Sunday 25 August 2019

Youth and Violins

Loads of laughs came Jack Benny’s way because of all the things he really wasn’t. He really didn’t drive a Maxwell. He really didn’t live next door to Ronald and Benita Colman. He really wasn’t tight with a buck. He really wasn’t a hopelessly inept violinist. And he didn’t wear a rug.

Well, I should qualify that. He did have a small one in some of his pictures in the 1930s. Perhaps that’s why he joked about it on his radio show for years. Interestingly, his buddies George Burns and Georgie Jessel both wore one. And so did Eddie Anderson on his TV show.

Jack talks about his hair and violin playing in this 1959 news syndicate story. He was about to receive a reward for his music which, no doubt, thrilled him. After reading a number of these interviews, I truly get the feeling he wasn’t kidding when he said he wished he could have been a great violinist.

Benny Gets Kick Helping Music
Hearst Headline Service
NEW YORK, Nov. 28 — Talked with Jack Benny, 39, the other afternoon. Heavens, but the man has aged. Looked 43 if he looked a day.
In truth, he must be the best preserved Hollywood denizen in history. He is looking his 66th birthday in the face. Youthfully.
He was passing through, en route to Washington to receive the laurel leaf award at the National Press Club. It was given annually for contributions to music. Such as Stokowski and George Szell have won it.
For three years now he has been toting his Stradivarius around the land doing concerts to help local symphony orchestras. He was bubbling with pleasure as he recounted concerts last week in Detroit, St. Louis, and Rochester, N. Y.
"You know the people who gave, me this award tell me I won if for helping music. The money raised didn't hurt music, of course, but they think I help make fans for serious music. People attend a concert to laugh at Benny and they hear some Beethoven and Bach before they get Benny. They find they like Beethoven and Bach and come back to hear it without the jokes."
He endeared himself with a hit of candor unique among performers. He showed some newspapers with front page pictures and said "I enjoy doing this concert stuff for itself. And it isn't bad publicity, either. I could never get this kind of press if I went to Detroit just to do a broadcast."
I explained to Benny that I had a tin ear and was not capable of judging his music. What kind of a violinist was he?
He showed a St. Louis review. The critic wrote, "can Jack Benny play the violin? My answer is 'yes' and 'no.'" Benny said that was a fair description.
"I think I fool a lot of people with my violin," he added "I play straight. I don't have to hit any clinkers for laughs I can hit enough without trying. But I also have to stay even with the orchestra and finish in a tie. I usually do."
Benny gave a clue as to the seriousness with which he approaches the serious parts of his concerts when he said, "I had to start practicing all over again. I hadn't practiced in 40 years until these concerts came up."
He summed up his violin talent with a quote from his good friend, Isaac Stein, the great violinist. Stern told him, "when you make your entrance in tails and filled with aplomb you look like the world's greatest violinist It's a shame that right after such an entrance you have to play."
When you interview Benny he is pleasant but more often serious than not. He flashes humor now and then but unlike most of his colleagues he is not "on" every second. You gather that he takes being funny very seriously. And that he leaves nothing to chance.
He was enjoying his New York stay—"old friends" — but ample time was set aside to carefully prepare the ad libs for his speech in Washington. I mentioned how young he looked — that has never upset any interviewee I ever met—but he discussed that subject seriously.
"I do look young for my age," he said. "That's why I used the gag about being 39. If I looked 65 and said I was 39 it would be macabre. I look about 55 (a modest estimate) and I'm lucky. I do have the feeling I'll wake up some morning and everything will have collapsed and I'll look my age. But, so far so good."
As we parted, he scratched his head and I said, "you're the first Hollywood male star I've interviewed this year who didn't have to lift his toupe to scratch his skull."
Benny grinned. "Print that, he suggested. "A few people think I'm 39. But the whole country is sure I wear a toupe."
He doesn't. His hair, like his talent, wears well.

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