Sunday, 25 October 2020

Dennis Day, Black Sheep

It’s hard to think of Dennis Day, the innocent foil of the Jack Benny show, as a “bad boy.” Mind you, a “bad boy” in the 1930s was a bit different than it is today. Back then, it could mean skipping class and not listening to your parents. Day did both.

Both Benny and Day had something in common. Both had parents that hoped their child turned out differently. Benny’s parents wanted him to be a virtuoso concert violinist. Day’s parents wanted him to be a lawyer. Both wanted to do, and ended up doing, something else.

The American Weekly, a newspaper magazine supplement, profiled Day in its September 25, 1949, using the “bad boy” angle as a ‘40s version of clickbait.

Mamma’s Boy
It's a New Role for Dennis Day, but He Likes It and Hopes It Fits

By Paul I. Murphy
COMPLETELY submissive to his overbearing radio mother, tenor-comedian Dennis Day is known as the perfect mother's boy by his millions of listeners.
One of his best fans knows better, however.
She's Mrs. Patrick McNulty, his real mother.
A far-cry from her radio counterpart, small, mild-mannered Mrs. McNulty had her hands full raising young, riotous Dennis. In fact, it's still hard for her to believe that the one-time black sheep of the McNulty clan is really such a success, especially in the role of the mother's boy.
Dennis Day was born Eugene Patrick Dennis McNulty in New York City's Bronx, on May 21, 1918.
From the start, Dennis was different from his brothers. As babies, they were gentle and quiet. Dennis would bellow and persistently shake his crib for attention. Mother was worn out catering to his demands.
The other McNulty boys were studious.
Dennis hated school, and cut classes.
His brothers planned their professional careers early. Dennis brushed aside thoughts of business.
"About the only time I can get Dennis to obey is to threaten to take him out of the choir at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City," Mrs. McNulty explained to his teachers at the parochial schools he attended. Friends sympathized with his parents, because he was frequently in trouble.
"Dennis doesn't seem to have the respect for our judgment that his brothers have," she would say.
While his brothers studied their lessons, Dennis was running around.
Once he failed to return home for several days.
"Dennis, if this happens again," his father told him, "I'll order you out of this house forever."
Several months later he left home again. He worked as a waiter, bellhop and pin-boy to make money to pay for singing lessons.
Upon the pleadings of his mother, he returned home again.
It was a major victory for Mrs. McNulty when she got him to attend Manhattan College.
"Who wants to be a businessman?" he told his mother. "I'll go to college, but someday you'll probably regret forcing me."
His marks were good, although his attendance was poor. On his days away from college he earned money, to continue his singing instructions.
The McNultys knew nothing about his labors to further the career he dreamed of. All they knew was that he was cutting classes too often and their hard earned money for his education was being squandered.
Every career his parents mapped out for him he refused.
"I could never be happy as an attorney or a business executive," he told them.
“Don't you want to follow the successful examples set by your brothers?” his father asked.
"Perhaps I can find success as a singer," Dennis said.
His parents were shocked.
"Don't you ever listen to the advice we give you, Dennis?" Mrs. McNulty asked.
After much pleading, the McNultys finally persuaded their son to attend law school.
But Dennis hated every day he pored over legal books. Music was running through running through brain and fingers.
His girl friend, pretty Peggy Ellen Almquist, sympathized with his ambitions.
"Don't you think you should listen to your parents' advice, though, Dennis?" she asked. "They want to see you become a success."
"That's just it, Peggy," he replied. "I could never be a succeess at anything but singing. I want to make my parents proud of me, particularly mother. That’s why, someday I’m going to prove to them that I'm not such a failure after all by becoming a successful vocalist."
Several weeks later Dennis read that famed singer Kenny Baker was retiring from the Jack Benny program, and that auditions were being held to select his successor.
Dennis couldn't raise funds to audition. So he did the next best thing. He borrowed $2 from a friend to make a recording of his voice.
Playing a hunch, he sent the disc to Mary Livingston, in care of the Jack Benny program. Wanting a short, catchy radio name, he used Dennis Day. Mary listened to the record.
Before it was half finished, she had Jack listening, too.
The Bennys were so impressed that a telegram was sent to Dennis. It said that auditions were being held up until he could arrive in Hollywood for a try-out. Unknown to his family, Dennis put on a drive among his friends for transportation fare to the Coast.
That was 1939.
Dennis was hired almost immediately, and has been a permanent fixture of the Jack Benny program ever since, in addition to his own coast-to-coast show, "A Day in the Life of Dennis Day."
Eventually young McNulty changed his name legally to Dennis Day.
In 1948 he changed the name of Peggy Ellen Ahlmquist to Day, too, following his time in the U. S. Navy.
Today Dennis Day earns $10,000 a week for personal appearances plus another $100,000 a year from radio, recording and mimic jobs. Now his brothers work for him, helping to manage his profitable interests.
"But the most important thing of all is that I have proved to mother that her black sheep wasn't so black after all," says Dennis.
"That's why I decided before I went on the radio that I would play a mother's boy on the air. I always wanted to be mother's favorite. I hope I have earned that title now.
"You see, a bad boy learned that it pays off to be a good boy."
To that Mrs. McNulty nods her smiling approval.

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