Sunday, 25 December 2016

Christmas With Jack Benny, 1927

What was Jack Benny doing for Christmas 89 years ago? Hanging out with Fanny Brice. And an almost empty theatre.

Yes, the show must go on. And on it went on December 25, 1927 at the New Orpheum Palace theatre in Chicago. Benny was the emcee and Brice was the headliner.

Judging by Variety, Billboard and the Vaudeville News, Jack was reworking his career a bit. He had been emceeing vaudeville shows of six acts. Billboard wasn’t all that impressed, though audiences loved him in Chicago; at the start of August 1927 he was held over for a fourth week as the m.c. But he realised he needed to freshen his act. Benny hooked up with The New Yorkers’ Band, 13 members from the defunct Frank Fay nightclub. He waved a baton and conducted them in a comic musical routine. He played the violin. Tenor John Griffin sang two numbers. There was a girl dancer (unidentified). Benny and his group hit up the independent theatres in New York, showing off the act to major circuit bookers. One of the houses was the Fox Savoy on December 5th.

It worked. Jack got a good review in Billboard and, more importantly, signed an 18-week contract with the Orpheum circuit to do his own act and act as m.c. on the bill. He played a week in Denver before returning to Chicago on Christmas Day.

After a week, Brice moved on but Jack was held over to host a new bill which included Olsen and Johnson, Lee Morse and Charlie Ruggles’ company doing a playlet. Billboard went into a detailed description of the second week’s show but this post is only interested in his Christmas stage appearance. The Chicago Tribune ran ads for the show, but didn’t review it. Variety gave its opinion in its December 28th edition but didn’t say an awful lot.
After a month or two of much heralding, of circus proportions at times, Fanny Brice is finally at the Palace. For a while it seemed her picture in the lobby was just a tribute. Now Fanny is here, so probably next week her photo will be ducked. But they should keep it in the lobby and paste reprints all over the house, for Fanny is one of the few genuine names left to the Palace and vaudeville, and one of the few whose "Comings" are worth bragging about.
Even with a small house Sunday matinee there is little need to question her drawing ability, even at the not too attractive Palace. The Sunday mat had legit abili for a change, Xmas. As to Fanny, her regular act seems to be stopping shows.
Comedy predominated, Jack Benny serving as m. c. Also reminiscent of the past, with standards bobbing up often.
A standard opened, in Raflin's monkeys, entertaining novelty.
Marie Vero, "schoolgirl soprano," a fair outlet for ego, regarded and billed as vaude's personal "find," but the show returned to stability shortly after with Arthur and Morton Havel. They are returned to the Palace within a few months, but seem as capable in this stop-over as in the former. Nice act.
Clifford and Marion whammed and grabbed a couple of extra bows when the girl walked out straight and in decolette. Clifford seemed to be laboring under handicap of a cold.
Miss Brice held the fin and closed the first part, Toney and Norman, of the old school, opening the second. The second mixed cross-fire turn of the bill, but of different routine. The older Jim gets, the better, etc., and the younger Ann gets, the cuter.
Benny found a spot for himself at this point and gagged for a hit, though he hit likewise throughout the show. Florence O'Denishawn and Snow and Columbus danced the closer. A sightly, clever flash, this, and would be at more advantage if spotted earlier in any other show.
Both Benny and Brice, as you likely know, ended up on radio when vaudeville died. Marie Vero appeared every so often on the air as well. She moved to San Francisco and I can find her name up until 1937 when she vanishes. Vero appeared in a Vitaphone Varieties short for Warner Bros. in 1929.

Oh, and here’s a bit of trivia. The band appearing at the Palace the week before Jack arrived was led by Don Bester, who later did the Benny radio show.

Radio stations don’t shut down on Christmas Day, and some are still staffed by people who give up their family time to entertain or inform their audiences. It was no different in the Golden Age, especially on networks where live performances were mandated. Jack Benny worked a couple of Christmas Days on the air, in 1938 and 1949. You can hear the shows below. Notice the difference in Eddie Anderson’s voice in the two broadcasts. He’s got more of an Amos ‘n’ Andy sound in the earlier one. Barbara Whitney in the 1938 show is played by Barbara Jo Allen, who later went on to radio and short film fame as Vera Vague. In the 1949 programme, you’ll hear the Bennys’ daughter Joan selling cookies, as well as Bea Benaderet.


December 25, 1938




December 25, 1949

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