Sunday 7 August 2016

Jack Benny Comes Out for Liberace

In the 1950s, Liberace made critics shudder and retch. They derided his perma-smile, his musicianship, his masculinity. And he wasn’t even as way-over-the-top as he became in the 1970s.

Amidst the chorus of derision came a voice of defence. It was from none other than Jack Benny.

Actually, it might have been a case of Jack defending himself. He had Liberace as a guest star on his TV show of January 17, 1954 (you may be available to find it on-line). A month later, he found himself in Boston where reporters asked him why on earth he’d have a maiden auntie like that on his programme. Hadn’t he seen John Crosby’s syndicated column just days earlier that ripped apart Liberace and his act? (You can read the Crosby column and reaction in this post).

Well, of course, the answer was simple. Jack Benny was no dummy. He knew Liberace had a huge audience, and having Liberace on his show meant a potential huge rating. And he praised Lee to the assembled throng of media, while talking about his show in general. This is from the Boston Globe of February 24, 1954. The headline of the story has taken on a different, and quite ironic, meaning since then.

“Hello-o-o-o- J-a-c-k”
Benny Comes Out For Liberace


Jack Benny had to come to Boston to find out about the John Crosby-Liberace controversy. The repercussions have not reached the coast yet and Benny has been busy these past few days emceeing the Friars’ dinner in New York, putting on two radio shows in the East, preparing for next Sunday’s telecast and appearing as a guest speaker at last night’s Bonds for Israel dinner in the Hub.
“Why, Liberace is the nicest person you would ever want to meet!” shouted Jack. “And that is why he is successful, because he is natural. His mannerisms are not affected. That’s the make-up of the man.
“We’ve been friends for years. He has had numerous requests for TV appearances and when he selected my show to be first, I felt deeply honored. When Liberace showed up for rehearsal, he walked into the studio and in that smiling, monotone way of his, said.
“Hello-o-o-o- J-a-c-k.”
“Before I knew it,” continued Benny, “I was doing the same thing . . . wearing a Liberace smile.”
Benny, incidentally, was holding a press meeting at his suit in the Somerset Hotel, and he had everyone laughing.
“It isn’t possible to please your audiences. For instance, you would think from the ratings that everyone watches ‘I Love Lucy.’ But there are viewers who despise that show. By the same token there are viewers who like Liberace and there are those who do not.
“I’m no exception. Recently I did ‘The Horn Blows at Midnight’ on the Omnibus telecast. The first dozen responses said the performance was wonderful, but the same mail brought in a half dozen that said I was lousy.
“Liberace is breaking box office records all over the country. He played Los Angeles recently and tickets were unavailable. He is not a phony. If he were, people would sense it sooner or later and he would have faded into obscurity.
“In order to put Liberace on my TV show, his act would have to be of a different nature. If he were to sit down and play the piano in full dress, it would be just another Liberace performance. So I told him that the cast and myself would don the tails and he would have to wear a lumber jacket. Liberace roared. He was all for it.
“That proves what a regular guy he is,” emphasized Benny. “And if I could think of a good reason to have him back on my show again soon, I’d recall him.”
A Plug for Next Show
Benny says it is impossible to turn out topnotch shows every week. “I don’t attempt it. But if next Sunday’s show is not the best show I’ve ever done, I’ll drop dead!”
Benny had reference to a comedy skit with Helen Hayes.
“Preparing shows for radio and TV require different methods,” said Jack. “In radio, a lot is left to the imagination. On TV, the shows have to be seen. I don’t have formats for each, even though it seems as if I do. I have the same radio case, but each TV lineup is different. We aim to do good shows, not spectacular ones.
“Mary dislikes both radio and TV, although she loves show business for me and she is extremely fond of show people. Rochester is wonderful, both on radio and TV. “Incidentally, I don’t wear a toupee!” exclaimed Benny. I did wear on once for a movie and it gathered momentum as a gag . . . just like the age 39 gag.
“There’s something funny about 39 . . . it’s like halting at the old-age figure of 40! Next year I’m planning a big production on TV as I actually decide to go into 40. It’s going to be a mammoth affair.
“Just like Joan’s wedding, smiled Benny. It takes place next month. Mary is in a dither and will be glad when it’s over. Of course, we have to invite everyone. It’s a big event in Joan’s life and we hope it will be a lasting marriage.”

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