Sunday 4 September 2022

Photographer, Actor and Fake German Grocer

Everyone annoyed Jack Benny on the Jack Benny radio show in the 1940s.

Everyone except one person.

Jack had to put up with insults and gag-toppers from his main cast—Mary Livingstone, Phil Harris, Rochester, even Don Wilson on occasion. Dennis Day annoyed him with ridiculousness.

Even the secondary cast got on his case: floorwalker Frank Nelson, tout Sheldon Leonard, phone operators Bea Benaderet and Sara Berner (did they ever put through one of Jack’s calls?), the recalcitrant Maxwell of Mel Blanc.

Through all this, a knock at the door or a stroll somewhere would bring a pleasant conversation with Mr. Kitzel, played by Artie Auerbach.

Kitzel first appeared in 1946 as a hot dog vendor at the Rose Bowl. He eventually morphed into kind of an acquaintance of Jack’s who felt he could stop in unannounced at the Benny mansion to say hello (in reality, fans in those days came right up to the Benny door to get an autographed photo). Mr. Kitzel was the Benny version of Mrs. Nussbaum, in a way. He would give names and words a mangled Hebrew pronunciation or Jewish connotation, fit in one of his catchphrases, and bid farewell. (His most famous catchphrase wasn’t heard on the Benny show. “Hmmmm...could be!” has been immortalised in old Warners and MGM cartoons but was from a pre-Benny time).

The Kitzel appearances were actually an inspired bit of business by Benny and his writers. It gave the show a bit of a break from all the insult humour. And Jack was allowed to shuck all the famous foibles of his character for a segment and be a friendly, ordinary guy having a conversation. In the 1950s, the writers employed the same device with Sam Hearn’s Calabasas farmer character.

Unlike Hearn, who was a veteran vaudevillian, Auerbach didn’t start out in show business, let alone a comedian. The Detroit Free Press profiled him in its edition of June 12, 1948.

Switch: ‘Mr. Kitzel’ Dropped Pictures for Pickles
Free Press Staff Writer
NEWSPAPER PHOTOGRAPHERS can do anything. If you won't take our word for it, consider the life of Artie Auerbach, who is "Mr. Kitzel" on the Jack Benny show.
You know “pickle in de middle with the mustard on top . . .”
Artie, a former New York Daily News photographer, is in Detroit with the Benny troupe for a seven-day engagement.
AN EXPERT in dialect, Artie says that everyone has hidden talent. All you have to do is bring it out.
And he should know.
His career as a successful comedian began back in 1934 when he was with the New York paper. At that time he was covering blistering three-alarm fires, murders and worked the usual crime stories that go with being a photographer.
He spent idle hours in New York's eating spots picking up all the dialect he could and imitating it.
ARTIE GOT so good that one day he used his talent on a hot assignment. A New York dowager had locked herself in a room of a swank hotel and Artie was assigned to the story along with a dozen other photographers from competing papers.
In notes thrown out a window, the dowager said that she was being held captive. But when police responded they couldn't get in.
So Artie got an idea; the woman had to eat!
HE DRESSED in a white apron, got a bag of groceries and sounded off like a German grocer.
All of a sudden the dowager became hungry, and to show her appreciation for the food, let Artie take her picture with a camera he had hidden in the grocery bag.
His first radio show was with a cafe owner named George Frame Brown. Brown played the guitar while the hash was being slung.
Artie wrote a show around him and they went on the air for two and a half years together. But things turned a little rough for Artie and he decided to call it quits and go back to his job as photographer.
It was security, and his aged mother and two kid sisters had to eat.
THEN THE show bug bit again and he wrote a series of sketches for a Broadway show, "Calling All Stars." Included in the cast were Lou Holtz, Phil Baker, Judy Canova and Martha Raye.
That did it. He could pack away his flash bulbs after that one.
He did shows with Phil Baker, Eddie Cantor, Jack Haley, Al Pearce and Abbott and Costello.
Jack Benny heard Artie on the radio and hired him. He's been with Benny ever since.
THOUGH HE'S making more than five times as much money as he made as a photographer, Artie gets the urge for an assignment when he is in New York.
And they pay him for his work, too. Recently he earned $23 on one job.
"I miss the newspaper game,' Artie said, "but on the other hand the show business has been darn good to me. I've never had to hock my camera yet."
The 45-year-old comedian lives in a modest Hollywood apartment with his wife.
As for Jack Benny, well, all city editors should be like Mr. Benny, Artie remarked.

Mr. Kitzel followed the Benny show from radio to television. A heart attack claimed his life at the age of 54 in 1957.

Death didn’t end Mr. Kitzel. He appeared in some episodes put in the can for later in the season. Ben Gross of the Daily News wrote on April 21, 1958: "It was odd, amusing and yet tragic to see a filmed segment showing the late Artie Auerbach (Mr. Kitzel) during Jack Benny’s show (CBS-TV, 7:30) last night. It reminded us of what a talented performer Artie really was."

1 comment:

  1. A friend and I have a running disagreement about Mr. Kitzel. He thinks Kitzel is a bore and that Jack's spots with him are a snooze. I like Mr. Kitzel for exactly the reasons you give. I like that there exists in Jack's world one person -- one lousy person -- who doesn't exist to insult him, annoy him or drive him nuts. One person who just wants to spend a few pleasant minutes with him.

    Maybe that was just an inherent part of Auerbach's nature. Kitzel managed to be good-natured and pleasant in a season on Abbott and Costello's show, and that was a series that specialized in annoying, one-note characters.