Sunday 10 May 2020

A Look Back at Jack by Dennis Day

If there was anyone who owed his career to Jack Benny, it’s Dennis Day.

Don Wilson was a big-time network sports announcer before being hired for Benny’s show in 1934. Phil Harris starred in an Oscar winning short and had several radio shows with his band (and vocalist Leah Ray) before hooking up with Benny in 1936. Eddie Anderson had appeared high in the credit roll of cast members in a number of movies.

But Day had been a singer on a couple of somewhat obscure local radio shows in New York City using his real name. Benny and his writers built a whole character for Day after being hired in 1939, then fine-tuned it and brought out talents beyond singing that Day may not have known he had. (Stories indicate Day became a pretty savvy businessman, too).

He always expressed his gratefulness to Benny in interviews. Here’s a great example published April 30, 1982 in the local paper in Twin Falls, Idaho. Benny had been dead for over seven years at this point.

Loyal friend
Singer Dennis Day still considers Jack Benny one of best


Times News writer
TWIN FALLS — Even when singer Dennis Day was pushing 40, he was always "that kid" to Jack Benny, his show-business mentor.
For 25 years, on radio and then on television, Day played the naive youngster to Benny's exasperated senior.
"Even up to the very end, he'd say, 'That kid drives me nuts,'" Day recalls.
It's a lasting tribute to the cheapskate comedian that former sidekicks like Day continue to lavish praise on Benny's humor, timing and style.
"When I say Jack and I were like father and son, I mean it. You see, he adopted me, so he didn't have to pay me." Or so Day would say on the show.
Day, who is appearing with banjo player Scotty Plummer today, Saturday and Sunday at Cactus Pete's casino in Jackpot, is eager to discuss the Benny legend.
"There's very few (comedians) able to approach Jack Benny. There's no question he was a master of timing."
As an illustration, Day can't resist launching into the famous skit when a mugger puts a gun to Benny's back and growls, "Your money or your life."
"Wellll, (pause) I'm thinking."
Day, born Owen P. "Eugene" McNulty in New York City in 1917, was fresh out of college when he auditioned for the Jack Benny Show in 1939. He had done some radio shows and sent in tapes of his songs to Benny, who was looking for a replacement for singer Kenny Baker.
He first was signed on a two-week contract, and the character of his domineering mother, played by Verna Felton, was introduced until the young man achieved enough confidence on his own.
Day became a regular on the show, along with Eddie "Rochester" Anderson, Mary Livingstone and Don Wilson. He later appeared frequently on Benny's television show.
Day also had his own radio show for five years, "A Day In the Life of Dennis Day," and his own TV show, which ran from 1952 to 1954.
The still-powerful tenor singer now performs standards, Irish songs and old favorites at conventions and nightclubs throughout the country. He recently toured with "The Big Band Show," along with Harry James, Gordon MacRae and the Ink Spots.
Day also has begun lecturing, mostly to women's clubs, about radio, early TV and Benny.
He answers the inevitable question about whether Benny was really as cheap as he appeared. "Jack had to be the exact opposite. He was the easiest man in the world to work for.
"I never saw him lose his temper except once to a bit player. Thirty seconds later, he went up to him and said, 'I didn't mean it."
Day's own zany image on the show never bothered him. "I was always the silly kid. On stage, I was silly and naive and downright stupid."
Yet, there was always "logic" in his lunacy, "logic to answer the needs of Jack Benny," Day says. The audience found "I could be silly and stupid, and yet accept the fact I could still sing beautiful songs.
Moreover, the dumb-kid routine only worked with Benny. "You couldn't do that silly character with someone else."
Making the transition from radio to television also brought strange reactions. Previously, people had imagined his visage, now they saw it.
"There were either those who thought I'd be short and fat, or tall and slim with hay seeds coming out of my ears."
Day says Benny's Everyman brand of humor continues to win followers in a new generation. "They still love that timelessness about him.
"After all, he was the butt of all the jokes. He was the straight man for us. I always got the better of him. So did Rochester."
He becomes momentarily somber when he recalls how shocked he was when Benny died in 1974. "It doesn't seem possible it's been that long a time."
The father of 10 children and grandfather of eight, Day plans to continue performing. "After all, this May 25, I'll be eligible for Medicare, by George."
But still ringing in his ears before every performance is the familiar command, "Sing, Dennis."

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