Sunday 14 May 2023

Track Five For Vancouver, Edmonton and Cucamonga

Vancouver was, at one time, the home of Mary Livingstone, but it was her husband—Jack Benny—who seems to have spent plenty of time in the city in later years.

Benny played the Orpheum Theatre in Vancouver during vaudeville—in 1917 (with Lyman Wood), 1920 (as Ben K. Benny), 1923, 1926 and 1928, the last year at the current Orpheum, which he helped save with a benefit show three months before he died in 1974.

He broadcast his weekly half-hour from the city in April 1944, notable as it was Dennis Day’s last show before going off for war duty (which mainly consisting of singing). But there were other times Benny visited as well.

One of the years was 1965. By that time, Jack’s weekly TV show had come to an end.

Vancouver has a reputation of “No Fun City.” It’s true. If you go the downtown business core late some nights, there is nothing happening, outside of a bit of traffic. But there was a time the city had incredibly popular nightclubs (filled with hard-drinking newspaper reporters, almost all male) where big American acts were imported. The clubs have all been replaced by office towers; all that remains is a tiny street sign at Hornby and Georgia reminding the diminishing few who actually remember that this was “Wasserman’s Beat.”

Vancouver Sun nightlife/celebrity reporter Jack Wasserman wrote about Jack’s arrival in the Dec. 4, 1965 issue. CKNW disc jockey Jack Cullen, who could match anyone scotch for scotch, had a huge collection of radio transcriptions, some of which he liberated without permission from Canadian Army stations during the war.

THE WHEE! PEOPLE — I'll admit that I'm hooked on Jack Benny. I haven't even seen the show he'll do tonight and Sunday night at the Queenie but I'm prepared to wager it will be an evening of first-class entertainment for the whole family. It has to be good because, in my book, he can't do anything bad.
In this column writing business you meet more than your share of nuts and bores. They make good copy but they're awfully hard to be around. From a column-eye view, the trouble with Benny is that he's much too normal — sort of like an uncle that comes to visit from time to time. Within seconds you forget that he is one of the most fantastically successful entertainers of the past three decades in terms of both audience appeal and financial rewards. He headlined at the Lyric when it was the Orpheum back in 1926; he was one of THE radio names in the thirties, forties and fifties. And he's been a major TV star for the past 15 years.
* * *
There's a cliche that goes: "Age is not a time of life — it's a state of mind." In Jack Benny's case, it's for real. He's 72, going on 39, because he's with it. At Friday's press conference Jack Cullen, the disk jockey and show business historian extraordinary, turned up with his tape-recorded bag of tricks and proceeded to put Benny through the memory hoops. Cullen confronted Benny with a rare sound track of the only song the comedian ever sang in the movies and similar memorabilia. Benny didn't remember much of the ancient material. It isn't that his memory is failing. He's too much involved with today to indulge himself in show business senility.
F'r example, Jack is probably the world's oldest Wayne Newton fan. After he concludes his Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary run he goes into a show in California with Newton, about whom he raves. He's entitled to. Benny spotted the young hillbilly doing a show in Australia, and as Wayne himself told me many times, he did more than anyone else to propel Newton towards stardom.
* * *
Although we've talked on the phone several times I hadn't seen Jack for more 10 years. We met accidentally in the hall outside his Georgia Hotel suite. Almost his first words after the initial greetings were exchanged was a suggestion that I run out and buy Sammy Davis Jr.'s excellent autobiography, Yes I can: He has a vested interest in Sammy, too. It was Benny who spotted Davis, the youngest member of the Will Mastin trio, and took him out of the sawdust joints and put him on the road to stardom. It's easy to say now that, sooner or later, Sammy Davis would been discovered, but the fact remains that it was Benny who gave him his first real shot at stardom, on the bill of a powerful package that played Vancouver, among several other centres, in 1954. Sammy hasn't looked back since.
Many of the old-time stars pose as boosters of young talent but it's really a form of insurance. They often have the youngsters tied up to long-term contracts. Not Benny. Anybody he thinks is talented is worthy of a helping hand.
* * *
The subject came up during Friday's press conference. "Are the young people grateful?" a reporter asked. "Certainly they are," Jack replied, "but they can't be expected to go on being grateful forever." By coincidence a young blonde named Betty Robertson happened to come in at that moment. She's a Toronto singer currently appearing at the Marco Polo, but she's done shows with Benny in the past, and she'd dropped by to say hello. Benny's purpose in holding the press conference was to sell tickets for his own show and to introduce Pat Woodell, the young star of Petticoat Junction, who does 18 minutes of the Hour and Sixty Minutes with Jack Benny. But that didn't stop Benny from pointing out Betty Robertson. He stopped everything and announced, "Now there's a talented little girl I just adore," and he launched into a rave about the singer for the benefit of the assembled press.
Later on we went downstairs for dinner and Jack went through the usual routine of trying to find something that fitted his diet, and then eating everything placed in front of him whether it was on the diet or not.
It was all so darn homey, with Jack's manager, his secretary-valet, the girl singer, Jack's cousin-in-law Edie Giant, from Seattle — Mary Livingstone Benny has 30 or 40 relatives between here and Seattle — and Edie's grandson, Gary. To see us sitting there nobody would have realized that the fellow with the glasses in the middle of the group did a command performance for Queen Elizabeth in London a few weeks ago and was a dinner partner of the young Queen of Greece the following night.
“She was so young and I forgot myself at one point and said, ' "Look here, honey'!” Jack was saying. “Then I tried to apologize and I said, 'I'm sorry. You just don't look like a queen to me.' She laughed.” You will, too.

How did the show go? Let’s turn to the city’s other paper, the Province, of Dec. 6 1965.

Kayo kiss a clue to Benny success
Jack Benny grasps the girl firmly and plants a great buss on her lips. He holds the pose—and holds it. Finally, the girl's arm goes limp and drops at her side.
Benny comes slowly out of the embrace and gazes at the arm hanging free. The audience roars. He moves the hand and it swings back and forth. He looks at the audience. It roars again.
He moves the hand again. Something catches his eye. He lifts the hand and stares at it Then he pulls at jeweller's loupe from his pocket and inspects the diamond ring on her finger. All this time she is still in a swoon.
Blackout and uproarious applause.
To students of humor in general and Jack Benny in particular, this is not only a classic study case, but a clue to his success.
Benny is the master of timing and facial expression. The bit with the girl is a silent movie in itself. First the passionate lover, then the bemused man who is proud and a little awed at his success, then the avaricious miser who covets the diamond.
It's an old routine, but the audiences that caught Benny Saturday and Sunday night at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre ate it up.
Who else can just turn his head and stars at the wings and reduce the crowd to hysterical laughter?
Who else can play Sweet Georgia Brown on a violin and receive applause equal to Menuhin's?
This show Benny does is essentially a one man show, as he points out, but he does have a 12-piece orchestra, a singer and straight girl, Pat Waddell [sic], and a plant in the audience, 15-year-old Toni Marcus.
Toni's routine involves her walking on the stage, asking Benny for an autograph in the middle of his violin solo, eventually playing his Strad better than he does. It's old and its [sic] corny, but its [sic] popular.
In every successful concert show in a place like the QueenlE, there is a reciprocity of warmth and respect between the audience and per former, and the weekend show was an example of this.
At 72, Benny seems indestructible.

About four thousand people, Wasserman later reported, saw the two Benny shows.

What did Jack do between performances? He visited patients at the Shaughnessy Military Hospital, greeted by the 55 members of the Surrey Schools Concert Band.

Days later, he was in Edmonton for another show, before which he was presented with a bright yellow Klondike hat by the local B’nai B’rith Lodge. Then it was back to California for Jack Benny Day on the 15th for a parade in Azusa, sponsored by Chambers of Commerce of Anaheim, Azusa and Cuc.

On top of that, he performed on Christmas at the Carousel Theatre in West Covina. Some 55 years after beginning in small-time vaudeville, Jack Benny was still in demand.


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