Sunday, 2 February 2020

How To Interview A Sleeping Star

One thing that’s evident in hunting through newspapers of the 1960s looking for articles on Jack Benny is that he kept up an incredible schedule. He travelled to and fro making appearances when he wasn’t working on his TV show, meaning a steady stream of interviews, meet-and-greets and other such trappings in addition to his performances.

Is it no wonder he feel asleep on one interview?

The interviewer in question was Gerald Nachman, known perhaps these days for his book Raised on Radio. At the time, he was reporting for the New York Post. It would appear the 70-year-old Benny had a long morning—it’s not said when he landed in the city—and needed an afternoon nap.

Here is Mr. Nachman’s tale of his valiant attempt at an interview. Through his own resourcefulness, he managed to put together an interesting story. It appeared in print on October 4, 1964.

Hello Again, This Is Jack Benny...
MANY A VIEWER has dozed off watching a TV comedian, but in the annals of television there has never been an instance reported of a viewer putting a TV comedian to sleep. What follows, then, is something of a show business first.
Members of the cast include: Jack Benny, as the TV comedian; Irving Fein, as his producer and prompter; and a viewer, or in this case interviewer, who will remain anonymous and calm; an apple also figures importantly in the plot.
As the sketch begins, it is early afternoon one day last week and Jack Benny is riding up to his hotel room in an elevator, a weary look on his face. He's already put in a full day spreading the word that Jack Benny is starting his 15th year in television and that he is now back on NBC, where he began 15 penny-pinching, birthday-less years ago.
He was up at dawn for an interview on the "Today" show. Afterwards he went to breakfast and was interviewed by local TV writers, followed by a guest appearance on "Concentration."
Then he spent two hours taping promotional spots—the ones that go, "Hello, this is Jack Benny, next on NBC," as the final scene fades on "Bob Hope Presents" and the credits roll. After this came more questions from TV critics around the U.S. on a closed circuit interview. Finally Benny ate lunch, and had another press conference. A day like that could easily wear out a man of 39, let alone 70.
Benny stepped out of the elevator and, with that well known sashay, walked down the corridor to his hotel room (perhaps a better word is wing). He studied the handful of telephone messages and came upon one that displeased him.
"Do we have to do this Garroway thing?" he asked the tall man wearing Goldwater glasses, Irving Fein, referring apparently to Dave Garroway's radio program and the fact that it would mean answering still more questions about how it feels to be 70 and still as active as ever. Fein mumbled something. Benny let himself into his suite and went into the bedroom for a minute.
* * *
THERE, AS IF PLANTED BY A FUN-LOVING hotel manager, a cleaning boy was dusting the Venetian blinds and singing "Fine and Dandy." The only thing missing from the familiar scene was a wisecracking parrot. Fein, who has been with Benny 18 years, was obviously enjoying it immensely.
'That's him," said Fein, pointing. "That's just the guy we've been looking for!" The impromptu audition continued, but Benny didn't seem to notice. By now he must be used to discovering would-be Rochesters In every hotel room, Dennis Days waiting on him in restaurants and Western Union boys who can sound exactly like Maxwell touring cars.
Returning to the living room, Benny looked over the two mammoth baskets of fruit that were planted there by the hotel manager, plucked an apple from one and took a noisy bite out of it. Then he sat back on the sofa and waited to be asked how it feels to be 70 and still as active as ever. He made a valiant effort but the sofa was a little too soft and the apple had the effect of a glass of warm milk.
"All good things develop by accident," he said, munching on the apple, as he explained how his alter ego evolved. "If we would have said, 'Let's make me a stingy s. o. b.,' the damn thing wouldn't have lasted three weeks. You can't plan those things and you can't chart them. The character just grew. It grew out of nothing, the way a child grows."
Benny removed his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose.
"People are always taking advantage of me, and I've always thought it's because there's a tiny bit of effeminacy in me. I don't mean I'm a pansy, but the vanity and the pouting and the sulking in the character I play on TV—it's like a woman."
* * *
Fein, who had been tossing salted peanuts into his mouth, decided to break in. He was wide awake. "The reason Jack has been around so long—the reason he's outlived the Gobels and the Berles and the Caesers—is because every joke has a 15-year buildup. He's got 40 gimmicks going for him!"
Benny yawned behind his hand and began making a final survey of the apple for unbitten territory.
"On Jack's show you never know what you're going to miss, because we don't work any of the gimmicks to death. If we wanted, we could do the violin thing every week, but when you'd had enough of the violin you wouldn't look any more. Jack is always ahead of the audience. He'll drop a thing before the public does, when it's still on the wane."
"Like the Maxwell," said Benny, and continued listening.
'The Maxwell is a good example," Fein went on. "It got to be corny and a little dated. People know that Jack owns one. That's enough. This season we've got one Maxwell show (you don't see it, you just hear it), a couple of Rochester shows, two vault shows, a floorwalker show and a fan club show."
Benny was really yawning now, huge catlike yawns. The apple had seen to that; What remained of it rested in an ashtray. Somehow the subject had worked its way around to Benny's opinions of other kinds of comedy and comedians.
"The only jokes I don't like are non —? What's the name of those, Irving?"
Irving: "You mean non sequiturs, Jack?"
Jack: "Yeah, That's it. Non sequiturs . . ." (Yawn) "I don't like non sequitur humor . . ." The answers seemed to be growing briefer and Benny's eyelids seemed to be growing heavier. The interview itself seemed to be growing "curiouser and curlouser," in Lewis Carroll's phrase, with the conversation—speaking of non sequlturs and Lewis Carroll—reminiscent of a Mad Hatter tea party:
"Oh, so many questions!" cried Alice.
"And no answers, either," replied the Hatter, proceeding to shake the Dormouse, who was falling asleep in his teacup.
Back in the present, Fein was doing his best to prop up the dialogue in the hotel room with some amusing examples of how the fictitious Jack Benny sometimes crosses over and becomes part of the real-life Jack Benny, but it failed to rouse the real-life Jack Benny, who at that very moment was dozing soundly.
"Hmmmm," said Fein.
"Well," said the interviewer.
". . . . . . . . , " said Jack Benny.
* * *
A MINUTE OR SO LATER, BENNY AWOKE FROM his nap just long enough to excuse himself and trot drowsily off to bed. Now if it had been radio he could have added: "We're a little late, folks, so goodnight."
If nothing else, perhaps the incident illustrates what Fein mentioned just as Benny was dropping off, that the fictional Jack Benny is based on a real person, Jack Benny. There is nothing affected about Benny's comedy or make-believe personality, for it's simply a collection of character traits and biographical truths. The skits are stolen from his life.
He really is from Waukegan, Ill. (although born in Chicago). He really did meet Mary Livingstone at the May Co. (and married her in 1927). He really did live next door to the Ronald Colmans once. He really was insulted by a Pullman porter who thought he was just being friendly (not Rochester, but pretty similar). There really was a guitar player in Phil Harris' orchestra named Frankie Remley. And, of course, Benny does play the violin. Of the "40 gimmicks," very few are actually gimmicks.
When Benny moved from New York to Hollywood, tor example, the next week's show was about Jack Benny moving from New York to Hollywood and about all the "wrong" people he met along the way. In 1960, when he began doing a weekly TV show for the first time, everyone told him it was a foolhardy idea, so the first show was about that. It was a violin, given to him on his 6th birthday by his father, Mayer Kubelsky, a saloon and clothing store owner, that brought Benny to the Barrison Theater, Waukegan's movie and vaudeville emporium, where he played with the orchestra at 15.
A year later the Marx Bros. came through town and Mrs. Marx asked young Kubelsky to join the act as an orchestra leader. Mrs. Marx' offer was declined by Mrs. Kubelsky, and what an interesting interchange that must have been. When the theater closed, a performer on the bill named Cora Salisbury, in her 40s, asked Benny (then his first name) to team up with her. This time Benny overruled his mother and at 16 left home "to make himself into a clown," in the words of a distraught Mrs. Kubelsky.
* * *
When Cora Salisbury went back to Waukegan and an ailing father, however, Benny teamed up with a pianist named Lyman Woods, and Benny & Woods made a small name for themselves until World War I, when Benny went Into the Navy (and did an act called "Corporal Izzy There").
After getting out, he went on the road as Jack Benny and in 1921, playing Vancouver, went with the Marx Bros, to the home of a rabbi Marks, who had a 13-year-old daughter, Sadie.
Six years later he met her again, at the May Co., and married her, whereupon she joined the act as his first "gimmick," "Mary Livingstone" (They have an adopted daughter, Joan, 28, the wife of Hollywood film executive Robert Blumofe, 54.)
So now, 32 years after Ed Sullivan introduced him to a national radio audience, Jack Benny is still in office as the country's official jester, and that may he the greatest gimmick of all. Because, as everyone including Jack Benny is always pointing out, he's really more of a straight man.
"In some of my funniest shows," he insists, "I haven't said a single funny line." That's nothing. In some of his funniest interviews he doesn't say a word.

1 comment:

  1. Life imitates the "4 O'Clock in the Morning" TV episode. At least Jack didn't try to choke Frank Nelson at the end of the interview.