Sunday, 24 January 2021

Hennepin Benny

True or false: Jack Benny performed with Steve Allen’s mother.

The answer is true. At least they performed on the same bill.

Belle Montrose (stage name) was married to another vaudevillian named Billy Allen. Belle was one of many performers on the Orpheum circuit, as was Jack. And we find them together at the Hennepin Theatre in Minneapolis the week of July 9, 1922.

The Hennepin was a “Junior Orpheum” theatre. Nine cities made up this version of the Orpheum circuit in the early ’20s. Acts first played the regular circuit then doubled back on the junior one, where theatres charged popular prices with no reserved seating. Read a bit more here.

In some cities, newspapers would give a preview of theatre shows arriving in town every week. The Minneapolis Star Tribune of July 9, 1922 described Jack’s coming appearance: “With the aid of a fiddle and rapid-fire line of funny gags, Jack Benny, gloom chaser, will undertake to banish the blues. He is both a comedian and a musician and promises to keep his audiences thoroughly amused the entire time he is on stage.”

Well, Jack did more than that. He stole the show from headlining contralto and former Ziegfeld star Emma Carus (“one of vaudeville’s highest-salaried artists,” the Star-Tribune confidentially told readers). Here’s what the paper said about the bill the day after its debut:

With a bill that provides no exercise for the brain but plenty for the ribs, the Hennepin this week has an ideal summer program and incidentally one of the best programs, for laugh-making purposes shown by the Junior Orpheum in several weeks.
Although Emma Carus, with J. Walter Leopold, a suave and talented pianist, is the official headlined act, it was Jack Benny who stopped the show at the opening performance yesterday. Benny wanders out on the stage with his violin, plays a little, talks and sings a little and succeeds in convulsing the audience. Benny has one of the best monologues in the profession.
As for Emma Carus, she is big and lively as usual. She might have chosen better songs, although the "Cat" number is immense. Belle Montrose as an amateur actress provides plenty of mirth. Ray Kern and Maree, Orpheum favorites, were received with equal enthusiasm at the Hennepin. Ethel Parker, a dancer of such ability that one wonders why she is not headlined with Ali Allen, offers one of the most engaging dancing arts in months. Luster brothers are superb contortionists.
The motion picture, with May McAvoy, is much better than the photoplays which the Hennepin has been showing recently. The bill as a whole well merits Manager Phelps' "summer festival" designation. Now, if the management would only assume that Hennepin patrons are sufficiently familiar with the operation of that efficient cooling apparatus, and would discontinue the movies thereof, even the most captious patron would find little cause for complaint.

The show also included a two-reeler from Mack Sennett, a Pathe Weekly, Topics of the Day and an Aesop Fable (which one was not disclosed).

Benny moved on next week to the State Lake in Chicago (Montrose went to Kansas City) before hooking up with Carus again the following week at the Junior Orpheum’s Rivoli in La Crosse, Wisconsin. He returned to the Hennepin at the end of January 1923, then again in the middle of November 1925, headlined the bill at the same theatre the week of July 3, 1927, and returned once more for the final week of January 1928. Such was the nomadic life of a vaudevillian that ended only when radio sponsors came calling.

1 comment:

  1. Milton Berle claimed to have baby-sat Steve Allen when Berle performed on a bill with Montrose.