Sunday 30 June 2019

The Suave Man of the Palace

He said it so many times, he probably believed it was true.

Jack Benny oft remarked how he started his radio career with a guest appearance on Ed Sullivan’s radio show, and tossed in his opening line on the programme.

It wasn’t true. What the short spot on March 29, 1932 did was help him get his own network radio show less than two months later. We’ve chronicled on this blog some of his earlier radio stints. One we’ve missed until now was on Friday, September 4, 1931 on the NBC-WEAF (Red) network. He showed up on the “RKO Theatre of the Air” show, which aired from 10:30 to 11 p.m.

There’s a very good reason he was booked on that programme. The following night, he returned after a seven-week absence to act as master of ceremonies at the Palace Theatre in New York—which happened to be part of the RKO empire. Nothing like a good cross-plug.

Joining him were Abe Lyman, making his first appearance at the Palace since 1924, and Kate Smith, whose popular standing was thanks to her radio show. Incidentally, Benny, Lyman and Smith reunited on the Benny radio show in March 1938.

Here are two reviews of opening night at the Palace, the first from the New York Daily News and the second from the New York Sun. I wish more was said about Benny’s stand-up. Not mentioned at all were the Robbins Trio, a roller-skating novelty act which opened the bill, and Gordon, Reed and King, a dance act in the number-two spot.

All the reviews call Benny “suave.” The New York Times’ review of opening night opined: “Few comedians have his suavity, few his ability to make a point with ease and surety. Through such simple devices as looking at his audience, pursing his lips or taking a handkerchief from his breast pocket and reflectively wiping his mouth, Mr. Benny can be funnier than can most comics with a whole stageful of gags and paraphernalia.”

The show ended up being held over. In the meantime, Benny was supposed to begin a gig with Earl Carroll. It eventually led to a proposed salary cut and Benny wondering if maybe his talents should be heard elsewhere.


The Palace Theatre, having found a large, new public during the course of a seven weeks' run of Lou Holtz and company, is attempting to retain its customers by assembling a new offering in which Jack Benny, Harriet Hoctor and Abe Lyman's band are featured.
Just for luck, too, the management has kept a couple of features from the Holtz fiesta. It will be interesting to see if the new program can approach a long-run record; to see if Benny is as successful a master of ceremonies as was his predecessor.
Miss Hoctor Returns.
Benny's scheme is different. Holtz, a sure marksman with a scatter gun, aimed for howls and got them. A shrewd interpreter of the vaudeville patron's mind, his humor was broad, low and loud. Benny's wit is sharp, dry and cynical.
Miss Hoctor returns in complete loveliness with a new dance to replace her successful "St. Louis Blues" ballet.
In a black velvet dress and with a perky black hat set upon blond hair, she whirls and drifts about the stage in precise but effortless grace. In another number she has no inconsiderable partner in Charles Columbus.
Lyman's band has rhythm and go—and some jerkily conceived arrangements. It serves for a funny scene in which Benny doubts that a leader's baton-waving amounts to much.
Left by Holtz.
"After all," says Jack to Abe, what could you do with this stick if the band didn't show up?" So Benny tries some stick-waving of his own with ludicrous results.
Inherited from the Holtz era are William Gaxton and Kate Smith. Gaxton reverts to his boss and office boy sketch with George Haggerty, which has more zip than that "Kisses" act.
Miss Smith calls to the Mississippi without even the transmissive aid of a broadcasting network, and the house is hers. Vaudeville customers know what they want, and there is no doubt about their wanting Miss Smith.

HAVING seen the wisdom of building programs that may tenant the Palace on longtime leases the R.-K.-O. executives offer again this week a bill that well could weather for some weeks the gales that blow shows on and off of Broadway. With the exception of William Gaxton and Kate Smith the talent is fresh and of a very different flavor from that of the unique program which has put out the S. R. O. sign for the last three weeks.
The new master of ceremonies is Jack Benny, the suave, slow-spoken and subtle satirist who so philosophically is the butt of blunders sprinkled into the evening's routine. His violin solo during a break in the newsreel is interrupted by the blaze of trumpets at Fort Something-or-Other when the film is mended. His protege, a jujitsu "champion," is carried off on a shutter, and Mr. Benny's attempt to conduct Abe Lyman's band causes mutiny, only the piccolo player remaining loyal to the baton.
Mr. Lyman and his musicians stop the show, as is their right. For smooth, distinctive music they have few peers, and there is in their turn just enough showmanship to make their effects a little breath-taking. Mr. Lyman is to be congratulated also on his vocal chorus arrangements.
The other new act is that of Miss Harriet Hoctor, the dancer about whom this reviewer already has written many superlatives. She again reveals herself in her three numbers the mistress of her art. During her interpretation of the popular blues chant, "Mood Indigo." one sits bewitched, oblivious of the Palace, the orchestra, the audience and of even the day of the week. Of her assistants only the young eccentric dancer is fittingly skillful for her act.
Mr. Gaxton offers his well-known skit, "Partners," well suited to his playful and energetic manner. It is most amusing if you haven't seen it too many times. Miss Smith is again her most likable self in a new repertoire of songs.
The other acts of the bill are the Robbins Trio and Gordon, Reed and King. T. P. H.

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