Sunday, 4 November 2018

What? No Ad-libs?

Radio grabbed the big vaudeville stars and then the movie industry grabbed the big radio stars and transported a fair percentage of them from New York City to Hollywood.

Among them was Jack Benny. For all intents and purposes, his New York radio career ended in 1935. He returned east for about 3½ months in 1936 but, realistically, the only time he went back to New York was for personal appearances, a film premiere or, later, to do his first television shows (there was no cable from Hollywood to send them to the network at the time).

Benny’s film mix-it-up with Fred Allen, Love Thy Neighbor, premiered in New York in 1940, so Benny and his cast went back for a week. He had spent three weeks in the city earlier in the year when Buck Benny Rides Again debuted in Harlem.

One New York columnist complained Benny didn’t say anything amusing after getting off the train at Grand Central Station. His comments are on an earlier post on the blog. The reporter for PM said basically the same in his story of December 14, 1940, but explains why he’s not bothered about it. And he gives you an indication how incredibly popular Jack was then.

Benny Can't Ad Lib ... Not Even a Burp
Jack Benny et cie. (Mary Livingstone, Phil Harris, Dennis Day, Don Wilson and Rochester) arrived here the other day from Hollywood for tomorrow night's premiere of the Benny-Fred Allen picture, Love Thy Neighbor, at the Paramount. Last night, an hour before Benny was scheduled to broadcast for Jello from NBC's Ritz Theater (WEAF 7), West 18th St., outside, was jammed with humanity.
For this lone New York broadcast some 10,000 persons had asked to sit in a theater which seats only 700. For this one broadcast an estimated 34,000,000 persons throughout the U. S. A. were sitting at their radio sets.
There is no doubt about it. The nation's choice as the funniest man in the land is Jack Benny, a silver-gray, fattening, 46-year-old ex-vaudeville violinist and patter man from Waukegan, Ill., who now collects about $12,500 a week from the radio.
The funniest thing about all this is that Jack Benny (born Benny Kubelsky), a big, fingernail-biting fellow who also chews two-for-a-quarter cigars (Santa Fe's), is not a funny man at all.
One night, when Fred Allen was ribbing him unmercifully in a joint broadcast, Benny came through with perhaps the only good ad lib he ever got off. And that was born of despair. "If I had my writers here," Jack moaned, you wouldn't talk that way to me."
"Benny," concluded one Harry Conn, who used to write gags for Jack, "couldn't ad lib a belch after a Hungarian dinner."
But despite Benny's lack of humorous spontaneity, one fact should be noted here. There is nobody in the whole, wide variety world who can time a gag or two-time a double take the way Jack Benny can.
The formula for the Benny show has seldom varied in the six years it has been on the air for Jello. Phil Harris poaches on Jack's romantic preserves, Rochester loses the house money in a crap game, the quaking old Maxwell collapses whenever the drive it into the script, and when Jack's ego reaches a zenith, Mary Livingstone, Jack's wife (nee Sadye Marks) punctures it.
That's the way Harry Conn devised it nine years ago, when Jack first took to the air for Canada Dry. And that's the way Bill Morrow and Ed Beloin, present senior and junior writers of the Benny entourage, have kept it.
In real life, Benny, who probably retains about $7000 a week after paying the cast, is the same sort of fretful, unsatisfied guy he is on the air.
He plays no sports, but when he is home in Beverly Hills he goes for walks with his trainer. His major delight is his six-year-old adopted daughter, Naomi Joan.
Naomi Joan calls him Old Daddy Jack.

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