Sunday 29 November 2020

Victory in Victoria

The Orpheum circuit in the 1910s and 1920s saw troupes stop in Vancouver, take the ferry over to Victoria for performances, then take another ferry to Seattle for a stay before heading down the West Coast on their remaining stops, ending in Los Angeles.

Jack Benny was an Orpheum player and took that route several times over the course of his career. He re-lived it, in a way, in 1944 when his radio cast came to British Columbia to raise money in a Victory Loan drive. Their first stop was in New Westminster, followed by shows in Vancouver (including a radio broadcast) and then chugging over to Victoria to appear on stage yet again.

Instead of reporting on the performance, let’s reprint what amounts to an editorial from the Victoria Times of April 28, 1944. It mainly deals with the Benny cast as people, and treats them warmly. Incidentally, Dennis Day left for military service after the Vancouver shows, hence no mention of him here.

Fred Allen was off the air at the time, so New York-based John Brown and Minerva Pious were added to Benny’s secondary cast (they must have been shooting films in Hollywood at the time). As enjoyable as they are, they always sound like they’ve somehow found their way onto the wrong radio programme. You expect to hear Bea Benaderet or Joe Kearns or Mel Blanc, you don’t expect to hear John Doe and Mrs. Nussbaum.

And So Farewell To Jack Benny et al

Victorians can now sit back and think over the two most thrilling days the populace have spent in a long, long time . . . Jack Benny, Mary Livingston, Rochester, Phil Harris, Don Wilson and all the merry crew have sailed from our shores, back to be our good neighbors in the United States. But the Benny visit will live long in the memories of Victorians. Mary's charm, Don's girth, Phil's genial smile and the fact that he received the news of the birth of a 6 1/2 -pound daughter while here . . . Benny's happy manner . . . all these will long be remembered.
The most outstanding thing about the Benny crew is their complete and unadulterated adoration for Jack and Mary. In the fact that some of the troupe have been working together for many years, and have kept working happily all that time lies the real secret of Benny's spectacular success as a radio entertainer. There is no doubt that he would have been equally successful in any other field, for Jack Benny understands human nature, he knows that all human beings have their faults ... he laughingly told reporters that Rochester has a most wonderful disposition, nothing ever flusters Rochester, he's always a regular guy, but he's got one minor fault. He's always late, he finds it irksome to have to be at a certain place at a certain time, "but," said Jack, "when you really get to know Rochester, and what a swell fellow he really is, you'd forgive him for a whale of a lot more than merely being a few minutes late occasionally."
Then take Mary Livingston, a whole lot of adjectives would fit Mary, she's slim, willowy, pretty, and for 13 years she's been heckling her husband on the air. But, according to Sara Bernard [sic] (who is known on the air as Gladys Gybisco) [sic], Mary does more than merely heckle Jack. She helps iron out all sorts of rough spots that crop up. She's willing to listen to the troubles of any of the 23 members of the Benny crew, at any time, whether it has to do with a part that won't just come right, or is of a purely personal nature. She's a real talent scout, too, and has the rare knack of drawing out latent talent and giving people that confidence in themselves which is so vital to those who are continually before the public. Every member of the party had a word of admiration for Jack and Mary.
Phil Harris was so thrilled with the news of his new daughter that he could hardly stand still long enough to talk coherently, but when questioned as to what he thought of the huge crowds he said, "you know it's a most wonderful tribute to see all you people turn out just to see us, we appreciate it tremendously, and we like the way Canadians are so friendly and happy to see us, yet you realize we are just people like any ordinary folks, and are willing to let us be a little private . . . that's considerate and thoughtful."
Don Wilson proved to be just as good natured close up as he sounds over the air. He always seems to stand in a relaxed fashion, with his hands in his pockets, ready with a quip and jest on the slightest provocation.
New to the Benny gang, is John Brown, but those who have followed the long-standing feud between Benny and Allan [sic] are quite familiar with John Brown, for he was with Fred Allen for over 10 years. He takes the part of an odd little character on the Benny program, without much initiative, until he starts to sing, and then he really gives out those who heard his rendition of "Knock 'em In the Old Kent Road" on Tuesday night will not be surprised to learn that John Brown was born in England, in the city of Hull, Yorkshire, and off the air his speaking voice could be matched with many in Victoria.
Rochester was not feeling at all well while in Victoria, and those who saw him perform had him to go through with his jokes and songs, he appeared to be the very essence of vitality and pep, and went into his routine with an engaging grin that sometimes resolved itself into a deep rumbling chuckle that impelled all within hearing to laugh with him. No, no one guessed it, but Rochester had to be rushed back to his hotel after each performance to lie down and rest.
When asked how he goes about producing a program, Jack Benny was quite willing to elucidate. "I have four writers," he said, "and after the performance on Sunday, we all just coast along for a couple of days . . oh, the writers may get together and talk over a few things, but they don't really get down to business until about Wednesday. On Thursdays I sit in on a session and go over the first draft . . . we iron out a few details and the writers do some more work on it. Then about Saturday we get the whole gang together and read over the script, and rehash it some more. We read it over again Sunday morning, and again at about 2 in the afternoon, and make changes each time. We don't actually have what you'd call a rehearsal, it's more alive if we don't get a chance to go stale on it."
Typical of Benny was his insistence that the armed forces get preference over all others at his shows. He came to Canada primarily to help launch the Sixth Victory Loan, to help to give our men the tools to finish the job of war, and secondly he wanted to greet the men who will use those tools. His final message as he boarded the gangplank of his ship was to wish Victorians good luck and godspeed in making their quota in Canada's Sixth Victory Loan.


  1. Taking IMDB with a grain of salt, it notes that Fred Allen's film "It's in the Bag" was completed in October of 1944, and Minerva Pious was in that film. John Brown supposedly had an uncredited bit-role. So, sometime after this West Coast tour, they'd have been in a film with Fred.

    1. It's more complicated than that: Minerva Pious returned to the Allen show in early 1944 while Brown stayed in Hollywood (appearing in the Benny and Abbott-Costello shows among others). Then, Fred sat out the 1944-45 season on his doctors' advice and opted to work on "It's in the Bag" as it wouldn't be as strenuous as working on a weekly radio show. For the movie, he returned to the Coast, bringing Pious, Charlie Cantor and Alan Reed with him (there was one Benny show that featured "Allen's Alley). Just like Brown, Reed decided to stay in L.A. afterwards.