Sunday, 19 January 2014

The Lousy Violinist and Great Humanitarian

Jack Benny, Comedian was also Jack Benny, Patron of the Arts. He and his violin appeared at countless benefit concerts and it’d probably be next to impossible to determine how much money he raised to save orchestras and grand old buildings. One was Vancouver’s Orpheum Theatre which, incidentally, was not the same house where Jack played in vaudeville in the early ‘20s. The Orpheum you see in the 1928 picture to the right still stands (the Commodore Rooms and J.T. Wilson house do not), thanks in part to Jack Benny.

Let’s turn the clock to 1957, when the Benny jaunts to concert halls around North America were still relatively new. He talks about them in this United Press story that appeared in newspapers on April 18th.

Hollywood Fiddler Benny Graduates

HOLLYWOOD (UP)—The newest rage of the concert world will bow to the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra Tuesday night, tuck his violin under his white tie and play, he hopes.
Everybody used to laugh when Jack Benny dragged out his violin on his radio and TV shows, but now he's graduated into longhair music halls and gained a new "career."
A year ago Benny made his concert debut in Oklahoma City, followed by concerts in New York's Carnegie Hall and Philadelphia. Orchestras in other cities were so stunned they flooded Benny with offers. His 1957 benefit concert tour begins here and moves to Washington, Chicago, Boston, San Francisco and London.
BUT THE NEW concert star is taking it all very humbly. "Actually, I'm pretty lousy," confessed Jack. "I don't play at all. But I get through numbers and I try to play as well as I can.
"People who think I can't play are surprised. Some figure I'll just tell jokes and try 'Love in Bloom." But I do these as legit as any concert.
"Mary can't stand my playing," he added sadly. "She says I should be billed, 'Jack Benny and His Frightful Fiddle'".
At the April 23rd concert for the benefit of Cedars of Lebanon Hospital, Jack will play the first movement of Mendelssohn's Concerto plus other classical numbers. He's been practicing daily and unfortunately always plays better while practicing than on the stage, he says. "I get stage fright, I guess because I'm playing in front of great musicians," he said.
"It's odd—I'm not nervous about my TV shows, which I should be, as that is my real business. But I'm always nervous at concerts, which I shouldn't be because the public really doesn't expect anything.
Benny has been wielding a bow since the age of 6. His first paying violin job was with a vaudeville orchestra. Before long he was playing on the stage. Finally the fiddle became a comedy prop, until today it is as much a part of the Benny legend as gags about his stinginess, Maxwell car and perennial 39-year-old age.
ONLY BY becoming a world-famous comedian has Jack been able to attain the concert stage. But, on the other hand, if he had only practiced harder when he was a youngster—
"I was like a golfer, who likes to play more than he likes to practice," he said, "If I had really practiced, I might have been very good. As a concert violinist I would have kept my real name—Kubelsky. I would have used just that one name—"
Then he returned to his familiar Benny tone with, "Well, I might have been very lousy, too, so it's just as well."

I suppose one would have to be a psychologist to figure out why Jack Benny took up the violin in earnest so many years after dropping it in childhood. But it doesn’t really matter. In the end, even his playing—good, bad or indifferent—entertained audiences, and helped innumerable orchestras stave off almost certain death.

1 comment:

  1. Jack and his writers finally did a gag on the show in its final season on CBS where the punchline was Jack being able to play well, the gag being Mel's reaction as a broken-down Professor LeBlanc to finally discovering all his efforts teaching Jack weren't for nothing. (The kicker to that being Jack telling psychiatrist Herb Rudley not to let anyone know he can play well, because it would kill his comedy act).

    Despite -- or because of -- all the years and gags Benny and his cast got out of Jack's violin playing, you have to wonder how much he enjoyed reversing the normal gag as the coda to this episode.