Sunday, 18 October 2020

Heckling the Heckler

Jack Benny used to get it from all sides on the during broadcast of his radio show—from clerks (Frank Nelson), his cast (Mary, Phil, etc.), other celebrities (Ronald Colman, Claude Rains and so on). But he apparently got it before the broadcast as well, at least if a story in the October 15, 1936 edition of Broadcasting magazine.

Maybe it’s me, but I have trouble believing the story. Benny liked a joke and always seemed to have a good sense of humour about himself. But I guess I have to take the writer’s word about it.

The story came after Broadcasting published this in its October 1st edition:
Benny's Levity
"KIDDING" the sponsor and the product has long been Jack Benny's successful stock-in-trade. The comedian for Jello, who resumes his Sunday shows on NBC-Red Oct. 4, with no objections from his sponsor, is going to do some tall kidding of the radio business in his latest movie The Big Broadcast. He plays the part of an advertising agency official staging a series of programs, of which Gracie Allen is sponsor. In the cast also are Bob Burns, Bing Crosby and Sam (Schlepperman) Hearn.
That prompted this letter the trade paper printed:
One on Benny
To the Editor of BROADCASTING:
I note in the latest issue of your magazine a short item concerning Jack Benny's propensity for kidding his sponsor. With the reading of the item I was reminded of my apprenticeship in radio as a page boy at Radio City.
It was the custom of Jack Benny to introduce to his studio audience the cast of the program. This generally took place about five minutes before broadcast time. Of course the introductions were of a humorous nature as befitted the comedian.
One of the page boys was always stationed just inside the door of the studio and Jack Benny would invariably include him in the introductions as "the Student Prince" (the uniforms of the pages made the appelation amusing). Of course the page would be the subject of the stinging laughter of the audience which was not only disconcerting but also rather humiliating (who likes to be the butt of a joke?).
I determined that even at the risk of my job I'd put a stop to it. Forthwith I saw to it that I was standing within the door at the time of the introductions. When Benny introduced me to the audience in the usual manner I waited until the laughter died down and said "thank you Mr. Cantor". The "house came down".
Benny threw down his script and started after me . . . Don Wilson, his announcer, laughed till the tears ran down his face and was still laughing when the program went on the air. I didn't lose my job but I did start a regime of heckling the heckler. At every opportunity Jack Benny suffered from the subtle ridicule of the page staff.
WLVA, Lynchburg, Va.
Oct. 3, 1936
Somehow, I can’t see Jack Benny doing something as unprofessional as running off the stage and into the audience stands, unless it was a joke. But it seems appropriate that even the pages would heckle Benny, albeit before he took to the air.

St. George, incidentally, had passed a junior announcer’s course for pages at NBC and had appeared on several dramatic shows. The network assigned him to WLVA. He was reassigned to WMAL, Washington in 1937, where he took part in some experiment TV broadcasts in February 1939. He was transferred to the Blue Network when it split off from NBC in 1942. He was doing news and commercial programme announcing on WJZ (going from D-Day coverage to the quiz show Fish Pond). In 1956, he left broadcasting to go into agency work. A year, he made his way to Cleveland and became a commercial voice and PR flack for Carling Brewery. He died on March 2, 2004.

Whether Mr. St. George ever met up again with Jack Benny is unlikely, but a report in Variety reported on how he once got trapped in a control room. It seems a loose screw on a door was doing some heckling of its own.

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