Sunday, 3 December 2017

The Quiet Life of a Radio Star

How many stars would greet people at the door in a bathrobe? Jack Benny would. And did.

Actually, he did this for ages. There have been several newspaper columns we’ve spotted over the years where Jack did his interview wearing his bathrobe in his hotel room. Evidently, Jack liked to be relaxed after a stressful week of putting together a radio show from nothing.

His wife Mary Livingstone remarks about that during her own interview with Hollywood magazine which appeared in the June 1937 issue. While it’s true the two of them threw large parties at their home, indoors and outdoors, Jack seems to have liked a quiet life at home.

So, here’s the article. The reference to the “Bee,” for those unaware, involves the feud Jack and Fred Allen had just begun over the air. It was sparked over whether Jack could actually play Schubert’s “The Bee” on the violin. The feud moved on to other topics after about three months, but the “Bee” began it all and caught the imagination of the public. There are “bee” references in the popular press about this time when referring to either Allen or Benny, and the storyline of a Columbia “celebrity caricature” cartoon even contained it (with the Schubert piece in the background).

Mary Puts the “Bee” on Jack Benny

“HMMMMMMM... what can you make of a fellow who greets callers in an old red bathrobe and older slippers?”
No, children of wonder-wonderland, it isn’t Aunt Libby touching upon Uncle Oscar’s eccentricities . . . the above momentous words are uttered by no less authority than Mary Livingston, of that immaculously-groomed — in public — Jack Benny.
Mary, you see, happens to know whereof she speaks. Mary is Mrs. Jack Benny, a star in her own right insofar as radio audiences are concerned, and Jack’s own best pal and severest critic. She knows what she knows and she sees what she sees, and Jack . . . well, naturally, he’s a bit of a pet of hers. But . . .
"Honestly," she says, "I never know what Jack’s going to do next.
"Take the time we were married. I was engaged to be married to another man. The wedding was to take place sometime in March. Early in January I went east from Los Angeles to Chicago, to visit with my sister before the event. I arrived at my sister’s on a Sunday. Friday, I was Mrs. Jack Benny. "How’d it happen? Well, I’d like to know that, myself. Jack must have done some fast talking, or something.
"You see, I had first met Jack about four years before, when he was playing the Orpheum in Los Angeles and I was a buyer in the lingerie department of May’s, a large department store almost directly across the street from the theatre. My sister, the same sister I visited in Chicago, introduced us one night backstage — Babe was an actress herself — and we went out together after the show.
"The next day, who should enter my department in the store but Jack. He and another man walked in and started to ask for things. Then, they’d go off and come back, asking to be directed to something else. And whenever I waited on them, Jack, in a very loud tone, would begin to find fault. It was only an act, I knew, but it began to get my goat. All the girls and some of the customers were watching, to make matters worse.
"This kept up all morning, with me doing a slow burn. I think Jack knew I was getting mad, for he began to make it even more embarrassing for me. Finally, he asked me to go out to lunch.
"After that introduction to the Benny wit and manner, I didn’t see Jack again for a year, when he returned to Los Angeles on his tour of the circuit. Every year, then, for three years, I’d see him for a few evenings while he was in town, then forget all about him.
"That’s why it was all the more surprising, then, when I discovered my-self married to him. He was stopping at the same hotel in Chicago as my sister, and naturally, I saw him as soon as I arrived back there. But when he showed up on the scene, he was just a friend whom I hadn’t seen for a long time. I still can’t figure out what happened."
JACK entered the room at that moment, greeted us cheerily, and flashed "Doll" — that’s Mary, whom he’s called that ever since they were married — a bright smile.
"Where’s Joanie?" he asked.
Joanie, or Joan Naomi, is their small daughter, dainty in a Dresden-like way and ruler of the household, whom the Bennys adopted several years ago. After he had left the room in search of the cherub, Mary continued. . . .
"Jack’s simply crazy about our little daughter, and whenever he’s home she’s seldom out of his sight. No matter in how brooding a mood he may be, when he sees her he seems to brighten up and is a new man.
"I’m frequently asked if Jack wisecracks as much and is as funny around the house as he is over the radio and on the screen.
"I can only reply that Jack is a very quiet man. He’s not over-talkative as are so many men and frequently, like all comedians, he’s moody. Humor and comedy, you know, are hard work, much harder than most people realize.
"Occasionally, we have Burns and Allen and the Marx brothers and their wives over for dinner. The majority of people, I honestly think, would like to believe that the evening was one wild, raucous affair. Actually, instead of the Marxes climbing atop the piano, Burns and Allen going into their act and the Bennys trying to compete, the party is little different from that held in anybody else’s house, with the exception, possibly, that no liquor is served. Anybody can have it, of course, but nobody in that group touches it. Jack and George go over in one corner and play Casino, Gracie and I engage in Russian Bank and the Marxes play Bridge. Exciting, isn’t it?
"But that’s the kind of an evening Jack likes. We go out very little — just a dinner once in a while at some friend’s house, and the Trocadero once a week. Jack works too hard for us to be constantly on the go, even if we wanted to. But there’s no telling about that man of mine."
And there never was, for that matter.
THE lure of the theatre got into his blood back in Waukegan, Ill., when he headed a small orchestra and played at school dances. His mother had presented him with a violin one birthday, and Jack, after taking lessons, had thought it would be nice to play the instrument in a band.
Deciding to take his orchestra into Waukegan’s only theatre, Jack got only as far as the front door. He was made the doorman. Then, he tried the back door and was made property man. Finally, after much pleading, he reached the orchestra pit and spent several months fiddling. He learned to play "The Bee." (Page Fred Allen.)
When the Waukegan theatre closed of old age, Jack teamed up with a piano player and appeared in vaudeville for four years.
Then came the World War. Jack always had wanted to see the world from a porthole rather than a stage door, so he joined the Navy . . . and was placed in the Navy Relief Society. Instead of going overseas, his duties consisted of entertaining.
His first appearance was at the Great Lakes Naval Station. He played his violin for a show called The Great Lakes Review.
Returning to vaudeville after the War, Jack’s violin thereafter spent most of its time under his arm instead of under his chin. In time, he became one of the smartest monologists in the show business.
January 12, 1927, is the red-letter day in Jack Benny’s life. It was that day he took unto himself Sadye Marks — or Mary Livingston, as she’s known today — as wife. Ten years wed last January 12th, the Bennys today are among the happiest married couples in Hollywood.
JACK entered motion pictures during that period when Hollywood producers were raiding the legitimate and vaudeville stages for talent.
He was doing his regular vaudeville act — probably you old-timers will recall it — in Los Angeles, when several Metro-Goldwyn executives, preparing to make a musical revue on the screen, noticed how clever this fellow was as a master of ceremonies. A day later, and Jack Benny signed to play one of the leading roles in Metro’s Hollywood Revue of 1929, coming through with flying colors. More recently, you’ve seen him in such pictures as Broadway Melody of 1936, The Big Broadcast of 1937 and College Holiday.
Admittedly the most popular figure on the air, film audiences now are clamoring for more pictures in which this star of both the radio and the screen appears. Only recently, Benny and his wife gave a Command Performance — or should I say Command Broadcast? — for the English king, George VI. The British Broadcasting Company finally selected the Benny program from all other American broadcasts with which to entertain their monarch.
No wonder Mary Livingston looks proudly at Jack Benny and complacently leans back and murmurs, "Hmmmmm . . . what can you make of a fellow who greets callers in an old red bathrobe and older slippers?" She has no wish to change the life and habits of her lovable lord and pal.

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