Sunday, 1 March 2020

It's Not Easy Being Funny

Radio’s earliest stars didn’t just walk into a radio studio and suddenly become stars, though the nation-wide exposure on a weekly basis certainly brought them larger fame. Almost all had been around for some time, playing vaudeville theatres across North America, appearing on the New York stage, or both.

When Canada Dry signed Benny for its radio show in 1932, he had already been on the stage for more than two decades, though his popularity rose as the ‘20s waned. Here’s a story in the Buffalo Evening News of May 26, 1933, talking about his career to date, which was still minus Jell-O, Sunday nights and Don Wilson. The source of the quotes in the column is unclear. Some of this showed up later in the year in a Sandusky, Ohio newspaper article we transcribed on the blog last year.

Anyone used to the later radio years, and certainly when Jack was on TV, may not be aware of Mary Livingstone’s huge popularity at the outset. I can’t help but wonder, as people mistake celebrity impersonators’ quotes for the real thing, if Mary wasn’t the one who first said “Come up and see me some time.”

Navy Showed Jack Benny
How to Make His Talk Pay
Radio Gagster Began as Violinist, But Put It Aside When He Found Words Were More Profitable Than Music.

Jack Benny is radio's glibbest son of the great god Gag. But it took a World war to start him talking.
Now nobody on his Friday night program can stop him. Frank Black may start his music, Howard Claney may announce a blurb, James Melton may do a solo and Mary Livingstone may interrupt him-—but Jack is undaunted. The suave, silken, sly Mr. Benny, goes on talking.
Listeners like to hear his gabbing and gagging. That's why you'll find plenty of folks gathered round their sets at 10 P. M. Friday to hear him over WBEN-WEAF. To get back to the war. Before joining the Navy he played a violin in vaudeville and said nothing. After an attempt to raise funds with a musical appeal at a seamen's benefit, Jack dropped the violin and started talking.
Talked Through Several Revues.
Since then he has talked his way through several Shubert musical revues, two editions of Earl Carroll's Vanities, half a dozen feature motion pictures—and into radio as one of its most popular masters of ceremonies.
Jack's family lived in Waukegan, Ill., but Jack was born in Chicago. They then carried him back to Waukegan and he stayed there for 17 years.
"My father gave me a violin and a monkey wrench," Jack told an NBC reporter, who passed along the information to us. "He told me not to take chances. Plumbing isn't a bad business, he said."
From all appearances Jack and the monkey wrench didn't get along so well, but he was practicing on the violin before he was 6 years old. At 16 he started playing in a Waukegan orchestra. A year later he and a piano-playing pal formed a vaudeville act.
Started Talking In Navy.
For six years Jack toured the country—and said nothing. Then came the war and Jack joined the Navy. At a benefit fund performance his violin playing brought applause—but no contributions.
Mr. Benny thought it over. If you want money you have to work for it—and ask for it. He put down the instrument and broke a six-year silence. He got contributions—and laughs. He repeated the trick. When the war was over he changed from gobbing to gagging. He returned to vaudeville—as a monologist.
His post-war vaudeville tour brought him to the Orpheum theater, Los Angeles. He stayed there eight straight weeks, broke a house record—and was headed for the talkies.
The glib Mr. Benny might have been in Hollywood yet had it not been for a Los Angeles girl. We think the girl must have said, "Hello, dark and handsome. Why dontcha come up sometime?" Anyway, Jack met her and continued to talk. The young lady, according to reports, just nodded her head—and suggested an eastern honeymoon.
Lives In New York.
You're right. The girl was Mary Livingstone, whose Mae West line about "coming up" is panicking millions weekly. Mary manages to sing a chorus, too, on these Friday WBEN programs. Jimmy Melton is her singing tutor.
The Bennys arrived in New York just as Earl Carroll was casting his annual edition of the Vanities. At Carroll's request, Benny dropped in to witness a rehearsal. When the curtain went up on the opening night, Benny was still there—in the show.
The Bennys live in New York. Jack doesn't understand why some actors balk at radio.
"I've got ham in me. What actor hasn't?" he told Whitney Bolton, a friend of his. "I've got enough ham in me to like facing an audience and feel it responding to my work. But on the air you reach a million or so.
Likes the Letters.
"And the letters you get take more time and thought than mere handclapping in a theater and they mean so much more."
It's not easy to be a funny man, says Jack, who takes his clowning seriously, like most comics. He's very businesslike offstage. When he's working up a "situation" gag, he prowls up and down his apartment, his brows wrinkled.
Jack Benny is this department's favorite comedian. He's the glibbest of the gagsters. He's certainly one of the most original comics.
He writes all of his stage monologues himself, most of his radio programs. Often he makes himself the butt of the jokes—and you know how people like to see the head man on the spot!
It may be inconsequential, but Jack broadcasts with his hat on. One of his hardest jobs is convincing people that Jack Benny is his real name. It is.

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