More than 50 years after the last original episode aired, on Sunday 22 May 1955, at 7 pm eastern time, the Jack Benny shows are alive and well. These are likely the most requested of the thousands of old time radio (OTR) shows available. Dunning calls the show, "the quintessential American radio comedy."
The Jack Benny show evolved from vaudeville, where Benny built a career around musical inability and comedy. The first episode of the show aired 2 May 1932, on the NBC Blue network; it ran twice a week as "The Canada Dry Show." From 30 October 1932 to 26 January 1933, Benny starred in "The Canada Dry Program" (sic) on CBS. On 6 April 1933, Benny returned to NBC, with "The General Tire Show." For the 1934-1935 season, the show was renamed "The Jell-O Program," and moved to its permanent slot, 7 pm Sunday. There was another name change in 1942. This time it was a mouthful, "The Grape Nuts and Grape Nut Flakes Program." On 1 October 1944, the show was renamed, one last time, to "The Lucky Strike Program," starring Jack Benny. The cigarette company stayed with Benny until 1955. Through all the changes, the show was commonly and simply known as, "The Jack Benny Show."
From April 1933 until May 1955, "The Jack Benny Show" was consistently one of the two or three top rated shows; that's 22 years. Only "Bergen and McCarthy" matched the Benny ratings, over roughly the same period. Other shows came and went, Benny stayed, flourished and made history. Time hasn't been kind to "Bergen and McCarthy"; today, it's funny, but tired, whereas Benny remains fresh.
As Dunning writes, the premise of the show was simple, "[Benny] was a man with a great heart. Who else could play for four decades the part of a vain, miserly, argumentative skinflint, and emerge a ... treasure?" When others tried the Benny shtick, listeners wondered if that wasn't their true character leaking through. "Few people," writes Dunning, "had that reaction to Jack."
Usually the butt of the humour, Benny willingly gave away great lines to make the show work. At a time when Black actors were more or less limited to "step 'n' fetch it" roles, Eddie "Rochester" Anderson got many of the biggest laughs on "The Jack Benny Show." Anderson also earned $700 an on-air minute, about ten times a typical monthly wage for the time.
During an interview in 1947, Benny asked a "Newsweek" reporter, "Where would I be today without my writers, without Rochester; Dennis Day [resident scatterbrain]; Mary Livingstone [who was married to Benny for 47 years]; Phil Harris [the wise-cracking, ostensible band leader on the show]* and Don Wilson [announcer]?" The reporter had to answer, as Benny never would. "That [Benny] hand-picked the writers and cast is something [he] never admits. He dismisses lightly that he directs ... rehearsals, down to the last fine reading of a line.** Nor will he ever say ... his success stems from his own [astounding] sense of timing and showmanship."
Benny was generous to a fault. Listeners got the message. They repaid him with decades of unwavering loyalty.
In an unpublished autobiography, Benny warned readers the book was a bore. If he knew he'd write an autobiography some day, he wrote, "I assure that I would have gone out of my way to have at least two or three great love affairs." Instead, he loved his wife and daughter, and being Jack Benny.
His one major fault, writes his daughter, Joan, was his fixation on "The Jack Benny Show." He was, "like a horse wearing blinders allowing no peripheral vision, looking only straight ahead down the stretch to Sunday night. The result: occasional absentmindness and a lack of interest in matters not in his direct view. But without that focus he would not have been as successful for such a long time." Major accomplishments demand such focus.
In the Beginning
Early Benny is less refined and more ordinary than later Benny. The evolved Benny is methodical, subtle and urbane, able to cut to the quick, with inflection or pause, his timing flawless and not duplicated. In a wordy medium, radio, evolved Benny could evoke hilarious laughter with silence. Accosted by a mugger, demanding, "Your money or your life," Benny said nothing. The mugger grew impatience and restated his demand. Benny replied, "I'm thinking. I'm thinking."
On the first show of his radio career, 2 May 1932, 38-year old Benny is a fast-talking, if funny, wise-acre emcee, putting down whatever and whomever is at hand. As in vaudeville, where he was a star, the radio rule, then and now, was do most anything for a laugh.
Benny's compelling. You think to yourself, this is a sharp-as-a-whip fellow I know. He's acting smart-alecky because he knows we like it. It's an act, for our benefit.
Implied in his first network show are the reasons his radio career lasted 23 years and 20 days, without interruption. Not once does Benny allow ego to interfere with solid entertainment. The listener comes first, and she and he knows it.
Listen! to the first Jack Benny show as it aired on the NBC Blue network at 9:30 pm on a Monday evening. Another episode aired at the same time on Wednesday. In all, Benny went through five announcers, including Jimmy Wallington, and seven singers, but only one orchestra, during its 26 week, 52 show run.
Ed Thorgerson is the announcer, for this first show. Ethel Shutta, is the featured singer. (Note: there's a short leader before each show begins, to give you time to set your ears and tune your mind.)
The Last Show
Twenty-three years and 20 days later, Benny does his last original radio show. From 28 October 1956 through 22 June 1958, "The Best of Benny" aired Sundays at 7 pm. There was an ostensible Christmas special, which aired in December 1956.
The last show is touted as the last show of the month and 1954-1955 season, not the series. Yet, the vocal inflections of the cast, the sense of distraction they convey, and the extent that Benny thanks everyone connected with the show suggests this is more than the end of a season.
Maybe there was talk of another season, but network radio was giving way to local radio, its djs, and television. Although Benny was carried on every CBS affiliate, it likely wasn't enough to warrant another year more or less duplicating "The Jack Benny Show" on television. Here's the end of an era, in many ways, and network radio with it.
"The Final Show" 22 May 1955
The almost first talking motion picture or "talkie," was, "The Jazz Singer," (1927) starring Lithuanian-born, Asa Yoelson. The movie was an idealized autobiography, remembered, today, only as the first uber-successful talkie. Al Jolson, the actor, was flat, wooden and boring; a dud in a leading role, but effective in smaller parts, as in another idealized biography, "Rhapsody in Blue"(1945), about George Gershwin, which he almost steals.
Likely the most electrifying entertainer of all time, Jolson could hold an audience spell-bound for hours, and often did. The popularity of Al Jolson lasted 40 years. In 1948, when Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and Perry Como, among others, were topping the charts and selling out wherever they performed, a poll, for "Variety," found the 62-year old Jolson was the "Most Popular Male Vocalist," in America.
"According to George Burns," writes Joan Benny, "my dad and everyone else who had been there, Jolson was the greatest entertainer who ever lived. I would kill to have seen him in person, in blackface. Eddie Cantor, who also sang in blackface, said whenever he was playing New York at the same time as Jolson he couldn't go to see Jolson because he couldn't then do his own act." Jolson was that great, but he didn't translate. A live audience gives instant feedback, good or bad; the performer can adjust, find the key and open the door. Movies and television call for a much different skill-set, less movement, for example; this is why Mick Jagger doesn't work on television any more than would Jolson..
Network radio was the compromise. The audience was live, usually large in number and the instantaneous response, the live performer needs, she or he got. Variety shows on radio relied on a vaudeville house atmosphere, the listeners was voyeur.
Although Jolson hosted his own radio show, from 1932 until 1949, his on-stage presence was too strong, too dominating. Regulars and guests were sometimes hard to find for a Jolson show. His ego, self-awareness may be more precise, often drove other performers away.
As with Grouch, until "You Bet Your Life," Jolson was best as a guest. He'd draw millions to a show, briefly engage in repartee with the star of the show, sing a song or five and that was that. The ratings spike and prestige of Al Jolson, on the show, were reasons enough to let an ego slide for ten minutes.
Jolson slide onto a "Jack Benny Show," 18 May 1947, and Benny played the opportunity to the hilt. Click below to Listen! to "Jolson Joins Jack." Much of the Jolson aura is evident, as is the ego, but, as Stan Klees says, "If you did it, it ain't bragging." Jolson sure did it, and more.
"Jolson Joins Jack" 18 May 1947
These shows reveal every dimension of the "Jack Benny" character. In the first, Benny is golfing with ostensible band leader, Phil Harris. Skinflint Benny slices into the woods. He and "Rochester" begin an endless search for the ball.
"Golf Game Gamblers" 19 October 1947
A week later, the on-going search for the golf ball continues and is the leitmotif of the show.
"The Lost Golf Ball" 26 October 1947
Three weeks after losing the golf ball, Benny and Rochester break camp, giving up the hunt. Some unusual and extreme steps were taken to find the golf ball, but all they came up with was a Canadian penny.
"The Joke's on Jack" 9 November 1947
Here are two Benny shows, which aired near the end of his radio apogee. Still at NBC, he'd soon move back to CBS. Television would take more and more of his time. In 1948, audience attention was swiftly shifting to television; a wartime ban on new stations was lifted in 1947 and new stations went to air as fast you'd click the dial. Yet, there's no slouching on "The Jack Benny Show," as these episodes reveals.
These shows are connected. In the first, Benny, stressed out, takes a few days in New York City to recoup. How he got to New York, without paying, is priceless.
"Where's Jack?" 16 May 1948
He returns, the following week, to a less than hearty welcome.
"The Egg and I" 23 May 1948
It's hard to write about Benny without referring to him as Jack. After hearing most of the 900 radio shows available, I sense I know him; that he's a pal on the radio, today. Impartiality flies out the window after you've heard a few Jack Benny shows; he's an endearing and compellingly likeable man, which comes through clear as a bell.
* Mahlon Merrick was the musical director of "The Jack Benny Show."
** Benny said his best ad-libs were the ones he rehearsed the most.
Cleveland Amory, writing for the "Saturday Evening Post," on 6 November 1948, reports what Anderson earned. The article is "Jack Benny's $400 Yaks."
Jack Benny and Joan Benny (1990), "Sunday Nights at Seven: the Jack Benny Story," is published by Warner Books. Pp. 2, 5-7.
John Dunning (1998), "On the Air: the encyclopedia of old-time radio," is published by Oxford University Press. P. 357.
Laura Leff (2004), "39 Forever: volume 1, radio: 1932-1942." 2nd edition. International Jack Benny Fan Club. Passim.
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Streeter Click is editor of GrubStreet.ca.
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