Sunday 8 November 2020

They Remember My Name in Sheboygan

Jack Benny was proud of the town where he grew up, Waukegan, Illinois. Sometime toward the mid ‘30s, it became one of the subjects used for joke fodder on the Benny radio show. It’s familiarity with Benny’s huge audience gave someone a brainstorm—instead of Hollywood, why not premiere Benny’s new movie in Waukegan? It’ll be different! It’ll be a homecoming! Think of the extra publicity!

And that’s exactly what happened when Man About Town opened in June 1939 in Jack’s hometown. NBC even got in on the act by broadcasting Benny’s final show of the radio season from Waukegan. Reporters from all over flocked there, from papers big and small.

One of the small papers was the Sheboygan Press of Sheboygan, Wisconsin. It had its own Benny connection, once removed. Benny was part of a vaudeville act with pianist Lyman Wood (though they were billed as “Benny and Woods”). When Benny went solo, Wood eventually found his way to Sheboygan. The Press’ reporter covering the premiere got a comment about Wood, and came back with a story full of festiveness (Wood died in California in 1967).

Sheboygan And Lyman Wood Remembered By Jack Benny
(By Staff Correspondent)
Waukegan, Ill.—(Special)—This entire city and thousands of kibitzers watched Jack Benny be a "Man About Town" both in real and reel life here Sunday.
The occasion was a "local-boy-makes-good" homecoming, the highlights of which were his national broadcast from the stage of the Genesee theatre here and the premiere showing of Jack's latest picture, "Man About Town." With him were his entire radio cast and Dorothy Lamour, who takes a leading role in the picture, and who was introduced to the huge audience immediately after the broadcast, just before the showing of the picture.
During the day Jack Benny's man about town activities consisted of chatting with newspapermen from all over the country, signing autographs, greeting old friends, and staging rapid exits when the crowds got too huge.
“Sure I remember Sheboygan,” Jack Benny told your correspondent. “I played there with my violin act many years ago—but don't mention how many. And Lyman Wood? Say, he and I put on an act together—where is he now, anyway?”
Put On Premiere
Just about then, Andy Devine interrupted, saying "Mary's here, Jack," and Mary Livingstone joined the group. There was no more time for talk then, for photographers hurriedly snapped a few pictures, and Jack, Andy, Mary and the rest of the cast rushed over to the theatre to rehearse the broadcast.
The premiere was put on in typical Hollywood fashion. The streets were roped off and the natives and visitors who didn't have tickets for the broadcast or premier stood on the other side of the ropes for hours to catch a glimpse of their favorite son and hear him and Miss Lamour make a few remarks over the public address system before going into the theatre.
Inside Jack put on an impromptu show for his guests during the 20 minutes which awaited broadcast. He ad-libbed about Fred Allen, walked through the aisles making wisecracks, and finally grabbed a violin and played a number in A-Number-One fashion just to show that he really can play without hitting the sour notes always heard on his radio programs.
Incidentally, the number he played was "My Honey's Lovin' Arms," a favorite that he and Lyman Wood "used to play in vaudeville and which Lyman played nightly when he was playing at the Calumet Inn in Sheboygan and was also being featured over Station WHBL.
Addresses Guests
Shortly before the broadcast Jack addressed his guests.
"There's only one request we have to make and that is to limit the applause, cut it off whenever it looks as though we were resuming the broadcast," he said. "That's necessary because the broadcast is timed to the split second, and we have to finish on time. But you can laugh all you want, and say—you'd better laugh!"
Soon everything became silent and tense on the stage. Jack Benny lighted up one of those huge cigars he smokes and paced up and down. The rotund Don Wilson took his position at a microphone on the other end of the stage. Phil Harris said a few-words to his orchestra and located himself in front of the band, ready to direct the opening number.
And then the broadcast went on.
Immediately after its conclusion Jack Benny, greeted by a storm of applause, again spoke briefly, thanking his audience and telling them he hoped they'd enjoy his new picture. The picture followed, and a first rate comedy it is, with Jack and Dorothy Lamour at their best and with Rochester stealing a number of scenes very deftly.
The picture over, the streets again were jammed with people from the three theatres where it was shown, and the routine of signing autographs and rushing to hotel rooms was resumed by the visiting celebrities.
All in all it was a big day for Waukegan, its home town hero, and his friends.

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