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L E’s Stories – “Well!….If It Isn’t A $30,000 Stradivarius, I’m Out $120” – Reflections Of Jack Benny: “The Undisputed Master Of Comedic Timing”

During the years from 1932 to 1974, at the top of the ladder of the most popular comedians and entertainers from radio and television was Jack Benny….who was considered to be the “undisputed master of comedic timing”…..as a man who could make people laugh without ever delivering a punch line to a joke….but more simply with a look and dead-pan reaction…. so, his weekly show program was a family favorite around Bone Daddy’s household….and albeit, he wasn’t BD’s favorite comedian, that was reserved for the likes of Uncle Milty (Milton Berle), Bob Hope and George Burns & Gracie Allen….but he always enjoyed watching The Jack Benny Show with his family….so, this story dedicated to Jack Benny is justly deserved here at ImaSportsphile.                                                                                                               

Comedy – 1932 To 1974 – Special – Jack Benny: “Comedy In Bloom” – With Narrator Tommy Smothers

Jack Benny (born Benjamin Kubelsky; February 14, 1894 – December 26, 1974) was an American entertainer….who evolved from a modest success playing violin on the vaudeville circuit to a highly popular comedic career in radio, television and film…..who was known for his comic timing and the ability to cause laughter with a pregnant pause or a single expression…. such as his signature exasperated “Well!”                                                                     

Comedy – 1932 To 1974 – Time Life – The Ultimate Jack Benny Collection                   

His radio and television programs were popular from 1932 until his death in 1974….while being a major influence on the sitcom genre that followed… where Benny often portrayed his character as a “tight wad” miser….who love to cast his comedic spell with his “violin virtuosos”….while garnering the largest laugh from when he made his signature “musical mistakes” while playing his violin….and when asked his age, Benny would always claim to be 39 years of age, no matter what age he really was.                                      

Comedy – 1955 – The Groucho Marx Show – “You Bet Your Life”– With Jack Benny In Disguise                                                                                                                       

Benny began studying violin, an instrument that became his trademark, at the age of 6, his parents hoping for him to become a professional violinist. He loved the instrument, but hated practice. His music teacher was Otto Graham Sr., a neighbor and father of football player Otto Graham. At 14, Benny was playing in dance bands and his high school orchestra. He was a dreamer and poor at his studies, and was ultimately expelled from high school. He later did poorly in business school and at attempts to join his father’s business. In 1911, he began playing the violin in local vaudeville theaters for $7.50 a week (about $210 in 2020 dollars).  He was joined on the circuit by Ned Miller, a young composer and singer.                                                    

Music & Comedy – 1969 – The Liberace Shwo – With Jack Benny + Liberace Playing “Loving You”                                                                                                               

That same year, Benny was playing in the same theater as the young Marx Brothers. Minnie, their mother, enjoyed Benny’s violin playing and invited him to accompany her boys in their act. Benny’s parents refused to let their son go on the road at 17, but it was the beginning of his long friendship with the Marx Brothers, especially Zeppo Marx.                                                                                                                                                                                                        

Comedy – 1964 – The Jack Benny Show – “The Final LeBlanc Sketch” – With Mel Blanc

The next year, Benny formed a vaudeville musical duo with pianist Cora Folsom Salisbury….who needed a partner for her act….which angered famous violinist Jan Kubelik…..who feared that the young vaudevillian with a similar name would damage his reputation…..then under legal pressure, Benjamin Kubelsky agreed to change his name to Ben K. Benny….and when Salisbury left the act, Benny found a new pianist, Lyman Woods, and renamed the act “From Grand Opera to Ragtime.”  They worked together for five years and slowly integrated comedy elements into the show…..when they reached the Palace Theater….which was the “Mecca of Vaudeville”…. but they did not do well.  Benny left show business briefly in 1917 to join the United States Navy during World War I….and often entertained the sailors with his violin playing….when one evening, his violin performance was booed by the sailors….then, with prompting from fellow sailor and actor Pat O’Brien, he ad-libbed his way out of the jam….while leaving his audience laughing.  He received more comedy spots in the revues and did well…. while earning a reputation as a comedian and musician.

 

Music & Comedy – 1960 – The Jack Benny Program – Violin Duet With Toni – “Getting To Know You”                                                                                                    

Shortly after the war, Benny developed a one-man act, “Ben K. Benny: Fiddle Funology”.  He then received legal pressure from Ben Bernie, a “patter-and-fiddle” performer, regarding his name, so he adopted the sailor’s nickname of Jack. By 1921, the fiddle was more of a prop, and the low-key comedy took over for Jack Benny.

 

Comedy – 1964 – The Jack Benny Program – “How Jack Met George Burns”        

In 1922, Benny accompanied Zeppo Marx to a Passover Seder in Vancouver at the residence where he met 17-year-old Sadie Marks….whose family was friends with, but not related to, the Marx family….as their 1st meeting did not go well….when he tried to leave during Sadie’s violin performance….but they met again in 1926…..albeit Jack did not remembered their earlier meeting and instantly fell for her….when they married the following year….for she was working in the hosiery section of the Hollywood Boulevard branch of the May Company…..where Benny courted her…..and called on her to fill in for the “dumb girl” part in a Benny routine…..when Sadie proved to be a natural comedienne…..so, adopting the stage name Mary Livingstone, Sadie collaborated with Benny throughout most of his career.  

 

Comedy – 1955 – The Jack Benny Program – “Preparing For New York Trip”             

In 1929, Benny’s agent, Sam Lyons, convinced Irving Thalberg, an American film producer at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, to watch Benny at the Orpheum Theatre in Los Angeles….after which, Benny signed a five-year contract with MGM….where his first role was in The Hollywood Revue of 1929….which did just fairly well….with the next film, Chasing Rainbows, not doing so well…. and after several months Benny was released from his contract….and he returned to Broadway in Earl Carroll’s Vanities.  At first dubious about the viability of radio, Benny grew eager to break into the new medium….so, in 1932, after a four-week nightclub run, he was invited onto Ed Sullivan’s radio program, uttering his first radio spiel “This is Jack Benny talking. There will be a slight pause while you say, ‘Who cares?’…”                                                                                                                                                                           

Comedy – 1956 – The Jack Benny Show – “How Jack Met Rochester”                       

Benny had been a minor vaudeville performer before becoming a national figure with The Jack Benny Program, a weekly radio show that ran from 1932 to 1948 on NBC and from 1949 to 1955 on CBS. It was among the most highly rated programs during its run.  I remember Bone Daddy’s grandmother Gee Gee telling me how she and Grandpa Ernest used to sit around the radio in the sitting room of their house to listen to The Jack Benny Program….and BD says that he still has memories of hearing laughter in the coming from the sitting room at night after being put to bed before the radio broadcast started.                                                                                 

Comedy – 1932 To 1974 – The Paul Harvey Archives Special – The Jack Benny Story – Part 1 – Narrated by Tom Read                                                               

Benny’s long radio career began on April 6, 1932….when the NBC Commercial Program Department auditioned him for the N. W. Ayer & Son agency and their client, Canada Dry….after which Bertha Brainard, head of the division, said….“We think Mr. Benny is excellent for radio and, while the audition was unassisted as far as orchestra was concerned, we believe he would make a great bet for an air program.”  Recalling the experience in 1956, Benny said Ed Sullivan had invited him to guest on his program in 1932…..and “the agency for Canada Dry ginger ale heard me and offered me a job.”                                                                                                                                        

Comedy – 1932 To 1974 – The Paul Harvey Archives Special – The Jack Benny Story – Part 2 – Narrated by Tom Read                                                             

With Canada Dry ginger ale as a sponsor, Benny came to radio on The Canada Dry Program, on May 2, 1932, broadcast on Mondays and Wednesdays on the NBC Blue Network, featuring George Olsen and his orchestra. After a few shows, Benny hired Harry Conn as writer. The show continued on Blue for six months until October 26, moving to CBS on October 30, now airing Thursdays and Sundays. With Ted Weems leading the band, Benny stayed on CBS until January 26, 1933, when Canada Dry opted not to renew Benny’s contract after it attempted to replace Conn with Sid Silvers, who would have also gotten a co-starring role. Unlike later incarnations of the Benny show, The Canada Dry Program was primarily a musical program.

 

Comedy – 1932 To 1974 – The Paul Harvey Archives Special – The Jack Benny Story – Part 3 – Narrated by Tom Read                                                              

Benny then appeared on The Chevrolet Program, airing on the NBC Red Network between March 17, 1933 until April 1, 1934, initially airing on Fridays (replacing Al Jolson), moving to Sunday nights in the fall. The show, which featured Benny and Livingstone alongside Frank Black’s orchestra and vocalists James Melton and (later) Frank Parker, ended after General Motors’ president insisted on a musical program. He continued with sponsor General Tire on Fridays through the end of September.                              

Comedy – 1948 -The Jack Benny Radio Hour – “Jack’s 10 Longest Laughs”                 

The show switched networks to CBS on January 2, 1949, as part of CBS president William S. Paley’s notorious “raid” on NBC talent in 1948–1949. It stayed there for the remainder of its radio run, ending on May 22, 1955…. and CBS aired repeat episodes from 1956 to 1958 as The Best of Benny.                                                                                                                                                          

Comedy – 1960 – The Jack Benny Program – “Christmas Shopping”                           

Comedy & Entertainment – 1964 – The Jack Benny Show – With Pete, Paul + Mary – “The Answer Is Blowing In The Wind”                                         

On March 28, 1954, Benny co-hosted General Foods 25th Anniversary Show: A Salute to Rodgers and Hammerstein with Groucho Marx and Mary Martin. In September 1954, CBS premiered Chrysler’s Shower of Stars co-hosted by Jack Benny and William Lundigan. It enjoyed a successful run from 1954 until 1958. Both television shows often overlapped the radio show. In fact, the radio show alluded frequently to its television counterparts. Often as not, Benny would sign off the radio show in such circumstances with the line “Well, good night, folks. I’ll see you on television.”                                                  

Comedy – 1959 – The Jack Benny Program – “Mr. and Mrs. Jimmy Stewart Show”                                                                                                                                           

When Benny moved to television, audiences learned that his verbal talent was matched by his controlled repertory of dead-pan facial expressions and gesture. The program was similar to the radio show (several of the radio scripts were recycled for television, as was somewhat common with other radio shows that moved to television), but with the addition of visual gags. Lucky Strike was the sponsor. Benny did his opening and closing monologues before a live audience, which he regarded as essential to timing of the material. As in other TV comedy shows, a laugh track was added to “sweeten” the soundtrack, as when the studio audience missed some close-up comedy because of cameras or microphones obstructing their view. Television viewers became accustomed to live without Mary Livingstone, who was afflicted by a striking case of stage fright that didn’t lessen even after performing with Benny for 20 years. Hence, Livingstone appeared rarely if at all on the television show. In fact, for the last few years of the radio show, she pre-recorded her lines and Jack and Mary’s daughter, Joan, stood in for the live taping, with Mary’s lines later edited into the tape replacing Joan’s before broadcast. Mary Livingstone finally retired from show business permanently in 1958, as her friend Gracie Allen had done.                                                                                                                                                

Comedy – 1954 – The George Burns & Gracie Allen Show – With Guest Jack Benny                                                                                                                               

Benny’s television program relied more on guest stars and less on his regulars than his radio program.  In fact, the only radio cast members who appeared regularly on the television program as well were Don Wilson and Eddie Anderson. Day appeared sporadically, and Harris had left the radio program in 1952, although he did make a guest appearance on the television show (Bob Crosby, Phil’s “replacement”, frequently appeared on television through 1956). A frequent guest was the Canadian-born singer-violinist  Gisele Mackenzie.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              

Comedy & Entertainment – 1963 – The Merve Griffin Show – With Gisele MacKensie + Mel Blanc Pay Tribute To Jack Benny                                                        

As a gag, Benny made a 1957 appearance on the then-wildly popular $64,000 Question. His category of choice was “Violins”, but after answering the first question correctly Benny opted out of continuing, leaving the show with just $64; host Hal March gave Benny the prize money out of his own pocket. March made an appearance on Benny’s show the same year.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          

Comedy – 1953 – The Jack Benny Television Show – With Guest Humphrey Bogart                                                                                                                                        

Benny was able to attract guests who rarely, if ever, appeared on television. In 1953, both Marilyn Monroe and Humphrey Bogart made their television debuts on Benny’s program.   Another guest star on the Jack Benny show was Rod Serling…..who starred in a spoof of The Twilight Zone in which Benny goes to his own house…..and finds that no one knows who he is.                                                                                                                                                   

Comedy – 1953 – The Jack Benny Television Show – With Guest Marilyn Monroe                                                                                                                              

Canadian singer Gisele MacKenzie….who toured with Benny in the early 1950’s…..and guest starred seven times on The Jack Benny Program…..as Benny was so impressed with MacKenzie’s talents that he served as co-executive producer and guest starred on her 1957–1958 NBC variety show, The Gisele MacKenzie Show.

 

Comedy – 1957 – The Gisele MacKensie Show – With Jack Benny – “Live At The Flamingo Hotel In Las Vegas”                                                                                    

In 1964, Walt Disney was a guest, primarily to promote his production of Mary Poppins. Benny persuaded Disney to give him over 110 free admission tickets to Disneyland for his friends and one for his wife, but later in the show Disney apparently sent his pet tiger after Benny as revenge, at which point Benny opened his umbrella and soared above the stage like Mary Poppins.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  

Comedy – 1965 – The Jack Benny Program – With Guest Walt Disney                       

In due course the ratings game finally got to Benny, too. CBS dropped the show in 1964, citing Benny’s lack of appeal to the younger demographic the network began courting, and he went to NBC, his original network, in the fall, only to be out-rated by CBS’s Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. The network dropped Benny at the end of the season. He continued to make occasional specials into the 1970s, the last one airing in January 1974.                                                   

Comedy – 1965 – The jack Benny Program – Final Episode – With The Smothers Brothers                                                                                                        

In his unpublished autobiography, I Always Had Shoes (portions of which were later incorporated by Jack’s daughter, Joan Benny, into her memoir of her parents, Sunday Nights at Seven), Benny said that he, not NBC, made the decision to end his TV series in 1965. He said that while the ratings were still very good (he cited a figure of some 18 million viewers per week, although he qualified that figure by saying he never believed the ratings services were doing anything more than guessing, no matter what they promised), advertisers were complaining that commercial time on his show was costing nearly twice as much as what they paid for most other shows, and he had grown tired of what was called the “rate race”. Thus, after some three decades on radio and television in a weekly program, Jack Benny went out on top. In fairness, Benny himself shared Fred Allen’s ambivalence about television, though not quite to Allen’s extent. “By my second year in television, I saw that the camera was a man-eating monster … It gave a performer close-up exposure that, week after week, threatened his existence as an interesting entertainer.”                                                                                             

Comedy – 1963 – The Jack Benny Program – The Rod Serling Show – “Twilight Zone”

In a joint appearance with Phil Silvers on Dick Cavett’s show, Benny recalled that he had advised Silvers not to appear on television. However, Silvers ignored Benny’s advice and proceeded to win several Emmy awards as Sergeant Bilko on the popular series The Phil Silvers Show.

 

Comedy – 1962 – The Jack Benny Program – “The Phil Silvers Show”                      

Benny also acted in films, including the Academy Award-winning The Hollywood Revue of 1929…..Broadway Melody of 1936 (as a benign nemesis for Eleanor Powell and Robert Taylor)….George Washington Slept Here  1942….and notably, Charley’s Aunt in 1941….plus, To Be or Not to Be in 1942).  He and Livingstone also appeared in Ed Sullivan’s Mr. Broadway in 1933 as themselves.  Benny often parodied contemporary films and genres on the radio program….and the 1940 film Buck Benny Rides Again features all the main radio characters in a funny Western parody adapted from program skits….in fact, the failure of one cinematic Benny vehicle, The Horn Blows at Midnight, became a running gag on his radio and television programs….albeit contemporary viewers may not find the film as disappointing as the jokes suggest.                                                                                                                          

Comedy – 1967 – The Ed Sullivan Show Presents – “Jack Benny Roasts Ed Sullivan On His Show”                                                                                             

Benny may have had an uncredited cameo role in Casablanca…..which was claimed by a contemporary newspaper article and advertisements….plus it reportedly was in the Casablanca press book.  When asked in his column “Movie Answer Man”, film critic Roger Ebert first replied, “It looks something like him. That’s all I can say.”  He wrote in a later column, “I think you’re right.”

 

Comedy – 1954 – The Jack Benny Program – “The George Burns & Gracie Allen Show When Jack Fills In For Gracie”                                                                

Benny also was caricatured in several Warner Brothers cartoons including Daffy Duck and the Dinosaur in 1939 as Casper the Caveman….I Love to Singa….Slap Happy Pappy….and Goofy Groceries in 1936, 1940 and 1941 respectively, as Jack Bunny….Malibu Beach Party in 1940, as himself….and The Mouse that Jack Built in 1959.  The last of these is probably the most memorable….as Robert McKimson engaged Benny and his actual cast (Mary Livingstone, Eddie Anderson, and Don Wilson) to do the voices for the mouse versions of their characters….with Mel Blanc, the usual Warner Brothers cartoon voicemeister, reprising his old vocal turn as the always-aging Maxwell….which was always a phat-phat-bang! away from collapse.  In the cartoon, Benny and Livingstone agree to spend their anniversary at the Kit-Kat Club…. which they discover the hard way is inside the mouth of a live cat. Before the cat can devour the mice, Benny himself awakens from his dream, then shakes his head, smiles wryly, and mutters, “Imagine, me and Mary as little mice.” Then, he glances toward the cat lying on a throw rug in a corner and sees his and Livingstone’s cartoon alter egos scampering out of the cat’s mouth. The cartoon ends with a classic Benny look of befuddlement. It was rumored that Benny requested that, in lieu of monetary compensation, he receive a copy of the finished film.                                                                                                                                                                 

Comedy & Animation – 1959 – Warner Brothers Looney Tunes – “The Mouse That Jack Built” – Starring Jack Benny + Rochester + Mary Livingston + Don Wilson

Benny made a cameo appearance in It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad WorldAfter his broadcasting career ended, Benny performed live as a standup comedian.  In the 1960;s Benny was the headlining act at Harrah’s Lake Tahoe with performer Harry James, and Vocalist Ray Vasquez.                                                                                                                                                                  

Music & Comedy – 1961 – Jack Benny Honored At Carnegie Hall – With Isaac Stern & The Philadelphia Philharmonic Orchestra                                                                

Benny made one of his final television appearances on January 23, 1974, as a guest on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, the day before his final television special aired. Benny was preparing to star in the film version of Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys when his health failed later the same year. He prevailed upon his longtime best friend, George Burns, to take his place on a nightclub tour while preparing for the film. Burns ultimately had to replace Benny in the film as well and went on to win an Academy Award for his performance.

 

Comedy – 1958 – The Jack Benny Program – “The Gary Cooper Show”

Despite his failing health, Benny made several appearances on The Dean Martin Celebrity Roast in his final 18 months, roasting Ronald Reagan, Johnny Carson, Bob Hope and Lucille Ball, in addition to himself being roasted in February 1974.  The Lucille Ball roast, his last public performance, aired on February 7, 1975, several weeks after his death.

 

Comedy – 1963 – The Lucy Show – “Lucille Ball Gets Jack Benny’s Bank Account”                 

In October 1974, Benny cancelled a performance in Dallas after suffering a dizzy spell, coupled with numbness in his arms. Despite a battery of tests, Benny’s ailment could not be determined. When he complained of stomach pains in early December, a first test showed nothing, but a subsequent examination showed that he had inoperable pancreatic cancer. Benny went into a coma at home on December 22, 1974.  While in a coma, he was visited by close friends including George Burns, Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, Johnny Carson, John Rowles and then Governor Ronald Reagan. He died on December 26, 1974, at age 80. At the funeral, Burns, Benny’s best friend for more than fifty years, attempted to deliver a eulogy but broke down shortly after he began and was unable to continue. Hope also delivered a eulogy in which he stated, “For a man who was the undisputed master of comedic timing, you would have to say this is the only time when Jack Benny’s timing was all wrong. He left us much too soon.” Benny was interred in a crypt at Hillside Memorial Park Cemetery in Culver City, California.  His will arranged for a single long-stemmed red rose to be delivered to his widow, Mary Livingstone, every day for the rest of her life.  Livingstone died eight and-a-half years later on June 30, 1983, at the age of 78.

 

Comedy – 1961 – The Jack Benny Program – “Jack Plays Golf”

In trying to explain his successful life, Benny summed it up by stating…. “Everything good that happened to me happened by accident. I was not filled with ambition nor fired by a drive toward a clear-cut goal. I never knew exactly where I was going.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                             

Comedy – 1974 – Special – George Burns + Bob Hope + Johnny Carson Present – “A Love Letter To Jack Benny”

Upon his death, Benny’s family donated his personal, professional and business papers, as well as a collection of his television shows, to UCLA. The university established the Jack Benny Award for Comedy in his honor in 1977 to recognize outstanding people in the field of comedy. Johnny Carson was the first award recipient.  Benny also donated a Stradivarius violin (purchased in 1957) to the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra.   Benny had commented, “If it isn’t a $30,000 Strad, I’m out $120.”

 

Comedy – 1963 – The Jack Benny Program – “George Jessel/Amateur Night”   

In 1960, Benny was inducted into the Hollywood Walk of Fame with three stars. His stars for television and motion pictures are located at 6370 and 6650 Hollywood Boulevard, respectively, and at 1505 Vine Street for radio. He was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame in 1988 and the National Radio Hall of Fame in 1989.  He was also inducted into the Broadcasting and Cable Hall of Fame.                                                                          

Comedy & Music – 2017 – Ukulele Ray Live At Felicita Vida Senior Living in Escondido – Perorming “Forever 39 Routine Of Jack Benny + Eddie Cantor”

In the video above, performer Ukulele Ray says of the performance hat he has been doing the legendary comedians, Jack Benny and Eddie Cantor since I was a kid!…..while further expressing how awesome it is for him when he has an audience that is mature enough, to appreciate these greats….which speaks to the greatness of Jack Benny…..cuz here is a 30 something young man entertaining 80 something folks at a senior living facility….and his routine and music that he performed was originally done by Jack Benny and Eddie Cantor some 90 years ago…..while it is enjoyed by everyone…..now, that is GREATNESS!!!                                                                        

Comedy & Music – 1939 – Jack Benny + Gisele MacKenzie  Violin Duet – “Getting To Know You”                                                                                                     

While posting this story about the Master of Comedic Timing, I ran across a comment that very simply expresses our feelings about the comedy and entertainment from early beginnings of television and movies as compared to what we have to choose from in 2021…..as written by Ellison Hamilton when he wrote “Gisele Mackensie sang and danced….while playing the violin and piano superbly.  She had her own hit TV program for several years.  Sadly, she is all but forgotten now.  She and Mr. Benny became close friends until his death in 1974.  I really miss having talented people like these two on television.  Most of what we see today is complete trash, featuring actors and performers with little to no talent. Television’s best days are long over.  Anyway, this video was a pleasure to watch.  Mr Benny still cracks me up!!”

 

Comedy – 1962 – The Jack Benny Program – “The Bob Hope Show”

 

 

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