Sunday, 16 May 2021

Jack, Is That Really You?

People on radio don’t look like you think. At least, that seems to be the general perception.

And it apparently applies to people whose pictures are in the papers and in fan magazines and appear on the big screen, if you accept what’s stated in the newspaper feature story below. The writer took in a Benny broadcast, but doesn’t write about that. She doesn’t even describe much of the warm-up. Instead she goes on about how “wrong” everyone looks.

Jack Benny was prematurely grey and movie producers had him put on a small wig to fill out his hair. Evidently he didn’t colour it, at least some times, before going on the air.

This appeared in papers on November 25, 1937.

The Woman's Angle . . .

HOLLYWOOD—THERE WAS A line of people a block long outside of the NBC studio on Melrose avenue the Sunday we went to see how programs were made. I heard one bystander ask another, "What are all those people waiting for?" I was rather surprised that everyone didn't know that we were waiting to get in the Jack Benny show. At any hour during the week if you see a line-up in front of the studios, it's the same answer with a different name. It may be the Charlie McCarthy show, the Bing Crosby broadcast, the Al Jolson program, but whatever the cast, the line-up is there, its length recording the popularity of the star.
It’s interesting to be part of an air show. Even if there are a hundred people in the audience, you have a feeling that you are a small part of the program. Your laugh, your hand clap, your appreciation goes out over the air to be heard by the nation.
As a result I was conscious of acting just a little bit; my appreciation—never robust when alone—suddenly became audible.
When the doors are open and you have grabbed yourself a seat—I used "grabbed" advisedly—you see a small studio that much resembles a little theater. On the stage Phil Harris is still rehearsing the orchestra. Mary Livingstone is in a chair reading her script. There is a glass partition on one side of the stage which encloses the technicians. Casually, Jack Benny wanders across the stage. You see Don Wilson and Kenny Baker. They are just wandering around, not paying the slightest bit of attention to the hordes of people filling up the seats.
Finally Don Wilson comes to the center of the stage and in that pleasing way of his he tells you that he will cue your laughter. He’ll tell you when to clap and how long. Air time is precious. Your applause has all been figured into the script beforehand, and Don expects you to do as you're told. And Jack Benny adds a loud aside, “And you'd better laugh hard if you ever expect to get in here again!”
Like a little gal from the country I notice small details. Jack Benny is chewing on his cigar. He removes his hat, and a little sigh goes the round of the audience. He is just slightly bald.
And Mary Livingstone is a surprise, too. She's not the glamour girl you may have seen on the screen. Nor is she that dumb, baby-faced blonde you’ve been visualizing. No, Mary is a slender, youthful, dark-haired, dark-eyed lady with rather strong features that indicate a mind of her own. You don't get an impression of a scatter-brained wench.
And Kenny Baker isn’t that young, young kid in his ‘teens that you've been seeing in your mind's eye. He's a young man in his early twenties who has such a boyish face and such roguish eyes that he’ll still look collegiate when he's a grandpa. His voice is really beautiful. That boy can sing. If he never cracked another comic “Yeah?” for Jack Benny again, he'd still be in the money. As long as his youth and his health and his voice hold up, he'll get a lot of fan mail.
And another funny thing, Don Wilson isn’t fat. Not really. He’s just a big man . . . tall with a big frame. He may have a little excess poundage from eating those six delicious flavors, but he's not the roly-poly type. His size is something to build gags around, and that’s why we hear cracks to the effect that he takes baths in the Rose Bowl. And for the money he's getting to be teased, it's not just a hard role to play. If they are going to comment on size, Andy Devine should take all honors. I thought they padded him with pillows, but that waistline is real!
While I may be prejudiced, I did rather expect a second Clark Gable in the person of Phil Harris. I don't know what I expected for nothing, a Greek god or Robert Taylor, but if Phil Harris is the original white collar ad, I don't see why white collars are so popular.
The one person who looks just as you imagined he would is Jack Benny. A little older, perhaps. He’s no boy. It's a surprise and a shock to see him put on glasses, to see his thinning silver tinged hair. But once he starts talking, once you look into that smiling, urbane countenance, you realize that it is his personality and his alone that has held this show at the highest peak for so long.
And it’s for him you laugh and applaud. It’s for him you forgive the discrepancies of the cast that is real and the cast that is make believe. And once the smooth machinery of the show begins, these details that were so important a moment ago fade from your mind so completely that even as you see the stalwart, big figure of Don Wilson, the earnest business-like Mary, and all the other real figures that make up the cast, your eyes are tinged, the focus changed. Presto! There is roly-poly Don, and dumb little Mary, handsome, devastating Phil Harris, and suave, smiling Jack Benny. Copyright, 1937, Homer Canfield

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