Sunday, 22 July 2018

A Carnival of Jack Benny

TV specials and concerts occupied the final years of Jack Benny’s life. He kept working right up until cancer stopped him several months before his death. One of his specials in 1968 featured an odd assortment of names. Don Drysdale was a pitcher for the Dodgers; Jack was a baseball fan. George Burns was his best friend. Johnny Carson was practically a student of his. And Ben Blue, well, Ben Blue was an old vaudevillian who had appeared with him in Artists and Models Abroad (1937), on his radio show (about the same time) as some guy who broke into uncontrollable guffawing, and on his TV show in 1960. He wasn’t exactly an A-lister in 1968.

NBC dutifully sent out releases and captioned photos to newspapers to get free publicity for the special. Newspapers did what they wanted with them, lifting quotes for their own entertainment columns or republishing a release in part or whole. A release generally gives itself away by not being bylined, though small papers might not byline its entertainment stories if one writer/editor was responsible for all of them.

This story appeared in the TV magazine section Albany Times-Union of Saturday, March 16, 1968. I suspect it’s from one of those releases.

Jack Benny Conducts Special That Isn't His Idea of a Special
HOLLYWOOD — Jack Benny has put together a very special Special for the only outing of the year as the star of his own show on NBC, despite his protestation that it isn't a "special." The Wednesday colorcast extravaganza features such stars as Lucille Ball, Johnny Carson, Ben Blue and Paul Revere and the Raiders.
The carnival is the theme, and Benny has stocked his "sideshow" with cameo appearances by Bob Hope, Dean Martin, Danny Thomas, the Smothers Brothers, George Burns, Don Drysdale and a host of acts ranging from the sword swallower to the bearded lady.
• • •
"ALL I know," says Jack, "is that we have a great show. But NBC insists on calling it a 'special.' To me, a special is when coffee goes from a dollar a pound to 69 cents. That's a special!"
Benny is surrounded by eye-popping sets representing all elements of the carnival from the pitchman's booth in front of the tent housing Luscious Lucille, the kootch dancer, to the overloaded bus that carts the troupe from city to city. There are sets that showcase the main attractions and the featured performers and a huge carousel that acts as the backdrop for the finale.
The program consists of many vignettes within the world of the carnival. Carson plays a barker, a hustler for the baseball-throwing concession and, in one hilarious skit, Jack Benny's son, a penny-pinching carbon copy of his old man, who owns the Kubelsky Carnival.
Lucille Ball has a field day as Luscious Lucille, the kootch dancer who sings and dances as Helen of Troy and Cleopatra; as the sidekick of Ben Blue in a pantomime skit that pokes fun at the nickelodeons; as Benny's wife who is a Jill of All Trades in Benny's troupe.
Benny romps through the entire hour. He does a take-off of Dean Martin in the opening of his show that sets the pattern for zany humor. Benny's monologue is up to his best previous efforts. Then Jack plays a "rube," a con man, a member of the Revere Raiders and the corny owner, Kubelsky, which, by the way, is Jack's real name.
It wouldn't be cricket to divulge the nature of the cameo bits on the show because the very essence of the spots by the big-name stars is surprise.
• • •
THE ARDUOUS job of dispensing laughter for the better part of four decades (do your own arithmetic concerning Jack's alleged age of 39) has taken little apparent toll of Benny's store of energy and enthusiasm.
He relaxes by working, and makes countless appearances each year in behalf of charitable causes. His principal source of pleasure comes from his guest appearances with major symphonies around the country. (Last month, for instance, he appeared with the Boston Symphony.)
Jack has now been guest soloist with every major symphony in the United States. He gets only joy as his reward — no fee. He has raised over $4 million for ailing symphony treasuries in the years he has been doing this worthy "fiddling-around."
Additionally, Benny has been doing concerts in his primary capacity as a comedian. His act holds records in just about every spot in which he has titillated audiences, the most noteworthy of recent origin being the Expo '67 box office record, topping everything and everyone who appeared [at] the Montreal Exposition. Night clubs, guesting on television and an occasional golf game fill the rest of his spare time.
Public and network reaction to this special may cause Benny to re-evaluate his thinking about the amount of time he devotes to television.
The word going around is: the people are going to demand more of the same. "My doctor would like me to start taking it easier," Benny told his studio audience during taping of the show. "He told me that I shouldn't be working so hard. He said I couldn't be doing the show for the money. Ha!
"I have found," Benny continued, "that when you take the rubber gloves off a doctor, you have a real comedian on your hands!"

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