Sunday 26 March 2023

A McNulty in the Life of Dennis Day

Jack Benny’s radio show in the 1930s was incredibly popular, even without the elements that people today consider an essential part of it.

Benny hit the air in May 1932. Don Wilson didn’t show up until 1934 after Jack went through a series of announcers. Four seasons went by before Phil Harris was added to the cast as the orchestra leader. And it wasn’t until October seven years later that Eugene Patrick McNulty became the show’s vocalist under the name Dennis Day. Aside from a period during the war, Day stuck with Benny until the radio show ended in 1955, though he appeared less and less due to personal appearances.

In time, Day proved to be versatile. The huge boost Benny gave his career turned him into star material. In July 1946, he went to New York to sign a deal to star in A Day in the Life of Dennis Day on NBC for Colgate, which also inked Benny’s utility man, Mel Blanc, to his own programme. Day was a success (Blanc was not) and made the jump to television (unfortunately for him, he was opposite I Love Lucy).

While in New York, he chatted to the press. Here are a couple of feature stories, explaining the creation and care of Dennis Day. And while the INS wire story doesn’t say it, the “prima donna” singer it is referring to was the man Day replaced on the Benny show, Kenny Baker. When Fred Allen’s Texaco Star Theatre was cut from an hour to a half-hour, Baker was booted.

Dennis Day's New Program Set For Fall
Bashful Boy Has Come Long Way In Radio Since 1939
International News Service Staff Writer
NEW YORK, July 20—On an autumn night in 1939, with more than 30 million tuned in, a shy baby-faced college boy shivered up to a mike. It was the chance of a lifetime and the very green Dennis Day was scared. Jack Benny had him on two weeks option. That meant make good or else.
“Say 'Hello,' Dennis”
Benny began to put him at ease, or tried to. He had Dennis’ mother written into the script. She fussed with his tie and made over him. Then Jack said:
“This is the mike, Dennis. Say hello to the mike.”
The young singer said hello in a high childish voice four tones above his normal speaking level. It established him as a character. Then he sang and that made him a singer.
Now at 29, the young bachelor is scared again, despite his years with Benny and a recent triumphant concert tour with symphony orchestras. He is about to achieve what Radio City reverently calls stardom. In October, he begins his own NBC program, a light comedy story called a “Day in the Life of Dennis Day,” in which he will act and sing two or three songs. Dennis will also continue with the Benny show Sunday nights.
And Still Scared
“I’m just as scared as I was in 1939,” he said. “You know, you get used to being a stooge. This one I'll have to carry myself.”
With these shakes and his own native humility, which is almost as that displayed on the air, Day is not likely to make the mistake another young singer we know of made several years ago.
He, too, had been built up by a comedian and then set up his own shop. The difference was that this fellow became a prima donna. He didn’t like the writing for his spots. He complained continually to the sponsor, an oil man, who was in no mood for complaints since the German subs were sinking his tankers at the time.
Then, the singer made the mistake of singing a song with German words. That did it. He still isn’t back on the air.
Apt To Stay Modest
As noted, Day is not likely to change his hat size, although he’s been acclaimed not only as a singer and actor but as one of the greatest mimics in radio. While we were there, he launched easily into amazing replicas of Fred Allen’s “Titus Moody,” Bob Hope's Jerry Colonna and Satan’s Hitler and Mussolini.
His imitations, which he’ll do occasionally on his own show, began as a gag among friends and became a professional asset, or more money in the bank, on the Benny program last season.
Like others on the show, Dennis has more than a contractual loyalty to Benny.
“Jack’s the greatest showman, the greatest man for timing in radio,” he says. “And he feels that the bigger the other performers on his show are, the bigger his program is.”

Louis Lacy Stevenson, who penned the “Lights of New York” column for the Bell Syndicate, also chatted with Day. This appeared July 30, 1946.

New York
Dennis Day’s appendix changed his entire career. Learned that in a chat with the dark-haired, smiling, brown-eyed, soft-spoken young singer just after he’d returned from a concert tour which included appearances with the Cleveland and Milwaukee symphony orchestras. Bora in the Bronx, Dennis was a boy soprano in school and at St. Patrick’s cathedral. When he went on to Manhattan college, he sang in the glee club. Still, the thought of singing professionally had never entered his mind. His ambition was to become a lawyer and he took a pre-law course at Manhattan. Just when he was ready to enter the law school, his appendix went on a rampage. Instead of going to school, he went to the hospital for an operation. By the time he was out, the term was well under way. As a fill in and to earn some needed money he sang on a sustaining program on radio station WHN.
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After Day had been singing for about three months—with the idea of being a disciple of Blackstone still in the back of his head—he did a program on the Columbia Broadcasting system and two of his songs were recorded. Just about that time, Kenny Baker was leaving Jack Benny’s program. The Day record was sent to Benny's agent and by accident, Day told me, was heard by Mary Livingstone. The result was that when Benny came on to New York, Day received a summons to meet him. The call, however, didn’t tell Day whom he was to meet so he was no end astonished when he came face to face with Jack. He managed to get through with an audition. He then waited for comments. None were forthcoming. So he departed with the feeling that that was the end of the whole matter and that perhaps, it would be the law for him after all.
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"Two weeks after the audition, I got a real surprise,” continued Day, "Jack Benny sent me a ticket to California. In fact, he sent a round trip ticket—evidently he was taking no chances on being stuck with me on the west coast if I didn't make good. Full of hope, I took the first train I could grab. After I reached Hollywood, I didn’t have to wait long for an audition. Again, there was no comment and what was more important to me, contract. All I could do was hang around and wait for the verdict. Hanging around and waiting was all the harder because I had no indication of what that verdict would be. A week before ray ticket ran out, I was signed. That was in 1939, and I have been with Jack over since, with the exception of the two years I spent in the navy." Day didn’t say who cashed in the unusued portion of his ticket.
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In the navy, Day was transferred from the amphibious force to the service force and in Hawaii, he organized a navy show that toured the entire Pacific area. Among those in it were Claud Thornhill, orchestra leader, Tommy Riggs and Jackie Cooper. He was discharged last March with the rank of ensign and immediately went back with Benny. He will return to the Benny show on September 29. Before that, he will go on another concert tour being booked for Denver in August and Tucson in September. His reason for his present visit to New York was to complete plans for his new radio show which will open on NBC October 3. It will consist of singing and situation comedy with Day doing both singing and the comedy.
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Not until Day made an appearance on the Fred Allen program recently was it generally known that he is a mimic as well as a singer. On the Allen show he impersonated Titus Moody, the Mad Russian, Jerry Colonna and W. C. Fields. He has a number of other characters some of which he probably will use on his own show. In the past, he merely “clowned around” with the imitations for the amusement of himself and friends. He’s good at those imitations too—even at close range. I can testify to that because, while we were talking, he passed out some samples. He also informed me that the Benny show was going to be different next season. “I’m going to get a raise,” he explained. Day is unmarried. His reason, “Nobody ever asked me.”
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As this was being written, Day is in active negotiations with three major studios for motion picture roIes. One is doing Johnny Appleseed for Walt Disney; another to play the lead opposite James Cagney in another picture, and a part in the musical “Up in Central Park,” opposite Deanna Durbin. So before long, Dennis will have his Day on the screen.

Before his New York trek, and after he returned to the Benny show on St. Patrick’s Day, he met with Bob Thomas of the Associated Press, who reported:

“Denny’s back and Benny’s got him.” I dropped in to have lunch with Dennis Day and asked him how he liked being out of the Navy and back on the Jack Benny show.
“It’s great,” he said. “I like the salary much better than in the Navy.” He said he now gets $35 a week but I do think Mr. Benny gives him more than that.
Dennis said he had a pretty rough time in the Navy with people who expected him to portray his radio self all the time.
“It was particularly bad when I got to be an officer,” he said. He was a lieutenant (jg).
Among the singer’s most vivid memories of the Navy days was standing on top of a wardrobe closet in the University of Arizona gym and singing without accompaniment to his 600 fellow cadets and bunk mates. After that, working for Mr. Benny should be a pleasure.

Day’s series debuted on October 3, 1946. Kind of.

It’s an odd show. Much like Verna Felton was brought in as laugh insurance when Day debuted with Benny in 1939, Jack was brought in for Dennis’ first show and carries a lot of the load. Frank Galen’s storyline is strung together by announcer Verne Smith about how Day was offered a show by Colgate and how he convinced Benny to let him do it. None of the regular cast of the new programme, with the exception of Sharon Douglas, appears. Benny’s announcer, Don Wilson, shows up for added support, and an incidental voice is supplied by Herb Vigran, who was heard periodically with Benny.

What’s even odder is the plot was apparently completely different than what was originally planned. The Capital Times of Madison, Wisconsin, published on the 3rd, gives this as a preview, none of which happened:
Day and Benny will try various formats that have produced successful radio shows in the past: Baby Snooks, Sherlock Holmes, Lum and Abner, Blondie, Kay Kyser and the Gang Busters. Finally, they’ll do Allen’s Alley. Benny will take the role of Allen, and Day will play Mrs. Nussbaum, Senator Claghorn and Titus Moody.
The paper added Day would be singing Franz Lehar’s “Yours Is My Heart Alone,” which didn’t happen, either. Why there was such a huge change is unclear.

Variety of October 3rd gave additional writing credits to Russell Beggs, Arthur Allsburg and future TV comedy writers Frank Fox and Bill Davenport. The trade paper on the 9th identified Frank Barton as the second announcer on the Colgate Dental Crème spot.

The following week, the full regular cast appeared. To add to the oddness, Day played Dennis Day, a soda jerk in Weaverville, not Dennis Day, the Jack Benny show singer. Verna Felton didn’t play Dennis’ mother, but his girl friend’s.

You can hear the initial programme below. It was broadcast on 120 stations. Alas, there are no chimes after the unidentified NBC staff announcer (who can be heard on some Benny shows).

1 comment:

  1. My father saw Dennis Day do standup comedy and told me he was hilarious and had the crowd rolling in the aisles. He's a hoot on the Jack Benny radio and TV shows.