Sunday 31 July 2016

Maybe I'll Try Radio Instead

Jack Benny had a very short-lived and uneven vaudeville partnership before launching his radio career on May 2, 1932. He appeared on stage with comedian Lou Holtz, who mounted a revue that opened at Warners’ Hollywood Theatre on Broadway just over two weeks earlier on April 18th. That’s Holtz in a 1935 radio show to your right.

Benny dominated radio and was incredibly successful on television, beloved when he died in 1974 and someone who attracts new fans to his old broadcasts even today. But in 1932, Holtz was the mega-star. He pulled in $75,000 for an 11-week run at Warners’ Hollywood. Jack apparently got $2,000 a week. But then vaudeville died. Holtz’s agents put out feelers. He landed his own show on CBS for Chesterfield cigarettes starting in May 1933, but radio was never really his medium and he was never a star on TV. Unless you’re a real fan of the golden, pre-Depression era of vaudeville, you’ve probably never heard of him.

Money was the centre of Benny’s appearance with Holtz. He took the spot of Harry Richman, who had been pulling in even more cash than Holtz.

In the ‘30s, New York was littered with newspapers and each had its own theatre critic; the bigger papers had more than one. So let’s see what the Brooklyn Daily Eagle published the day after the opening of the revue.
The Theaters

Lou Holtz Presents the Third Edition of His Vaudeville Revue, Adding Jack Benny and the Extraordinary Borah Minnevitch
Lou Holtz replenished his Vaudeville-Revue at the Hollywood Theater last night, making this, the third edition, all new except himself and the notables he picks out of the audience for purposes of introduction. The new didos are looser than the last but better. For one thing Jack Benny replaces Harry Richman as co-star with Mr. Holtz. That's a big step in advance. Mr. Benny is much easier to watch and listen to. And there is Borah Minnevitch!
A few are missed from the last edition, Hall LeRoy and Mitzi Mayfair for instance. No one fills the gaps they leave vacant. The third yersion needs a good dancer. It has a lively young man to sing songs, sentimental ones about the girl he loves or anything else the audience asks for. He's too lusty to be a crooner, but he means it just the same.
And for those who have long adored Blossom Seeley, there she is, as large as life and working hard, and seriously, Benny Fields meanwhile helping out. Her following is a large one. She is one of the bill's assets.
Borah Minnevitch and his harmonica symphonists are the real hit of the evening, though. He has something genuine to contribute to the show, a gift of a quality none of the other players have to offer. A fine musician himself on his mouth organ, he has gathered together an orchestra of ragamuffins of all sizes and senses of humor and they play beguiling music on their throbbing instruments while he directs. He doesn't say anything. Most of the comedy is silent. But it is good comedy, he is an oddly humorous leader and the music is really very fine, like nothing to be heard anywhere else. Minnevitch has his little touch of genius.
A young girl named Martha Raye, with a wide and mobile mouth and insinuating hips, sings eagerly. There is some dancing and a sketch or two. The rest is Holtz and Jack Benny. They are content with a simpler kind of comedy than that manufactured by Holtz and Richman in the preceding edition, and the effect is better.
Benny's poise is more genuine than Richman's, so the fun is less oily. The two kid each other and the audience and offer at one point in the evening what is perhaps the funniest, if also the boldest, of those jocularities about effeminate men who go about with their hands on their hips. Later, as a couple of Hill Billies, they sing a song called "West Virginia Gal" that is very amusing.
Hillbilly music was starting to become popular in the Depression and went in for a lot of ribbing. Jack himself did yokel sketches on his radio show, especially in the ‘30s, and featured a makeshift act called “The Beverly Hillbillies” (no relation to the later TV series) that was part of his stage act and even appeared with him on television. And, as you can see, jokes about “effeminate men” were perfectly acceptable in an era when white guys appeared on stage in blackface, and comedians used thick Yiddish, Swedish, Irish or German dialects to get laughs. Holtz was a dialect comedian and that kind of humour fell out of favour after the war.

The revue closed days before Benny began his radio career. Holtz jumped aboard the S.S. Bremen on May 5th for a vacation in France and England, turning down $3,000 to appear at the Palladium in London.

Fast forward to 1949. Benny was one of the top stars in network radio and had been for years. CBS had fought NBC (and the IRS) for his services. Holtz was trying to hawk a five-minute non-network “Laugh Club” radio series on transcription discs. Maybe he should have taken the big money at the Palladium when he had the chance.

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