Sunday, 25 April 2021

Life of Benny

It’s a long journey from being kicked out of school to becoming a loved entertainer for decades. But that’s the journey Jack Benny went on.

Cosmopolitan magazine was no gushy fan rag. It profiled Jack in a lengthy article in October 1947, interviewing friends and colleagues, and painting a portrait of a man could be moody, not particularly interested in current affairs, and someone who, as they put it then, was “fresh” as a teenager.

Below is the second half of the article. It has perhaps the best account—and probably not known to many in 1947—of the evolution of the Benny radio show and his unpleasant split with his writer, Harry Conn. Interestingly, the story says that “nobody was impressed by Jack’s debut” on the Ed Sullivan show (it wasn’t his debut, but that’s beside the point). Someone must have been impressed, as it’s conceded that Benny was put on the new Canada Dry radio show because of it, if indeed that’s what happened (George Olsen told a different story later in life, taking credit for Benny’s hiring).

Correctly, it points out the evolution of Rochester’s character. And, if accurate, the Jack-Mary courtship took place rather quickly.

The “Japs or better” line was coined by Goody Ace. The line isn’t exactly a “goody” today.

The Fiddler From Waukegan

THE MAN who was to accomplish the feat of putting Waukegan, Illinois, an obscure town of less than thirty-five thousand population, on the national map, was actually born in Chicago, Illinois, on February 14, 1894. Benny's parents lived in Waukegan, but his mother, Emma, insisted on going to Chicago for the birth of her first child. "When people ask my child where he was born, I want him to say he was born in Chicago," she said. A week after he was born he was named Benjamin Kubelsky and two months later he was taken back to Waukegan. His father was a former peddler of kitchenware who had later owned a saloon in Waukegan and had just emharked on a small haberdashery enterprise on South Genesee Street. Kubelsky was not a very aggressive businessman, and his family was one of the poorest in Waukegan. Nonetheless, when Benjamin was six years old, his father bought him a fiddle for one hundred dollars—which represented the family savings for a year—and put him under the tutelage of Charles Lindsay, the town's best music teacher, who charged one dollar an hour for lessons.
By the time he was eight, Benny was playing the violin with Farmer's Orchestra, a six-piece combination, which appeared at weddings and parties given by Waukegan's aristocracy. By 1906, when he was twelve years old, Benjamin was playing every night in the pit band at the Barrison Theatre. His musical precocity was the talk of Waukegan, and a group of the town's leading citizens wanted to raise a fund to further his musical education by sending him to a conservatory in New York and then to Europe, but the boy preferred to remain at home.
It became evident, at a very early age, that Benjamin had no future in the mercantile line. Once, when he was minding the shop while his father had dinner, a man came in and gave Benjamin some money.
"What did you sell?" his father asked later.
"Nothing," the boy replied. "He just gave me some money on his account."
"Account? Account? What account? What's his name?"
"I don't know," Benjamin said. "Gee, do you have to have his name?"
One Saturday morning, a customer came in and ordered some shirts and ties and socks and walked out without paying any cash.
"It's all right," Benjamin said triumphantly.
"He said to charge it to his account. And this time I got his name!"
"His name! His name! Why he ain't got no account in my store. I never saw that man before in my life."
When she heard of the incident, Mrs. Kubelsky, who seems to have been the family wit, sighed and said to her husband, "Well, Meyer, plumbing is a good business too!"
In school, young Kubelsky was considered one of the freshest as well as one of the dumbest pupils. His English teacher, Alice Payne, once ordered him to leave the classroom because he was talking. There was to be a dance at the Parish House that night, and Farmer's Orchestra was providing the syncopation. As Benny walked out of the class, he turned to his teacher and said, "Alice, don't forget to save me a dance tonight."
He was expelled from the school orchestra, where he played first violin, because when the orchestra was rehearsing Schubert's "Unfinished Symphony," he loudly remarked that the Waukegan High School Orchestra was certainly going to finish that symphony, all right, all right.
Sent to the principal's office once for disciplinary treatment, he offered to make peace with the principal by giving him a pass to the Barrison Theatre. When the principal presented the pass, he was informed that the pass was for the previous week and that it was no good.
In his sophomore year, Benjamin was expelled from high school, and in 1912, he broke into vaudeville. Cora Salisbury, the pianist at the Barrison Theatre, who was many years older than he and who had once done a solo routine in vaudeville, proposed that they form a team. They plotted out a novelty musical ad and got some bookings. His parents were violently opposed to his going into the theater. They felt it was a disgrace. Benny pointed out that his educational possibilities were dim, that he had no ability at running a store, and that the future for a violinist in Waukegan was very limited.
The act was called Salisbury and Benny, because there was a noted concert violinist at that time by the name of Jan Kubelik, and the vaudeville circuit was afraid there might be some confusion. The act played split weeks in the family-time circuit of the middle West. They received fifty dollars a week, with Benny getting fifteen.
After two seasons, Miss Salisbury decided to retire. Benny teamed up with a Chicago pianist, Lyman Woods. This time Benny got top hilling and Woods received the fifteen-dollar short end of the fifty-dollar-a-week salary. The act was billed as "From Grand Opera to Ragtime," and it opened with a classical medley that always included the "Poet and Peasant Overture" and a Brahms Hungarian Dance. Then Benny did a solo, playing a very mournful interpretation of "The Rosary," bathed in an amber spotlight. 'Woods did a piano solo, a Chopin Polonaise. Then the duo rattled off a ragtime tune in lively fashion and finished with a medley of popular songs like "Oh, You Beautiful Doll" and "Everybody's Doin' It." Neither Benny nor Woods did any speaking. But, during the lighter numbers, Benny got into the habit of pantomiming or raising a little finger when he played a graceful bar of music or acting as if he were under a big strain when he was playing a difficult passage. These little touches always got laughs.
Gradually, Benny and Woods worked up to the better circuits, the Gus Sun Circuit, the Western Vaudeville Circuit, the Pantages, and finally the Orpheum, which was the big time. In 1916, their career culminated in the dream of every vaudevillian—a week's booking at the Palace Theatre on Broadway. They were now getting two hundred and fifty dollars a week. But they were a dismal flop. They received such bad notices and so little applause that they almost lost a year's bookings. Benny and Woods was strictly a small-town act.
When war came in 1917, Benny enlisted in the United States Navy and was sent to boot camp at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station. Having listed his profession as "musician" he was assigned to the band. The bandmaster was annoyed when he found Bern1y played a fiddle. The bandmaster had no use for strings and asked Benny if he could quickly master a flute or a piccolo. Benny's reply was to ask for an easy assignment, like swabbing the deck of a battleship. At this point, some of the sailors got together and decided to stage a show for the men. They got a recreation hall and one after another, each of them did a bit. Benny played some violin selections and was greeted by boos and whistling.
Pat O'Brien, who later became an actor, was in the show, and he whispered to Benny, "For heaven's sake, put down that fiddle and talk." In desperation Benny said to the audience: "I was having an argument with Pat O'Brien about the Irish navy this morning." A wave of chuckling went through the audience. Benny thereupon ad libbed a series of zany comments about life at Great Lakes and interspersed them with a few bars on the violin.
When the Great Lakes Revue, a nautical equivalent of Irving Berlin's "Yip Yip Yaphank" was put together, Benny Kubelsky found himself playing the comedy role of the "Admiral’s Disorderly, Izzy There." Besides playing in several sketches he also did a humorous piano-and-fiddle act with a fellow sailor, Elzear Confrey, later known to fame as Zez Confrey, who during the 1920’s composed Kitten on the Keys" and "Stumbling."
After the armistice, Benny returned to vaudeville and bought some gags from a writer named Al Boasberg. His act was now called Ben K. Benny: Fiddle Funology, and consisted of ragtime tunes and comedy effects on the violin (such as imitating the squeals of a cat or a pig), With a few gags thrown in, Benny was developing his stage presence and his timing. Audiences loved his trick of rolling his eyes around in a droll manner when he got off something excruciating on his violin. In show-business circles, Benny was considered an imitator of Ben Bernie, then a star on the Orpheum Circuit, who had been doing a talking-and-fiddle act for years. Broadway people even thought that Benny had deliberately chosen his name to deceive the customers. So he decided to change his name to Jack Benny.
The act was now "Jack Benny: Fun with a Fiddle." And it finally became simply, "A Few Minutes With Jack Benny." As time went on, Benny played the fiddle less and less, and spoke more and more. Finally, he ceased to play the violin altogether, but he continued to hold it under his arm to give himself courage. In vaudeville, Benny was generally considered to have the smartest, subtlest, suavest act. A reviewer in the Times once called him "The most civilized act in vaudeville." He never played for vulgar belly laughs. He stood on the stage expressing unhurried ease and exuding great self-confidence. He almost seemed to feel that nothing mattered very much. As he spoke, in a slow and bored fashion, he would fix his tie, or straighten his breastpocket handkerchief or pick invisible bits of dust off his suit. He didn't seem at all to care for the fact that there was an audience out there. Abel Green, editor of Variety, says, "Benny's delivery in vaudeville was one of the first examples of modern throw-away technique."
Benny's opening line, which he used for years, was celebrated. He would casually lope toward the center of the stage, tuck his violin under his arm, brush his hair back with his left hand, and inquire of the maestro, "How is the show?"
"Fine up to now," the maestro would reply.
"I'll fix that!" Benny would say.
Benny's deliberately cultivated suavity on the stage concealed an almost irrational terror of an audience. But nobody watching him ever realized that he was trembling inside and that every line he spoke and every piece of business he did required an effort of will power.
In 1924 he finally achieved the Palace again and was a sensation because his sophisticated routine delighted the hardboiled Palace audience. He was moved to the best spot, next to closing. The Schuberts signed him for a 1925 revue, "The Great Temptations." He did a twelve-minute monologue just before the end of the first act on opening night. He was so petrified with stage fright that he didn't even know what he was saying and didn't hear the applause. When Robert Benchley reviewed the show in the old Life magazine, he praised Jack Benny's performance and said he had never seen such savoir faire on a stage and wondered how a newcomer like Benny could act so blasé.
Around 1927, he became a vaudeville master of ceremonies. He walked on and off during all the other acts and in between the acts, and he introduced each act with a flippant comment. One of his famous remarks occurred at the Palace, when Long Tack Sam, a Chinese magician, opened the bill. After Long Tack Sam made his exit, Benny wandered on stage and drawled, "Vaudeville has certainly changed. I can remember when it took Japs or better to open!"
But in vaudeville Jack Benny was never one of the top-ranking stars. He never earned above two hundred and fifty dollars a week until 1932 when he played the Palace at a substantial increase. Benny's act was caviar to the general and a good many theaters never played him at all because their audiences didn’t think he was amusing.
Often, he would go to see his agent, Tom Fitzpatrick, and there would be no work at all for him. Once things got so desperate that when Fitzpatrick got a call from a theater manager in New Jersey, offering twenty-five dollars for an animal act, Benny said he would take the job. He borrowed two Pekingese dogs from the wife of an actor friend and took them to New Jersey. When he made his entrance he tied the dogs to a piece of scenery and proceeded to tell stories and play some tunes on his fiddle. The audience applauded hirn, and the manager said it was a peculiar sort of animal act, but he paid Benny the twenty-five dollars. As Jack was leaving, the manager blurted, "Mister, don't your dogs do any tricks?”
"Not at these prices," murmured Jack serenely, pocketing the money.
When Benny was in Los Angeles with the road company of "The Great Temptations," in 1926, he visited at the home of a girl, Fifi Marks, whom he had known in vaudeville. Fifi had a vivacious younger sister, Sadye, a black-haired, black-eyed, sharp-tongued girl, who worked as a clerk in a department store.
However, Benny, who was never the sparkling-conversationalist type, did not have much to say to Sadye. He just looked at her. A few weeks later the phone rang in the Marks household at two o'clock in the morning. Mrs. Marks answered it, woke Sadye and said that there was some crazy man telephoning from Canada. It was Jack Benny. Sadye asked him why he had called in the middle of the night, and he replied that he had been thinking of her just then and wanted to say hello. "Is that ALL?" she cried.
A few months later, when "The Great Temptations" was playing Chicago, Sadye was visiting friends there, and Jack had a date with her. He said nothing of his intentions. He took her to meet his father in Waukegan (his mother had died ten years previously). As they were returning to Chicago on the train, Jack suddenly blurted, "I think we ought to get married."
She said, "Why?"
"Well," he stammered, "Dad likes you."
"That's a silly reason."
"Well," he said, "you might go well in the act. I could use a girl in the act."
"That's an even sillier reason."
Jack flushed all over. "Well-uh-I guess, I guess, I love you."
She kissed him.
They were married on January 14, 1927, at the Clayton Hotel in Waukegan. He used her in his vaudeville act before she became the Mary Livingston of his radio show. They have been one of those ideally married Hollywood couples. She is fifteen years younger than Jack and has all of the qualities of quickness, adroitness, sharpness that Jack does not have. The one tragedy of their life was that they have been unable to have a child. They adopted a daughter, Joan, in 1935.
In 1928 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer signed Benny to a long-term contract, but after he did three films, "Hollywood Revue of 1929," "Chasing Rainbows" and "The Medicine Man," and failed to distinguish himself, the movies lost interest in him. In 1931, when he was playing in an edition of Earl Carroll's "Vanities," he began to be worried about the future, because the combination of the talking pictures and the depression was slowly killing off vaudeville. The new medium of radio, which was hiring vaudeville actors, was becoming big business. Benny's friend, George Burns, and his wife, Gracie Allen, had already done a twenty-six-week stint on the air. They advised Jack that this was the coming thing.
When the "Vanities" went on the road, Jack asked Carroll to release him from the contract. He was determined to stay in New York and break into radio. One day in Lindy's columnist Ed Sullivan, who then conducted a Broadway atmosphere radio program, invited Jack to be his guest. Together with Al Boasberg, Jack wrote a five-minute spot for himself, which opened, "Ladies and gentlemen, this is Jack Benny talking. There will be a slight pause while you say 'Who cares?' I'm going back to pictures in about ten weeks. I'm going to be in a new film with Greta Garbo. They sent me the story last week. When the picture opens, I'm found dead in the bathroom. It's a sort of mystery picture. I'm found in the bathtub on a Wednesday night. You'd really like Garbo. She and I were great friends in Hollywood. She used to let me drive her car all around town. Of course, she paid me for it."
Nobody was impressed by Jack's debut.
He sounded vapid and colorless. By 1932, it was clear that vaudeville was shot. Benny, getting panicky, went to William Stein, the president of the Music Corporation of America, a large talent agency, and pleaded for a band which he could lead, in the style of Ben Bernie. MCA said it was not interested because Jack Benny had no "name" value. In desperation, Benny took a night-club date in Miami. His act never went well in night clubs. The noise of the drunks and the waiters bringing food and drinks tended to distract attention from Jack's quiet, subtle delivery. While he was in Florida, his agent, Sam Lyons, wired him that Canada Dry had decided to sponsor him on a new radio program. He would be the master of ceremonies on a twice-a-week half-hour program on Mondays and Fridays over the NBC-Blue Network. Also starring on the program would be George Olsen and his band, and a singer, Ethel Shutta. It was simply a variety show, in which Jack introduced the various musical numbers and told jokes and funny stories directly to the radio audience.
The show ran all summer, and by the end of the summer, Jack and Al Boasberg had exhausted all their vaudeville material and all their variations on the vaudeville material.
"Where," groaned Jack, first uttering a cry that he was to frequently repeat during the succeding years, "is all the fresh material coming from? Without good material, you're dead." He was terrified as he realized that radio was an insatiable monster that swallowed scripts and demanded new ones incessantly.
George Burns introduced him to Harry Conn, a young gag writer. It was Conn, working with Benny, who created a new formula, a brand new approach in radio. Instead of reciting lines to the listener at home as if he were speaking from a stage, Benny developed a narrative show with a framework of situations, and a set of characters, on which amusing complications and funny pay-off lines could he hung. It was the great revolution in radio comedy.
"Practically all comedy shows on the radio today," says Fred Allen, "owe their structure to Benny's conceptions. He was the first to realize that the listener is in a living room at home not in a theater with one thousand other people. When he tunes into the Benny show, it's like tuning into somebody else's home. Benny also was the first comedian in radio to realize that you could get big laughs by ridiculing yourself, instead of your stooges."
Until about 1934, radio comedy was still a reflection of vaudeville material. The laugh shows-of which Jack Pearl's and Ed Wynn's were typical—depended on bizarre situations, unreal and exaggerated characters, a crackling succession of gags, with a "straight" line following hard upon a gag and a gag following hard upon the "straight" line. The comedian always reserved the meaty punch lines for himself. The comedian constantly played with puns and double-meaning lines.
Conn developed for Benny fairly real and human characters and situations and had the humor arising out of the characters and the situation. His dialogue sounded conversational instead of artificial. He eschewed puns and other forms of low comedy. Many of the situations were written around Benny's home life. The show usually began with an opening spot, hung around a topic like spring and there would be a series of interchanges between Benny, his girl friend Mary Livingston, who in those days played a dumb role, tenor Frank Parker who played an insulting employee, band-leader Don Bestor, and an announcer, Don Wilson, a two-hundred-and-thirty-pound gentleman of great bonhomie. The second spot on the program usually revolved around the problem of casting for the sketch. After the casting was settled, Parker sang an aria, and the program concluded with the sketch-often a satire of a popular book, play or movie.
Working with Conn during script and reading rehearsals, Benny began to develop a latent talent that he had never suspected was in him. He was a good judge of material, of the good and the bad, and he had an instinctive sense for what would "play" right on the air. As George Burns remarks, "He's the greatest editor of material in the business. He's got the knack for cutting out all the weak slush and keeping in only the strong punchy lines." And, because Benny has an apoplectic appreciation of other peoples' humor, he stimulates his writers.
Nevertheless, Benny's unconventional approach to radio staggered his sponsors, and he won public popularity slowly.
Although the New York World-Telegram poll of radio editors all over the country picked Benny, in 1934,as the best comedian on the air, Canada Dry refused to renew his option, and his next sponsor, Chevrolet, let him go after two seasons because William Knudsen of General Motors said he wasn't funny.
By 1935, he had slowly begun his climb up the ladder of Crossley ratings (the Hooper rating did not become available in radio until later), and he was standing in about ninth place. In 1936 he climbed higher, and, finally, in 1937 he passed Eddie Cantor and was firmly established in first place. Except for an occasional, brief dip, he has remained in the first five of radio ever since, despite all the vicissitudes of time and the coming new stars like Edgar Bergen and Fibber McGee and Bob Hope. As Benny says, "I can't make every program terrifically good but really to hold your nose at it—that I can keep it from. If my first three or four shows in a new season are good, I know I'm safe, because once I hit a good stride my writers and myself will keep on coasting from there, and all my other shows will be good. In radio, the pressure never lets up. In vaudeville, I never played to more than twelve hundred people at any one time, but with radio, in less than one half hour thirty million people can decide that you stink."
In 1941 Niles Trammell, president of NBC, was so awed by Jack's ability to sell Jello that he gave Benny a lifetime option on the network's Sunday night seven P.M. time segment, no matter who sponsored him in the future. Benny is still the only radio artist who has such an arrangement.
Toward the early part of 1936, relations between Benny and his writer, Harry Conn, became strained. Conn, who had started writing for Jack at sixty-five dollars a week, was now receiving thirteen hundred and fifty, the highest salary ever paid to a radio writer up till then. (Benny was the first actor in radio to pay writers good money). Conn believed that it was his imagination and wit that made Benny's success possible, and he believed that he was receiving only a small pittance of what he was really worth. He also wanted credit on the air. Benny refused to mention Conn’s name as writer on every program because, he said some listeners were under the impression that the events I narrated on the program were really happening. Finally, Conn said he was going out of town and if Benny wanted any more scripts he could come to the hotel and get them, providing he met the right conditions.
Benny was sitting around the Friar's Club when he received word that Conn I was in Atlantic City. It was only four days before the broadcast, and he had no script. He wired Conn: “It's a tossup who'll have a nervous breakdown, you or me, and I’m giving it to you."
With the aid of Goodman Ace, Benny hurriedly put together a script. Benny hired Ed Beloin and Bill Morrow, two writers who remained with him until 1943, when the present team of Sam Perrin, Milt Josefsberg, George Balzer and John Tackaberry took over the creative reins of the program.
Conn sued Benny for sixty thousand dollars, alleging that Benny was still using ideas and characters which he (Conn) had invented. Benny settled the case for ten thousand, and they have been enemies ever since.
It was shortly after this that Benny moved his program to California, and the present shape of it gradually began to form. Rochester emerged on the show in 1936, and Phil Harris came a year later. Mary found Dennis Day while listening to some audition records. Most of the running gags used today date from that period. A running gag usually starts in an accidental fashion. Once, during National Automobile Week, Mary asked Jack if he was going to buy a new car, and he said that he was trading his Stanley Steamer in for a Maxwell, which started the Maxwell theme. Rochester developed when Benny needed a Pullman-porter character for a situation that showed him, traveling cross-country in a train. Rochester's gravel-voiced impudence was so perfect a foil for Benny's gentle swagger that he became a permanent part of the show.
In recent years, Rochester's character has been toned down. He no longer shoots dice (over the air, at any rate), he has stopped drinking and he leads a less adventurous life with women. The Sportsmen Quartet-considered the funniest single fresh idea in radio comedy during the 1946-47 season-was intended to be merely a one-shot lampooning the Lucky Strike middle commercial. Public reaction was so favorable that the quartet was continued, and every week they sang a different lyric about LS/MFT to some well-known song.
During rehearsals, Benny is a fanatical perfectionist. He oversees every detail of the program—from the way Dennis Day is reading a line to the smallest sound effect.
Once, dissatisfied with the way his sound-effects engineer was producing the rustle of a piece of paper, he had the engineer try it forty times until he was satisfied with the result.
Benny treats his four writers with politeness, deference and even a little humility. During a script conference, Benny is treated as a writer, and his opinions are frequently overruled and he is even criticized severely. When Benny wants to contradict one of his writers, he'll say, very gently, "If you fellers don't mind, I think in here we should have a different twist."
The conferences begin immediately after a broadcast when the four writers go to Benny's dressing room and discuss the next week's program. Then—since each program falls into two broad classifications—the opening or "cast" spot, in which the various members of the cast are introduced; and the closing spot which consists of a dramatization, a guest spot, or some "real" situation such as Benny going to the station to catch a train—the two writing assignments are split. Perrin and Balzer will take one spot and Josefsberg and Tackaberry will take the other one."
On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, each team works separately and is in constant telephone communication with Benny. On Thursday, there is a meeting at Benny's house, and the first draft of the script is pounded out. On Friday, there is a second meeting at Benny's house, and the first draft is polished. On Saturday, in Studio L of the NBC building at Vine Street and Sunset Boulevard, there is a reading of the entire script, with the cast and the guest stars.
Then, after lunch, on Saturday, Benny, his writers, his script secretary, Jeanette Eymann, and the producer, Hilliard Marks, who is Benny's brother-in-law, lock themselves in a room" and go over the script line by line, word by word. In case of a dispute, a majority vote always rules, and Jack's vote has no more power than any writer's.
Benny is never satisfied with the script. He and his writers continue to polish and rewrite and cut.
On Sunday afternoon there is another editorial session, and up to a few minutes before the broadcast his writers will be bringing him a new line or a better way of saying a line already in the script.
OF THE thirty minutes of broadcast time, about two minutes is taken up by the opening and closing commercials, over which Benny has no control. The rest of the program is entirely in his hands. Of the remaining twenty-eight minutes, about seven are allotted to "spread"—the time consumed by studio applause and laughter. This leaves about twenty to twenty-one minutes of entertainment.
This means, roughly, that Benny receives about one thousand dollars a minute for portraying himself as an egotistic, grasping, avaricious, foolish man with a toupee.
Nevertheless, he recently remarked to a friend, “You take a violinist like a Heifetz or a Szigeti. Headaches like I have, they never know, because in music all you play is the classics, pieces somebody wrote in the year eighteen fifty nineteen hundred. A guy like Heifetz, he doesn't have to hire four composers and then have to drive himself crazy to have them compose eight numbers for his next concert. He gives the audience the good old Beethoven and Paganini numbers. Also Heifetz doesn't have to worry about his Hooper rating and about vice-presidents of NBC or sponsor trouble or advertising agency executives. I should have I listened to my father and practiced more on the fiddle when I was a boy in Waukegan."

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