The new thing called television was run by the same networks that ran the old thing called radio.
Popular radio programs, from The Lone Ranger to Art Linkletter’s House Party, were carried over to TV and brought their loyal audiences with them.
A great radio show was The Jack Benny Program, a weekly half-hour of hilarity and running gags that ruled the air from from 1932 to 1955. Benny, like many others, made the jump from radio to TV, appearing on CBS television from 1950 to 1964 and on NBC for one year after that. For five years, he and his ensemble pulled off the frenetic trick of appearing regularly in both media.
An Overnight Success
He was Benjamin Kubelsky, a violin player from Waukegan, Illinois. After achieving great mediocrity in school and business, the dreamy 18-year-old took his fiddle to the vaudeville stage in 1912.
Famed violinist Jan Kubelik hinted at legal action because of the similarity of names. Kubelsky, adding jokes to his routine, changed his billing to “Ben K. Benny: Fiddle Funology.”
Ben Bernie, a well-known “patter-and-fiddle” star, was not amused. The new kid’s name was too similar.
Kubelsky—having meanwhile served in the U.S. Navy for World War I—adopted the name Jack, common parlance for a sailor (“Jack Tar”).
After two decades of scratching out a living, first as a vaudevillian, then as a movie novice at MGM, Jack Benny auditioned for NBC Radio and became an overnight success.
Show Within a Show
For NBC, Benny—billed as “the star of stage, screen, and radio”—exercised his dramatic skills by portraying a radio comic named Jack Benny.
This fellow Benny lived a sedate bachelor life in Beverly Hills. He employed the gravel-voiced Rochester, a butler-valet-chauffeur played by black actor Eddie Anderson. Benny’s girlfriend Mary Livingstone (in real life his wife, Sadie Marks) dropped by often, as did people from the cast of his radio show: bandleader Phil Harris, boyish tenor Dennis Day, the closely harmonious Sportsmen Quartet, and rotund announcer Don Wilson.
Add a rotating cast of quirky character actors including multi-voiced Mel Blanc, supercilious Frank Nelson (with his famous baritone “Ye-e-e-s-s-s?”), and race track tout Sheldon Leonard (“Psst! Hey, Bud!”), and you had the basic ingredients.
A show’s plot would focus on some minor incident in the life of stage-screen-radio star Jack Benny. One week he, Mary, and Dennis would go to the race track to play the ponies. Another week Rochester would drive him to the train station for a trip to Palm Springs. Another week, Benny went Christmas shopping or stewed about an impending meeting with his show’s sponsors. Odd things happened to Benny in these commonplace situations, with disparaging commentary by the screwball characters in his cast.
A comedian playing a comedian in a show about nothing. Are you listening, Jerry Seinfeld?
Pay No Attention to That Man at Center Stage
With kooks on every hand, Jack Benny himself seemed like the normal person in the show. But not exactly . . .
Each episode revolved around Benny. He was center stage. The shady characters, uppity store clerks, band members in a constant state of carousal, wry Mexican villagers, and most of all Benny’s long-suffering household intimates—Mary, Don, Dennis and especially Rochester—all served to call attention to Benny’s eccentricities.
He was vain and vainglorious. Blue-eyed and never ageing beyond 39, he admitted freely to being a violin virtuoso and a comic genius, with leading-man looks thrown in.
He was indecisive, sometimes making a store clerk wrap, unwrap, and rewrap a purchased gift half a dozen times so that he could change the sentiments expressed on the card inside.
Most of all, he was cheap as only the rich can be. He had fabulous wealth, which he kept in an impregnable basement vault, while pathologically resisting any effort to part him with a dime. This miser image was displayed in every show and developed in almost every joke, until no American could have been unaware that Benny was a skinflint.
His stinginess was the tacit explanation for his car, a 1908 Maxwell roadster, always on the verge of death. When Rochester, as chauffeur, would suggest Jack acquire a new car, he always insisted on coaxing a few more miles out of the Maxwell. The car’s throes of anguish in its brave attempts to start were given voice by the great Mel Blanc.
When Benny encountered a hoodlum demanding cash, the studio audience and every fan at home could see the punchline coming.
Jack was a master of the long pause. Comics to this day rave about Benny’s comic timing.
Audiences, who may not have understood such subtleties, roared.
To boost ratings, Benny and rival comic Fred Allen concocted a feud, which played out on both shows over a period of almost twenty years, until Allen’s sudden death at 61 in 1956. A typical exchange:
Allen: Jack, you couldn’t ad lib a belch after a plate of Hungarian goulash.
Benny: You wouldn’t say that if my writers were here.
But Benny’s writers were there, every Sunday night. And when he moved from radio to television, “audiences learned that his verbal talent was matched by his controlled repertory of dead-pan facial expressions and gesture” (Wikipedia).
A Smooth Transition
Except for that discovery, the transition was seamless. Of all shows that went from radio to TV, Benny’s had the least noticeable format change. The Jack Benny Program on television was exactly what we radio listeners had always seen in our mind’s eye.
Benny trouped on for another fifteen years on television and continued making stage and TV appearances until shortly before his death in 1974.
Audiences gradually learned that Jack’s on-air persona was a carefully constructed myth. In person he was warm and generous. And his devotion to music was real, even if his musical talent was less than stellar.
He donated a Stradivarius violin purchased in 1957 to the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. At the time of the gift, Benny said, “If it isn’t a $30,000 Strad, I’m out $120.”
If you’re interested in a more complete account of the Jack Benny Program, try https://www.wikiwand.com/en/The_Jack_Benny_Program.
Next week: Something completely different. Tune in.
Larry F. Sommers
Your New Favorite Writer
Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation.
Price of Passage
Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois
(History is not what you thought.)