Sunday, 17 January 2021

Highlights of the Benny Saga

Jack Benny and his writers built a whole world around his phoney radio persona that his show sounded familiar, but wasn’t the same week-to-week. He didn’t wear out people with the same catchphrase every show, like Jack Pearl and Joe Penner in the ‘30s. Instead, he’d bring on Emily and Martha, the elderly twosome that formed the Jack Benny fan club on rare occasion. They were always funny, and not overused (perhaps partly for that reason).

The Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle brought its readers occasional Benny mentions. The entirely of its “Our Film Folk” column of October 13, 1950 was devoted to Jack and a stroll through the past to enumerate many of the funny characters and routines he had used into the mid-1930s. Diehard Benny fans will recognise all, and maybe wonder how Schlepperman got misquoted.

Why Jack Benny Is the Indestructible Comedian
Jack Benny has returned to the nation's air waves for the 19th season of his comedy career in radio. And he has come back, as always, in his familiar role of the balding, penny-pinching patsy, but his CBS program as in the past, will be replete during the coming year with new riotous laugh skits, new characterizations, new guest surprises. At least that's what Jack tells me.
This indestructible quality of the great wit's character creation and a show format flexible enough for a perennial infusion of fresh idea material and talent point to the secret of his enduring and inimitable success. As one newspaper editor once wrote: "Benny hasn't, as is so persistently rumored, been doing the same thing for 18 years. He wouldn't have lasted that long if he had."
Comedy situations in a Benny program season had, year after year, been marked by freshness and originality. New characterizations, his own and those of an odd assortment of fellow actors and actresses, have paraded across the script in endless procession. His guests, too, have been spectacularly impressive, as witness the case of the Ronald Colmans, who appeared 16 times on the show.
But the program personalities, including the whimsical portrayals of regular cast members, are probably the most memorable highlights of the Benny saga. Among those who turned up last season was Frank Fontaine, a new comedian, playing a mentally retarded sweepstakes winner named John L. P. Sivony. Mel Blanc, a regular, (the voice of Bugs Bunny) did a week-by-week impersonation of Al Jolson. Jack himself added another facet to his characterization, that of the naive treasurer of the Beverly Hills Beavers, a boy's club.
Once, there was an ostrich in the script, and even a polar bear named Carmichael. Jack kept Carmichael in the cellar and Rochester was his keeper. At the time, the husky-voiced valet was in an endless search for a gas man to do some repairs. The versatile Mel Blanc played Carmichael. Blanc now is the voice of the Benny parrot, which keeps Rochester from delivering soliloquies while doing the household chores. Its screams drive him to distraction.
Blanc is also Benny's French violin teacher. He is the coughing, sputtering voice of the rattletrap Maxwell auto as it tunes up, and he doubles as well as the rhythm-tongued train announcer calling out Azusa, Cucamonga and other weirdly-named stations.
Buck Benny Rides Again
Who doesn't remember the famous Buck Benny of the long-running "Buck Benny Rides Again" sequence? Andy Devine, whose entrance line was "Hiya, Buck" was the chief stooge of this comedy turn. The skit ceased with the release of the Paramount film "Buck Benny Rides Again," in which Jack and most his ribbers appeared.
Mr. Billingsley was a quaint character dreamed up and played by Ed Beloin, a former Benny writer. A subnormal, self-appointed house guest Mr. Billingsley consistently made wry comments at the wrong time in a dry voice. Beloin, never an actor, always had Benny worried that he'd miss his cues or fluff his lines. Another witty specimen knocked on the Benny door an[n]ouncing "A telegram for Mr. Benny." The role was played by Harry Baldwin, Benny's secretary, who would glow with Barrymore-like pride at the end of each performance, over his laconic line.
Mr. Kitzel, a current fabrication, is played by Artie Auerbach, former New York newspaper photographer. His "peekle in the meedle with the mustard on top" and his baseball stories are laugh toppers. Mable Flapsaddle and Gertrude Gershift, the Benny telephone operators, enacted by Sarah Berner [sic] and Bea Benadaret, tie the program in knots with their saucy badgering of the boss.
Schlepperman's "Howdy Stranger"
Off and on the show have been Sheldon Leonard, Sam Hearn, Frank Nelson and many other stooges. Leonard is the racetrack tout with the soft, patronizing voice. Hearn played Mr. Schlepperman. whose greeting, "Howdy, Stranger." stirred a ripple of chuckles. Nelson is often heard as the haughty floorwalker, the butler or some generally nasty type, with a mocking "Yeahus" when addressed.
Jack's main foils of course, have come in for equally hilarious typing. Tenor Dennis Day is the timid mama's boy who is always asking for his salary, and Phil Harris is ribbed as a lady-killer with a predilection for word-mangling and liquid refreshments. Rochester as the extrovert valet and chauffeur constantly befuddles the harassed Benny. Mary Livingstone, Jack's wife, is the heckling girl friend whom Benny constantly threatens to send back to the hosiery counter at the May Company department store.
Practically every important figure in show business has guested on the Benny funfest, but Fred Allen's visits have been among the most notable. Jack and Fred carried on a feud for years, on their own programs. Every once in a while they crossed over for mutual calls, letting the quips and sparks fly at close range. "If I had my writers here," Jack once exploded, "you wouldn't talk to me like this."
Benny at His Best
For years, the Benny comedy situations have run the gamut of thing that could possibly happen to Jack Benny has been satirized. Last season, for example, he did a takeoff on an actual operation on his nose, and in another skit he roved through the script for several weeks spending his money like a drunken sailor after a can of tomatoes fell on his head and put him out of his mind. It was Benny at his best.
To his sheer delight, the fabulous funnyman has taken the worst beating from his stooges of any comedian in radio history. Everything about him is mercilessly lampooned . . . his thinning hair, his baby blue eyes, his age (39 years), his romantic attractiveness, his Maxwell, his money vault, his thriftiness and his fiddle. A few years ago his writers even dreamed up a contest in which listeners were invited to send in letters of 25 words or less dwelling on the theme "I can't stand Jack Benny because . . ." More than 500,000 letters poured in. Benny revelled in the scheme.
That's why Jack Benny is the indestructible comedian, who never changes himself but keeps his show over fresh with funsters. That's the secret of his 19 years of radio success.

1 comment:

  1. Photo is dated March 23, 1970 by the Cleveland Press Editorial Library. Snipe reads: LAST MINUTE GAG IDEAS are exchanged and added even during recording of Broadview Savings commercials by (left to right) Jack Benny's chief writer and brother-in-law Hilliard Marks, Benny, and character actor Frank Nelson. Marks, who is Mary Livingston's brother has been Benny's head writer for 40 years.