they had moved from Chicago, my birthplace, I determined to make violin playing my profession and began practicing before I was six years old.
After playing with a dance orchestra, I landed a vaudeville contract with a friend of mine. For six years, we roved back and forth across the country. I played the violin and he accompanied me on the piano. Came the war and Benny landed in the Navy. Some of the authorities thought I was a musician and soon had me performing for the Seamen’s Benefit Fund. But fiddling brought little money and few plaudits from the sailors. I decided to get myself a jokebook and start telling a few. They liked the quips, so I decided to do more talking and less playing.
I returned to vaudeville after the war. This time I was a monologist—not a violin player. Luck was with me, and before long my name was twinkling in bright lights as a featured five-a-day headliner. When our act broke a record by running eight weeks at the Orpheum Theater in Los Angeles, I was given a motion picture contract. My screen debut came as master of ceremonies in “The Hollywood Revue.”
About this time I met Mary. You all know Mary—Mary Livingstone—the charming lady who gets in my spinach every Sunday night during a certain radio program on the NBC-Red network. She was a buyer in a Los Angeles department store. We met during a holiday shopping rush and it was love at first sight—for me, anyway.
I wandered East soon afterwards and joined Earl Carroll’s “Vanities” for two seasons, and then Ed Sullivan, New York columnist, gave me my first break in radio. He wanted me to “add some spice to his program.” I was so nervous, I couldn’t read my script and ad-libbed my way through the entire spot. But the experience cured me of microphone fright.
Soon afterwards I was asked to go on a coast-to-coast network and gladly accepted. I’ve been busy at radio ever since. No performer could have more enjoyment working with his supporting cast than yours truly . . . poetess Mary Livingstone, timid tenor Kenny Baker, Announcer Don “Six Delicious Flavors” Wilson and maestro Phil Harris. They’re a great gang.
I’d like to wind up this article with one serious thought. From the bottom of my heart, I appreciate the support and awards which the listeners of America have bestowed on us during the past five years.

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