Sunday, 11 February 2018

A Day in the Navy

Dennis Day may not have been the best singer on the Jack Benny show, but he was arguably the best cast member out of the vocalists who were hired. He had a penchant, the writers eventually discovered, for broad dialects and could do some impressions well enough for comedy purposes.

Day joined the show at the start of the 1939-40 season then left for almost two years starting in April 1944 for service with the U.S. Navy. He parlayed the Benny job into his own radio and TV series, a record deal, as well as nightclub gigs in Las Vegas. Day did pretty well by Jack Benny. But, of course, he had to have the talent first.

Screenland magazine’s October 1944 devoted space to Day’s career. It’s a familiar tale to those of you who are long-time Jack Benny fans. And there are a couple of personal pieces at the end.

A million times yes, Dennis Day! Two big contracts are held in abeyance for you until the war is over — radio AND pictures

MAYBE this story should be called "My Day, by Jack Benny." For Dennis Day's been Benny's boy to the last naive wisecrack, the final bright, agreeable "Yes, please?"
By Constance Palmer
But he's in the Navy now. Two contracts are being held in abeyance for him until the war is over. One is with National Broadcasting Company, holding his spot in the Jack Benny show and the other is with RKO for pictures.
He's finished making "Music In Manhattan," with Anne Shirley and Phil Terry. In his first picture, "Buck Benny Rides Again," they made him a cowboy in a blond wig and allowed him one song. RKO, however, has shown more discernment. This time he is playing his own black-haired, dancing-eyed Irish self and is given full scope for his particular brand of pixie comedy.
Reports on the picture and Dennis' performance are enthusiastic, but not all the fun went on the screen. Gifted with the keen ear of the singer and the lively humor of the Irish, he can be at will Jap, Swede, Greek, Cockney or lazy Mexican peon.
One morning, to the astonishment of the executives, he turned up in the day's rushes as Hitler, bellowing in low-German accent, "Dey vill nefer bomb Chermany!" Then, after a sheepish pause. "Veil, maybe a leedle — "

Dennis' father and mother came from Ireland. They established a home in New York, where Eugene Dennis McNulty was born on May 21, 1917. He is the third son of a large and lively family to go into the Navy. Another brother is a priest and a sister goes to college. He, himself, went to Cathedral High School and studied law at Manhattan College, where he won the Mayor's Scholarship. However, he didn't take his bar examination because graduation and the depression were simultaneous.
"It was a choice of clerking in a store or driving a truck or — the radio," he said. "And, since I'd always been singing — in church and school and at home — I chose the radio."
After some months of sustaining spots on small New York stations, he heard that Jack Benny was looking for a singer to replace Kenny Baker, who had left the program. On the slim chance of being considered, Dennis sent a recording of his voice over to NBC.
"I didn't have much hope of ever reaching Mr. Benny," he explained. "I'd heard they'd auditioned more than 530 people already. But Mary Livingstone listened to the record and took it to Chicago, where they were broadcasting that week. I was called there and sang for them for an hour and a half, so scared I hardly knew what I was doing. Then they told me I could stop and rest."
He turned to ask his accompanist how the songs had sounded just as someone in the control-booth called, "Oh, Dennis — "
"I answered 'Yes, please?' just the way I always answer whenever I'm called," he continued. "Later, Mr. Benny told me that 'Yes, please?' had sold me more than the hour-and-a-half's singing!"
He was given a round-trip ticket to Los Angeles and put up at the Hollywood Athletic Club, with instructions not to talk to anyone.
"They meant, of course, not to discuss the program or the character. Then, if I were selected, the announcement would come as a surprise," Dennis explained. "But I took them literally and for three weeks didn't speak to a single soul. I just walked up and down Sunset and Hollywood Boulevards and all the side-streets north and south and didn't say a word to anybody. I've never been so lonesome in my life!"
After he was chosen for the program and the contract signed, he brought his father and mother to Hollywood and bought a house for them. He moved in with them and they took up again the home-life they'd always had before he left New York. It's a merry menage, full of Irish wit and laughter. Mrs. McNulty isn't at all like the character who is Dennis' mother on the radio. She is warm and friendly, drawing people to her by kindness and happiness. It's a typical evening to find the rugs rolled up and eight or ten in the midst of a lively Irish jig.
Dennis, too, has a deeply religious side to his nature, and, besides his cleverness and quickness of mind, he is a hard and earnest worker. He doesn't talk too readily; he studies his vis-a-vis thoroughly and steadily first with unswerving black eyes.
He likes the ceremony and pageantry of British public life and came away from his recent trip to Canada imbued with the sense of its dignity and beauty.

While he was still in school, he and his sister made a vacation trip to Ireland to visit their grandparents. He bought a little donkey and cart and went jogging up and down the lanes of the lush green countryside.
"The Irish are a poor people but they have a wonderful time," he said. "And my cute little grandmother can dance a jig with the best of them!"
He likes the girls — all of them. But when he settles down to one, he wants to marry a fine woman who will be satisfied and happy with a home and children. He doesn't believe in career-girls or war marriages.
As a child he was unlucky in accidents. When he was six months old, he fell out of his carriage and cut himself so badly that, because of loss of blood, he didn't walk until he was five years old. Later, at the family's summer cottage on City Island, he cut a tendon in his bare foot on broken glass. He hobbled the two miles back home, spouting gore at every painful step. On another disastrous occasion, a playmate pushed him onto the stone steps of the schoolhouse and split his forehead open. Accidents happened so often that my mother made a habit of watching out the window for me every day. When she saw me dripping blood, she'd just reach calmly for the telephone," he said. "The Fordham Hospital ambulance made regular round trips, practically on schedule!"
He enters the Navy with the rank of ensign, but doesn't know yet to which branch of the service he will be attached. His particular fitness will be found out in the two months' intensive training he will have at the University of Arizona at Tucson.
He loves the Navy and is proud to be a part of it. He is entering earnestly and sincerely, just like hundreds of thousands of other boys. Here's good luck to him — and welcome home when he gets back!

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