Sunday 6 October 2019

Not An Orchestra Enny

No, Jack Benny did not spend eight years in university. No, he did not want to be a radio announcer.

Those are some of the gag responses he gave (written, I suspect, by his writer Harry Conn) in an interview he gave in 1934.

The rest of the biography in this feature story published in the Charleston Daily Mail of December 4th seems reasonably accurate. For some reason, it skips the Salisbury and Benny debut of his professional career. His screen debut was actually in a 1928 Warner Bros. short Bright Moments. His comment about relatives is a quip; he only had one sister. And I’m a bit sceptical that his father handed him a monkey wrench; I suspect Meyer Kubelsky would want him to take over the family business.

The reference to television shouldn’t be surprising. New York City had several experimental stations with regular programming in the early 1930s. It just took a while to move from mechanical to electronic TV sets, decide on transmission rates and wait for the war to end so programme (and set manufacture) could be expanded.

Jack Benny Talked His Way Into Broadcasting Despite His Violin
Jack Benny, funnyman of the air, was sealed in the National Broadcasting company studios in New York rehearsing for his program when approached by the interviewer.
“Oh that's O. K., shoot. I don't mind but please spell my name right—I'm Jack Benny and not Jack Denny of orchestra ‘ennys. Get it right. Benny—B, as in Bean Soup—E, as in Sharkee, the fighter—N. as in Knickers—another N. as in pneumonia and Y. as in the state of Yoming.”
“O. K., Mr. Benny. Do you like broadcasting?”
“Do I like broadcasting. I like it very much. You can't hear the audience hiss.”
“Where were you born Mr. Benny?”
“What cities do you like best.”
“Oh I like Mount Vernon, Los Angeles and Boston.”
“That's fine; make it Philadelphia.”
“Were you really born in Philadelphia?”
“No, but I like Philly and as soon as the Athletics get a real team the pennant will be a cinch.”
“But where were you born?”
“I tell you son, there's nothing like fresh air and spinach to tone you up for rehearsals.”
“Where did you say you were born?”
“This fellow Roosevelt is certainly doing a grand job.”
“Where were you born?”
“I think his Gettysburg speech hit the right spot.”
“Do you think we'll have free beer next week?”
Born in Illinois
“Well, if you are going to keep harping on that subject, I was born in Lake Forest, Ill. I had one father and one mother. I spent eight years at college, the University of Illinois . . . and don't ask me if I was a freshman for eight years. It was only two. I didn't attend classes: I was a cook. Then I wanted to become a radio announcer, so I practiced talking to myself, but I never got the job as a few people listen in to every program and talking to yourself does a person no good.
“What's that, rehearsal. O. K.”
“So long, remember—the name's Benny.”
That is what Jack Benny, comedian, wit, and silent violin player had to say about himself. However, this youthful looking, sprightly radio star, is as interesting as the many situations he portrays on his programs.
A bit under six feet, gray-tinged hair, ruddy complexion and seldom smiling, Jack Benny is the antithesis of what one in his occupation should be like.
Jack Benny by training, origin and practice was a fiddler. His friends say it took a World war to start him talking. Before joining Uncle Sam's sea forces (the navy, he means) Benny played a violin in vaudeville and said nothing. After one attempt to raise funds with a musical appeal at a seamen's benefit, he dropped the violin and started talking.
Since, then Jack has talked his way through several Shubert musical revues, two editions of Earl Carroll’s “Vanities,” several Pacific coast theaters, half a dozen motion pictures and into radio as a laugh-getting master of ceremonies.
He is noted as a wit, monologist, comedian. His quips and stories have enlivened stage, screen and air shows. But by force of habit, Benny still carries his violin when making stage appearances. He never plays it, just carries it, looks at it wistfully and gives the customer the impression he couldn’t play it if he wanted to. Someday, he says, he’s going to use it again, provide he can stop long enough to talk.
Learned the Violin
Always an ambitious youth, Benny learned to play the violin with the same ease he learned to talk. His family lived in Waukegan, Ill. For 17 years Jack remained in that community, because it was the only place he could eat free. At six he started his violin. One of his favorite gags is to run his bow across the strings in screechy strains and yell, “It’s five o’clock Ma, can I go out now?” That shows he liked to practice. At 13 he changed his mind and really took a liking to the violin. At 14 he determine to enter on a professional career with his violin.
He started with a Waukegan orchestra playing the dances in and around the home town. He was 16 then, and after one year with the orchestra decided he had sufficient professional standing to go on the stage. With a partner who played the piano while he played the fiddle, Benny launched his first vaudeville act. For six years he toured back and forth across the United States, playing his violin and saying nothing. Then the United States entered the war, and Benny joined the navy. As a musician he was soon drafted for sailor shows for the seaman’s benefit fund. His violin playing brought applause—everybody applauded free talent—but no contributions. After all, reasoned Benny, if you want money, you have to ask for it. Even at that time he knew human nature. He put the instrument down and broke a six-year silence.
He got contributions. But what surprised him more, he got laughs. Gingerly, he tried out a few more gags. A wave of laughter swept through the audience. At the next show, Benny played less and wise-cracked more. When the war was over he returned to vaudeville—as a monologist.
In the years that followed, Jack Benny, a glib young man carrying a silent violin, became a celebrated comedian. He was a headliner in vaudeville, and one of the first and most successful masters of ceremonies in Broadway revues, He was a popular night club entertainer.
Apparently, he was permanently attached to the theater when the end of a transcontinental tour in vaudeville brought him to the Orpheum theater in Los Angeles. Benny stayed at the Orpheum for eight straight weeks, establishing a new house record for a single artist. Meanwhile talking pictures and the first wave of screen revues came to Hollywood.
Talked Way In
To keep the talking Jack Benny out of the “talkies” would have been a real problem. Nobody tried to. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer promptly offered him a contract, and he made his screen debut as a master of ceremonies in the Hollywood revue “Chasing Rainbows”, and “Medicine Man” followed. Other features followed that. Then comedy shorts, and Mary Livingtone.
And Mary Livingstone after hearing Jack Benny talk on and on and on, just nodded her head, and came east with him as Mrs. Jack Benny. She is the Mary you hear on his broadcasts.
They arrived in New York, just as Earl Carroll was casting the annual edition of his Vanities. At Carroll’s request, Benny dropped in to witness a rehearsal. When the curtain went up the opening night Benny was still there. He was, in fact, the star of the show.
For two years he was the leading comedian and master of ceremonies in the Carroll revue. Then came radio, and “maybe television will soon be here so they see my violin,” he says.
Talking of the violin, Benny's proudest possession is a letter he received after one of his violin solos (he called it that) on the air. The letter read:
“Dear Mr. Benny: For several months our family had been starving the wolf was at the door. Then one night we tuned in on your program. By the time you finished your violin solo, the wolf had left forever.”
When broadcasting, Benny always wears his hat. Unlike most people he likes relatives, “because they send mail to my sponsors.”
And back to his violin again, he says:
“My father gave me a violin and a monkey wrench. He told me not to take chances. Plumbing isn't a bad business.”

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