Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Jack Benny - 39 Years Old and Still Counting!

This coming Sunday is Jack Benny's birthday! Born February 14, 1894, he would have been 39 years old! :)

For those not hip to Jack Benny, the character he developed and fostered for almost 25 years in radio and almost 25 in television, was a vain, self-centered miser who was perpetually and perennially 39 years old.

Benny was born Benjamin Kubelsky in Waukeegan, Illinois to a Polish father and Lithuanian mother who both emigrated to America. Benny was a poor student who was expelled from high school and later dropped out of business school and failed miserably when trying to work at his fathers haberdashery.

At the age of 17 he began playing violin in local vaudeville houses. After a while he began to talk between songs on the violin...people laughed. After a while he began to just talk and make people laugh.

Benny had a good career in vaudeville which lead him to a guest spot on Ed Sullivan's radio show in 1932. He opened with the line, "Hello folks, this is Jack Benny. I'll now pause a moment while you all ask yourselves, 'who cares?'".

This self-effacing attitude, one where the butt of the joke was usually himself, was to be his long standing stock-in-trade.

He began his own show for "Canada Dry Ginger Ale" in 1932, then was sponsored by "Cheverolet" and then "American Tire Co." over the next 2 years. He kept getting in trouble with his sponsors when reading their commercials, for taking a light-hearted approach to hawking their wares. In 1934 "General Foods" came to him with a product that had been failing and that they were preparing to take off the market. Jack said he would only do it if he was left to himself to talk about their product any way he liked. They agreed, since it was failing anyway, what harm could come? In October 1934 Jack starred on the "Jello" program for NBC and soon Jello's 6 delicious flavors "Strawberry, Raspberry, Cherry, Orange, Lemon and Lime" were the nations #1 selling gelatine desert, knocking top-ranking "Royal gelatine" off the map.

During WWII when sugar was being rationed and Jello was in short supply, General Foods stayed with him and Jack advertised "Grape Nuts" for the duration.

In 1944, Jack switched sponsers to the American Tobacco Co. and "Lucky Strikes" was his sponsor from 1944 right on through Jacks transition to television right up until he stopped his regular series in 1955.

I tell you about this because this kind of loyalty from sponsors is just a clue to the kind of loyalty Jack fostered from everyone he worked with. His radio show was so special because of the wonderful cast of characters that Jack built around him.

There was his real life wife and on-air foil and girl friend Mary Livingstone.

His butler, valet and all around man friday, Eddie "Rochester" Anderson:

Jovial announcer Don Wilson:

Drunken/carrouser/hipster/orchestra leader Phil Harris (seen here with real-life wife Alice Faye):

And Naive boy tenor, a role first filled by Kenny Baker...:

...then by Dennis Day:

Jack's cast was wider than just this, filled with great comedians and voice actors, often playing multiple roles.

Jack's violin teacher and the source of the sounds coming from his delapidated Maxwell automobile, Mel Blanc:

A race-track tout who advises Jack about everything from what to order at a lunch counter to which elevator to take in a department store, Sheldon Leonard:

Jack even made other radio shows part of his ensemble. His feud with Fred Allen was funny and legendary.

The Jack Benny Show radio cast was the tightest group of funny people anywhere on the dial and made every minute of the show worth listening to. Someone once asked Jack if he wanted a script re-written because he didn't get any funny lines, all the jokes were delivered by his cast. His response was, "I don't care who gets the laughs as long as the show's funny. It doesn't matter if it's Mary or Rochester of Phil who get the laughs, the audience still tunes in to the Jack Benny Show."

Jack had a long television career and a long feature film career too, but it was this radio show that ran from 1932 to 1955 that will always have a place in my heart and mind.

39 shows a year for 23 years adds up to a lot of laughs. Thanks to the internet and MP3 technology, I'm happy to say I've heard nearly every one of them. And they're damn funny!

The miserly, self-centered jerk he played never fooled any of us.

Jack died in 1974 at age 80. Headlines in newspapers all over the country read, "Jack Benny dies at 39!"

He always got the last laugh


Akshunt "Action" Frank Franklyn said...

OK Jeffy! I've been trying to hold off till his birthday to read this but you know that Jack Benny to me is like John Cusack to Mike, needles to say with out the gay porn fantasy overtones like Mike has. In short, I think world needs to rediscover what funny is, and it's first step is to begin reading this blog daily. Ya got that Mark! Jeffy has a blog now

Jeff Overturf said...

Thanks Frankie. :)

Greg Hill said...

Thanks for the info, Jeff. As a kid I used to watch the TV show, but can't remember much of it now, other than I enjoyed it. Then about nine months ago I tripped over a site with all the radio programs. I'm almost all the way through them now, and I love every one of them.
When I finish my plan is to start on the George Burns and Gracie Allen show.
Cheers, Greg.

Jeff Overturf said...

Thanks for stopping by Greg, sorry it took so long to catch your comment! I too have listened to all those great JB programs...they are welllllllllllllll worth the time. Have fun cruising the OTR airwaves!

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