Sunday 19 May 2019

He Knows How to Pick 'Em

When Jack Benny arrived in Vancouver in 1954, he did more than perform on stage. He decorated a horse in the 5th race at Lansdowne Park (there were no reports of a tout offering him a tip), visited Shaughnessy Hospital during a garden party with pony rides for the kids (Buck Benny didn’t ride again), met a polar bear at the Stanley Park Zoo (it was not named Carmichael), wrote guest columns for the Sun and Province newspapers, popped by the opening of swim classes at Lumberman’s Arch pool (they were free), hung out with models at a fashion show on the Panorama Roof of the Hotel Vancouver and was officially initiated as a member of the Irish Fusiliers (he did not play “Clancy Lowered the Boom” on his violin).

Somehow, he found time to do some shows.

The funny thing is that Benny fans in Vancouver had some difficulty listening to his radio show. When Lucky Strike took over sponsorship in 1944, Benny was dropped by the CBC because the American cigarette references were too woven into the show to be edited out. Listeners had to pick him up from Seattle. In 1954, that meant tuning in KIRO. The problem was KIRO’s frequency was 710, but local powerhouse CBU was at 690, overpowering the signal from Seattle.

Benny basically fronted a vaudeville show. There were several acts, including the Will Mastin Trio and Gisele MacKenzie. The trio was led by Sammy Davis, Jr.; one Vancouver paper pointed out that three years earlier, they had played a $50 gig in Cloverdale, about 30 miles in farm country from the city. MacKenzie had a Vancouver connection; her brother Georges La Fleche was at the CBC in Vancouver for quite a number of years. He was running the French language side at one time and famously anchored the evening news on English television during a strike in 1989.

Here are reviews of opening night from the two main newspapers. The first is from the Vancouver Province, the second from the Vancouver Sun. I suspect the third daily, the long-departed News-Herald, was there but it is not available on-line.

The Georgia Auditorium has been a patch of grass for many, many years.

Benny's All-Stars Live Up To Name, Result—A Fast, Furious Frolic

The Jack Benny All-Star Revue has the most appropriate title of any show ever to play Vancouver. It's half over before Benny stroll on stage and the first part (approximately one hour and 20 minutes Wednesday night) was so good that nobody missed the comedian.
Then, when he took over after Intermission (for roughly another hour and five minutes) you wondered how you could have enjoyed the show so much without him. Answer is that Benny's a shrewd genius, not only at his pecularly effective brand of comedy but at showbuilding. The result confounds the grammarian who insists there is no superlative for "best." The Benny revue—as a near sell-out audience of 2000 first-nighters can swear to starts with the best and works unbelievably to bestest.
Those who remember the recent Bob Hope visit (we'd like to forget it) are going to be happily disappointed if they expect the same, tossed salad from Benny. Hope, gave us an evening of practically nothing except Jerry Colonna at a $5 top price before he appeared. Benny gives a night of everything worth every bit of the $1.60 top ticket—and then throws himself in as a bonus.
First act is Nita and Peppi, a couple of frisky youngsters whose acrobatic antics forecast a great future as long as their muscles and nerves hold out. Then comes magician Channing Pollock, a suave fellow whose hand-is-quicker-than-the-eye manipulations fool everyone.
Next is Canadian export Gisele MacKenzie, and what a surprise. This girl not only can sing (no news there) but she's a competent comedienne. Had she done nothing but her devastating impersonation of Marilyn Monroe, she'd have been a hit. As is, she's a sensation.
First-half clincher was the Will Mastin Trio and that wonder of wonders, Sammy Davis Jr.
This boy is fantastic whether he's dancing, impersonating movie stars, singing in the voices of famous personalities or delivering songs in his own voice and style, Sammy is more than slightly terrific.
The Stuart Morgan Dancers—three muscular young men and a supple miss—had the enthusiastic audience on seat edges.
And lastly, Jack Benny, a visual funny man with a perfect sense of timing and an ability to get laughs from a quizzical look, a raised eyebrow or his slow burn expression and even his folded hands and patient helplessness.
Yes, he had his violin with him. He played it with the Beverly Hillbillies in best vaudeville tradition. And he played it with Gisele MacKenzie. He did everything that was expected of him and more.
Mahlon Merrick, skilled musical director, had local musicians rehearsed well and the overture included snatches of every song ever associated with Jack Benny and the cigaret he advertises. This slick commercialism, which was most evident with Gisele MacKenzie's performance, is the only complaint. And it's not really serious.
Another excellent feature of the show is that it starts practically on time and to heck with the latecomers. It will do the same tonight, Friday and twice Saturday at the Auditorium.

Benny's Good and So's His Troupe
Sun Reviewer Finds Comedy Show Most Rounded and Fully Packed

Sun Entertainment Editor
Jack Benny and his Variety Revue received a well-deserved ovation Wednesday night from a near-capacity audience of 2200 in Vancouver's Georgia Auditorium after two and a half hours of comedy, spectacle and music.
Frankly, it's a honey of a show.
The bland and dapper comedian of radio and television renown proved that he is even funnier "in the flesh" than via any electronic medium.
And he did it without the support of his heckling wife, Mary Livingstone; his ever-boyish tenor stooge, Dennis Day; his impertinent valet, Rochester; his multi-chinned announcer, Don Wilson; his primeval Maxwell car, his subterranean treasure-vault, or any of the other amusing props and characters familiarly linked with Jack Benny "on the air."
Instead, the 60-year-old American funnyman surrounded him self with a roster of mainly young and gifted entertainers, topped by the Canadian-born songstress, Gisele MacKenzie, and Sammy Davis Jr., a triple-threat dancer, singer and mimic of phenomenal powers.
Even without Jack Benny, the assisting acts were almost enough to carry the show—which continues tonight and Friday and Saturday evenings, plus a Saturday matinee.
No other show-business celebrity in many years has come to Vancouver as the centre of such a solid and balanced program.
More than most of his competitors, he has always openly acknowledged that he is not much of an ad-libber and that he depends heavily on good script-writers for his material. It is plain to see, though, that his artistry excels that of the "human machine-gun" type of wisecrack conveyor belt. There is a grace and urbanity in the Benny style; and some of his biggest laughs are evoked without a word of dialogue.
"I may not be very clever myself," Benny grinned at Wednesday's opener, "but I sure know how to pick 'em, don't I?"
He was referring to the calibre of his colleagues on the show, and his words were well-chosen.
Canada's Gisele MacKenzie, now a leading attraction of big-time U.S. television and recordings, began rather depressingly, I thought, with a self-congratulatory act called "Look What Happened to Me." Her impression of a stately opera star's nightclub debut also struck me as being too forced to be hilarious.
But Miss MacKenzie did herself proud a moment later in a wonderfully funny take-off of screen-queen Marilyn Monroe, pouting hippily through a torchy ballad. An accomplished pianist and violinist as well as a pretty girl and a constantly improving comedienne, she has a secure musical technique far beyond the ability of most of her chanteuse rivals. The audience had good reason to give her rapturous reception.

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