Sunday, 30 October 2016

Benny in Boston

50 or so years ago, symphony orchestras and old theatres needed financial help, and Jack Benny was there until the day he died to bring his special brand of music/comedy to raise millions of dollars to save them.

But there was one time Jack appeared on stage and played his violin with no comedy. It was a cameo appearance with the Boston Pops in 1955.

Here’s how the Boston Globe explained it in the paper’s May 5, 1955 edition.

Waukegan’s Gift to Music
Crowds at Pops Thrilled by Violinist Jack Benny


Jack Benny looked down from the window of his suite at the Ritz Carlton: “I haven’t been here since the Tea Party—boy, things have changed.” He waved a hand toward the buildings that stand between the hotel and the Charles River. “They must be new.”
Jack is in town to receive one of three awards that will be given tonight by the Massachusetts Committee of Catholics, Protestants and Jews. But last night he had quite a different experience—Waukegan’s most famous violinist made his debut in Symphony Hall.
But that is getting too far ahead of the story. The evening began with dinner in Jack Benny’s suite. When Irving Fein, director of public relations for C.B.S. Radio in Hollywood, asked the waiter for a menu, the comedian let out a roar, “You mean you’ve come all the way to Boston and don’t know you have to eat fish chowder?”
In case you think he was kidding, I should add here that Jack finished a whole tureen of it.
As dinner went on there was no doubt that there has probably never been a celebrity with a pleasanter, more attractive manner.
He admitted that the Tea Party really wasn’t his last trip to Boston. “I used to work at Keith’s. Boston and Philadelphia were my favorite stops, I like the audiences.”
He thought for a moment. “They had class.”
Unlike many comedians who feel they must be funny off-camera, Jack speaks fluently on all kinds of subjects. In one of his more serious moments, he declared rather wistfully, “I go to all kinds of places and see all kinds of things, but I always feel bad about not having an education. It’s so important in life.”
Unnoticed . . . Almost
Also at the dinner were Dorothy Sweeney, Boston, and Harvey Struthers, WEEI. We were all just about ready for a second French pastry when Michael Kelleher, one of Boston’s most public spirited citizens, appeared to take us all to Symphony.
By the time we arrived there it must have been 9 o’clock. The concert had begun. Everyone was seated, intent on music. Jack could slip in—almost unnoticed.
He never took his attention from guest soloist Mineko Sasahara as she played a piano concerto by Saint-Saens. he learned over to whisper to me, “Don’t you love the way she attacks the piano? Wonderful? Great?”
But although Jack’s attention never wavered from the stage, word of his presence was making its way along the grapevine. You could almost see it travel. A head would turn, take a look to make sure, then lead toward whoever was nearest. It went down rows and across aisles, and soon as the ovation for the soloist had died, the autograph crowd swarmed in. “Sign my program . . . this napkin . . . a matchcover.”
The crowd got bigger, the aisles were blocked—and a worried look came over Jack’s face. He stopped in the middle of an autograph, “Gee, this won’t spoil the concert, will it?”
But Jack would never have bothered to ask if he’d known about the staunch crowd which goes to the Pops for only one reason—music. The second Conductor Harry Ellis Dickson appeared on stage a great SSSSsssh! filled the hall.
The autograph seekers rushed back to their tables and Jack turned to Fein, “Let’s have some of that pink stuff that they’re serving in pitchers.”
‘An Open Rehearsal’
It was not until after the selections from South Pacific that Maestro Dickson solemnly announced from the podium: “For the first time in the history of the Boston Pops we are going to have an open rehearsal.” A knowing laughter filled the air. “I introduce to you now a man who needs no introduction—you will know him by his violin.”
Out walked Jack through the rows of musicians. And the hallowed old walls of Symphony fairly rocked.
In that famous unsmiling way, he accepted the greeting, then nonchalantly reached into his pocket for a handkerchief to tuck under the violin. It looked like “Love in Bloom” for sure, but the orchestra began the “Chardis” by Monte.
At a signal from Maestro Dickson, Benny raised his bow. I can honestly say I have never heard the Pope audience more silent. The listeners seemed to hold their breath, strain their ears listening for just one sour note. But the Waukegan master played without a flaw. Occasionally he beamed down at the photographers clustered by the stage and once he called out to the audience, “Here comes the hard part—if I don’t go fast, I’m dead.”
What followed the finale was like an explosion. If anyone applauded more vigorously than the audience it was the musicians.
With just a suggestion of a smile, Jack strolled off the stage. A few minutes later we were back in the car. He just sat there in the back seat, beaming, laughing, slapping his knee.
The first thing he said was, “You must admit I’ve got guts walking out there and playing it straight when they expected ‘Love in Bloom’.” He shook his head.
“It was so much more fun than telling jokes—I can do that anytime.

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