Sunday, 15 March 2020

Remembering the Jack Benny Show

Perhaps there can be no greater tribute to the entertainment provided to the world by Jack Benny than the fact that more than eight months after he died, a newspaper columnist decided to publish a personal remembrance of his show.

This wasn’t a deathiversary like you see on the internet all the time, or someone thinking he’d just died and publishing an obit like you see on the internet all the time. A writer for the Greenfield Reporter got a chance to write something of his choice. He chose Jack Benny.

Granted, not everything’s quite accurate; he is relying on 30-year-old radio memories in an age where you couldn’t go line and listen to the old Benny shows for as long as you wanted. But his batting average is pretty good and his sentiments will be on the mark in the minds of Benny fans reading it.

This was published September 2, 1975.

The Subject Is Jack Benny
Tribute to an entertainer


Recorder Staff
I have been given a beautiful reprieve! The boss said, "Give me a guest column. Write it on anything you want!"
So I get a chance to make up for something I didn’t get to do and to honour somebody who added many hours of joy to my life.
I once said that when Jack Benny died, I was going to have a Mass said for him, in gratitude for a lifetime of joy. I'm going to, too, but I suppose it will have to be done quietly. Old Blue Eyes just has to be in good favor Up There, as far as I'm concerned.
Being nostalgic and bringing back the past is a pleasant way to pass the time. Just how enjoyable nostalgia can be depends much on how old you are. Also on how much attention you paid to it when it passed your way.
-o- -o- -o-
EVEN TODAY'S YOUNGEST teenagers are old enough to remember Benny and to appreciate his wit and the way he could literally milk laughs from a running joke repeatedly.
Benny was on the scene since before radio, never mind television. I remember one time, years ago, when my daughter Debbie (now Mrs. Daniel McCarthy and almost a mother twice) asked us, "Did you guys have radio when you were kids?" Television for her always was — radio was something new to her!
My childhood takes me back to the middle 1930s—and how I remember it all! Much of it is vivid, but Benny brings back the roost.
Every Sunday night at 7, Benny's famous voice would come on, "Jello again, this is Jack Benny talking," and the strains of "Love in Bloom" would take over while announcer Don Wilson told us all about the marvellous gelatin desserts.
Benny's later sponsors included Lucky Strike cigarettes and State Farm Insurance. Even after Lucky Strike had stopped sponsoring Waukegan's favorite son, it bought spot adds just before the program. Remember "LS-MFT! LS-MFT! Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco".
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REAMS WERE WRITTEN eulogizing the great Benny. Much of his colourful career was recalled. I read just about everything I could get my hands on, written about him right after he died. But there are several things I did not see in the news stories.
—Remember Benny's pet polar bear, Carmichael? He kept the bear in the swimming pool. Visitors to the Benny home supposedly were afraid of Carmichael but Benny said he was a friendly bear, wouldn't ever hurt anybody.
"Oh yeah?" the gravel voice of Benny's faithful valet, Rochester, would chime in. "What happened to the gas man!" That joke ran for years.
—Do you remember the singer in those years, his first male singer? Kenny Baker. And after that, for a short while, Andy Russell. And only then did it become Dennis Day, who is believed by many to have been with the program all along.
—I recall that Jack Paar got his start as a Jack Benny summer replacement.
—Remember Ed, the keeper of Benny's vault? About four times a year, Benny's program would have him go down to his vault, cross a moat, pull yards of heavy chain and open many locks and doers. A burglar alarm inevitably would go off throughout the house, convulsing the already hysterical audience.
Then: "Halt! Who goes there? Oh, it's you, Mr. Benny."
Then Benny would catch Ed up on the news of the outside world. One night he told Ed "all 48 states" had agreed to something and Ed interrupted with, "oh, 48 of them now, eh?" Subtle and drily delivered, it was delightful. It also shows you how long ago it was!
—Remember all the Benny characters and friends? Like Mary Livingston, his wife; Don Wilson; Dennis Day; Eddie Anderson as Rochester; Phil Harris, his bandleader; and Remly, Harris' usually stewed drummer; Harry Nelson, the beleaguered department store clerk who always greeted Benny wife "Ye-e-e-e-sss!"; Sheldon Leonard as the race track tout who stopped Benny anywhere with, "Hey, Bud!" And how about his long-standing feud with Fred Allen?
-o- -o- -o-
BENNY WAS PORTRAYED as a tightwad but in real life there is much evidence of his being a generous man. One night, on a particularly funny script, he was held up in a dark alley by a gunman who said, "Your money or your life."
Finally, the gunman said, "Well?"
"I'm thinking, I'm thinking," was Benny's beautiful reply!
His reputation for stinginess was reflected whenever he commandeered that ancient Maxwell auto into a gas station and ordered two gallons of gas. Every time the pump went "ding", he'd go "Whoops!"
There were other famous characters who popped up frequently, but perhaps the best came from his good friend Mel Blanc, "the man with a thousand voices", who created such famous voices as Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd and Porky Pig.
Blanc made marvellous contributions along the way, such as his character of Mr. Kitzel who was always trying to sell Benny a hot dog or a "cimarron" roll; a Spanish or Mexican character in sombrero and serape who worked with Benny a hilarious "Si, Cy, so, Sue" routine; or Benny's wisecracking parrot, Polly.
Remember The Sportsmen? Never did a quartet deliver more enjoyable, more comical or more effective singing commercials.
-o- -o- -o-
BENNY HAD quite a career in the movies, too. Most of us 30 or older remember the great performance of Benny in "Charley's Aunt", but do you remember him in "George Washington Slept Here?", or in "The Horn Blows At Midnight"? Said to have been a terrible picture, I enjoyed "Horn" all the way!
And if you go back far enough, you'll recall several films that gave the Lone Ranger and Red Ryder a run for the money—"Buck Benny Rides Again"! Benny, on a mighty white steed outfitted in a white silky-type cowboy shirt and white hat, as I recall!
Back in the '40s, they had many popular quiz shows on nationwide radio, just as you see network TV today. One show ran "The Walking Man Contest". Nowhere in the writings recounting career of Jack Benny did I see mention of this. Yet the sound of Benny's famous footsteps were used week after week on the air and vital clues were added until somebody finally guessed it on the show.
I can remember as clearly as yesterday walking out of Marshman's Newsroom in the old Mansion House Block with a morning paper announcing the end of the contest.
Benny was great.
Wherever he is in the next world, I’d like to be there, too.


  1. Andy Russell did appear once in the Benny show, as part of the "Million-Dollar Quartet" Jack hired to replace The Sportsmen. The same episode in which Bing Crosby said "hell".

  2. The mix-up on Frank Nelson's first name does show how fast things can be forgotten, since Nelson made it all the way to the final year of Jack's TV show in 1964-65 as a semi-regular participant whose bits were a favorite of most Benny fans. Both the author and his editor missed that one (and in today's even faster media world, higher-profile people than Frank can easily be forgotten in just a decade).

    1. Actually, few people remember any of the top movie actors of the 2000s. Furthermore, most of the actors that were tipped to become stars five years ago have faded into obscurity as well. Makes you think about if Jack and Co. could have hold on these days if they had a bad season...

  3. Charlie Keller's memory deserted him on at least two points: in the "Your money or your life?" bit, Benny's rejoinder was: "I'm thinking it over!" Mel Blanc did not do the voice of Mr. Kitzel. It was Artie Auerbach who did the character. The character also popped up on the Abbott and Costello show, as well as Al Pierce's program. Kitzel may have gone by other names on those outlets, and the writing was not nearly as sharp or was the character as warm emotionally as on the Jack Benny program.

  4. Hans Christian Brando19 March 2020 at 17:52

    One of the most relevant things about "The Jack Benny Show" is that it's the forgotten forerunner of "Seinfeld." When the latter premiered, it was hailed as an innovation. A sitcom about a stand-up comic and his zany friends? Whoever heard of such a thing? As Jack would say, Well!