Sunday, 26 October 2014

The Friars' First Victim

If you’re of a certain age, you’ll recall the Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts. People seemed to love them in spite of the corny old jokes, intrusive laugh track and meat-cleaver editing job. That’s because it was about the only place you’d see all those great old stars together in one place. And who doesn’t love Dean Martin?

The Martin shows were an off-shoot of the far-better Friars Club roasts, sponsored on NBC by Kraft. Their humour was, shall we say, edited for home viewing. The Friars began in New York in 1904 as a private club for show folk. Testimonial dinners to its members soon followed; as they were behind closed doors, risqué humour the Friars would never use on the vaudeville or legitimate stage was acceptable (and, I suspect, encouraged).

The death of vaudeville and rise of the film industry brought many show people to Los Angeles from New York and so a West Coast monastery of the Friars was set up in 1947. And who was the victim of their first Roast? None other than Jack Benny, with his old pal Georgie Jessel in charge of the proceedings.

Erskine Johnson of the National Enterprise Association was apparently on the guest list. He also attended when Benny presided over a Jessel roast in 1948. But to read Johnson’s report, the comic material at the roast doesn’t sound any different than the gags you’d hear when a star guest-starred on another star’s radio show. Orson Welles does everything. Sam Goldwyn gets tagged with more “Hugo” jokes (he called Hoagy Carmichael “Hugo” at that year’s Oscars ceremony). Guess what Benny movie got ribbed? The same one that was a running gag on the air for years. Bing Crosby’s insistence on no longer doing his comedy-variety show live was fair (and tame) game. Johnson doesn’t even hint that some comic stars liked and told dirty jokes. And I suspect that back then, many of his readers didn’t want to know it, either (oh, how times have changed). But they would have loved to have been there and Johnson was there for them. I would, too.

Johnson’s column ran on July 5, 1947.

Hollywood — (NEA) — Fred Allen would have been drooling. All of Jack Benny's friends were insulting him at the first stag beef-steak dinner given by Hollywood's new Friars Club (Jack consented to appear only after being assured that he wouldn't be charged for his dinner.)
The speaker's table looked like a million-dollar movie cast—George Burns, Danny Kaye, Groucho Marx, George Jessel, Sam Goldwyn, Eddie Cantor, Parkyakarkus, Orson Welles, George Murphy and Pat O'Brien. The greatest wits in show business, plus the nit-wit—Benny.
Benny was the Friars' first victim—the questionable guest of honor—in what will be a series of roast dinners with Jessel as roast-master.
Jessel stared things off by telling a Benny anecdote and then adding, “I was married but I can't recall to whom at the time.”
Eddie Cantor just couldn't insult his old friend and praised him instead. So Jessel insulted Cantor.
“It's easy to wax sentimental,” said Jessel, “when you haven't got any jokes.”
But everyone else ripped Benny to shreds. “They charged 85 cents to see Benny's last movie, 'The Horn Blows at Midnight,'” said Groucho Marx, who then added, “They charged it but they didn't get it.”
Fred Allen, of course, wired from New York: “There isn't a beefsteak big enough to cover the black eye Jack Benny has given show business.”
Jessel introduced Sam Goldwyn as “Hugo Goldwyn, the man who makes all those mistakes in English but when he makes pictures we should make such mistakes.”
Pat O'Brien thought Goldwyn's speech about Benny was much too sentimental. "“It sounded,” said Pat, “like the 'Best Tears of Our Lives.'”
Orson Welles cracked that the only reason Benny was guest of honor was to remind movie makers of Benny's existence.
But Orson got it, too. Jessel introduced him as the “distinguished everything. When we called up Orson to join us he told me, 'I'll be there, I'll cook the dinner, dress the room, make all the speeches and clean up.'”
Benny took it all with a smile. “This,” said Jack, “is not a spot for suave comedian.”
Jack thought it was a mistake to appoint Bing Crosby as a Friar Dean. “He isn't here tonight,” said Jack. “In fact, he didn't even send in a transscription.”
Jack looked at Sheriff Eugene Biscailuz of Los Angeles and quipped: “He looks like a sheriff in a Pine and Thomas picture.”
The Friars just moved into their new clubhouse—the onetime Clover Club where Hollywood folk once lost thousands at the dice and roulette tables. “We were a little late in opening,” said Jessel. “It took us three says just to get the dice out of here.”

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