Sunday, January 12, 2014

Old-Time Radio Spotlight: The Jack Benny Show

jacknbcmikeNow, on to yet another new feature for Random Acts of Geekery, in which I write about different Old-Time Radio shows. I first got interested in OTR (as it's often abbreviated) at a fairly early age, as my parents bought a few record albums of shows back in the early 1970s to share with my siblings and I. The first ones we listened to were The Chase and Sanborn Show starring Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy and The Abbott and Costello Show. This was followed by listening to some of the broadcasts that used to be aired daily by one of the local radio stations, but it wasn't enough to me.

Fortunately, I was able to check out cassette tapes of OTR shows from the Swasey Library, which I'm sure I've mentioned before was just a few blocks from the house I spent most of my childhood in. Among the tapes I could check out were a few episodes of The Jack Benny Show, which I greatly enjoyed listening to. One episode in particular I recall featured a parody of Casablanca, which I wouldn't see the original film of for decades!

I knew of Jack Benny before, from his annual TV specials, which I'd watch with my family. I was too young, unfortunately, to stay up late to watch his appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, although I've seen a few clips here and there.

While Jack was funny on those specials, it wasn't the same as the old radio shows I started listening to. As time has gone by, I've listened to more and more of the old radio shows, and even managed to find some of his earlier TV shows (based on his radio show) on VHS and later, DVD, and watch and enjoyed those as well. This, naturally, led me to buying and reading at least two different books on Jack's life (neither of which, unfortunately, are in my collection these days... I must see about replacing them sometime!).

Jack's radio career, at least with his own show, began on the NBC Blue Network (they had two at the time, eventually they had to sell off one of their networks, which became ABC) on May 2, 1932. By October 30 of that year, his show had moved to CBS, where it would stay until January 26 of 1933. After a few months off, it resumed on the NBC Red Network on March 3, switching to the Blue Network with the October 14, 1934 episode, then back to the Red Network on October 10, 1936. Starting with the 1949 episodes, Jack's program moved to CBS, where it stayed until the last episode aired on May 22, 1955.

Among the sponsors of the show were Canada Dry, Chevrolet, General Tire, Jell-O, Grape Nuts, and Lucky Strikes. Jell-O was a new product when they started sponsoring the radio show, and thanks to the humorous advertising (back then, radio shows would often make the commercials part of the show... in this case, it would be Don Wilson, the announcer, who would start talking about Jell-O in the middle of a sketch, with the first commercial coming during the opening number played by the band. Jell-O owes its success to the show, and at one point, it was flying off the shelves faster than it could be manufactured and shipped!

jack_and_gang
On the program, Jack was the main character, portrayed as a vain miser, always claiming to be 39, and playing the violin badly. Most of the jokes were at Jack's expense, with the punchlines going to the other cast members. A lot of comedians on the radio wouldn't put up with this, but Jack knew that this just made his show funnier, and would keep the audience coming back for more every week. Jack's sense of timing was impeccable, and he inspired comedians after him, among them Johnny Carson, especially when it came to pauses. Jack could get more laughs from his pauses than some radio comics could make with their jokes! His catch-phrases on the show were “Well...” or “Well!” (often said when someone caught him in a lie, or a situation caught him by surprise) and “Now cut that out!” (said when things were getting out of control, and he was trying to regain control of the show).

Eddie Anderson played Rochester Van Jones, Jack's valet and chauffeur. He wasn't one of the original cast members of the show. He'd been performing in vaudeville, films and radio since the early 1930s, and made his first appearance on the show in 1937, originally as a porter on a train who didn't put up with anything from Jack, followed by other occasional roles on the show. The response to his appearances led them to bring him back on a regular basis, and he continued playing Rochester when the show moved to television. Rochester's gravelly voice was instantly recognizable, and he may have been the strongest role portrayed by a black person on radio, because he did not put up with Jack's vanity at all; in addition, he was the first black to have a regular role on a nationwide radio program. The most popular black characters on radio up to that point were the characters on Amos 'n Andy, and they were played by white men!

Don Wilson was the announcer on all episodes of the show, and his broad voice was also quite distinctive. He would open the show by announcing the cast, then the band would play their opening number, during which he'd do the first commercial. Afterward, he'd introduce Jack (except in those episodes Jack wasn't on immediately), and there'd be some byplay between them. Jack's jokes on the show often targeted Don, especially about his weight. Don would do much more than announce, playing characters during skits and the like.

Dennis Day played himself on the program, as the show's tenor singer in most of the episodes. No matter his real age, he acted as if he was in his early 20s, sweet but not very bright. About 10 minutes into each episode, Dennis would sing his song, usually preceded by some comedy bit with Jack and/or other cast members. Dennis was also talented with accents, which came in handy during skits. A recurring role (sometimes not seen or heard, just referred to) was Dennis' mother, who was always out to have Dennis get paid more and do more on the show.

Mary Livingstone was played by the former Sadie Marks, who changed her name legally thanks to the character's popularity. She was Jack's wife in real life, but her role on the show was as a friend to Jack. Mary first appeared on the show by accident; a role had been written for Jack's biggest fan, and the actress who was to play the part didn't show, and Sadie was recruited on the spot. This role was in two episodes in a row, but as would later happen with Rochester, Mary Livingstone turned out to be so popular that she was brought back, going from fan to secretary-foil. Sarcastic and wisecracking, when Jack would start bragging too much about some accomplishment or the like, she'd burst out with an “Oh, shut up!” that would achieve that goal! Her laugh was infectious, and would often cause the audience to laugh as well. In real-life, Mary was nervous about performing, but you could never tell from the show, where her timing was pitch-perfect. A regular bit for her on the show was to read aloud a supposed letter from her mother, which would often tell comical stories about Mary's sister Babe (she really had a sister named Babe, but the stories had nothing to do with real life). Mary's mother always wanted her to quit the show. Some of the famous incidents on the show with Mary occurred when she'd deliver a flubbed line, often as a malapropism. The most famous of these were when she said “chiss sweese” instead of “swiss cheese,” “grass reek” instead of “grease rack,” and even referring to Drew Pearson as “Drear Pooson” (the latter fluff was quickly incorporated into the script as the show was live, with a different character's line changed to, “Who did you think I was, Drear Pooson?”).

Phil Harris played himself, he was the real bandleader for the show's orchestra. He was portrayed as a skirt-chasing, arrogant, hip talker who called Mary “Livvy” or “Liv,” and Jack “Jackson.” He left the show in 1952, not making the transition to television. He'd occasionally sing on the show as well.

Mel Blanc was a Jack of all trades, providing the voices of Carmichael the Polar Bear (who guarded Jack's money vault), Professor Pierre LeBlanc (Jack's violin teacher), Sy the Mexican, Jack's parrot Polly, many other assorted voices, and provided the sound for Jack's legendary, if temperamental, Maxwell automobile (improvised live, on the spot, when the recording that had been prepared didn't work). Another of his famous characters on the show would be the train announcer whenever the plot of the episode had the cast taking a train somewhere. Always, the announcer would announce, “Train leaving on Track five for Anaheim, Azusa and Cuc---amonga.” Sometimes the first two towns would be different, but Cucamonga was always there. As the show went on, the space between the first syllable and the rest of the word was longer and longer, getting bigger laughs every time, and once, several minutes went by between them, bringing a huge laugh!

Other regular cast members included: Frank Nelson, the “Yeeeeeee-essss?” man, a clerk Jack kept encountering, whether at a store, ticket window, etc. Sheldon Leonard was a racetrack tout (originally played by Benny Rubin) who kept offering Jack unsolicited advice about everything, even if it had nothing to do with horse-racing. Leonard also played a stick-up man in what is regarded as the biggest laugh the show ever got, when he held up Jack and demanded, “Your money or your life!” Jack didn't respond for some time, causing Leonard to say, “Well?!?” and Jack responding, “I'm thinking it over!” Joseph Kearns played Ed, the security guard for Jack's money vault, allegedly guarding it for years and years (the start of his job varied from the founding of Los Angeles to when Jack turned 38). There were a number of other characters on the show who recurred as well.

The format of the show was pretty much set in stone, rarely varying. The show would open with a song by the orchestra, banter between Jack and Don Wilson, then bits with the other characters, often incorporating running gags, then a song by Dennis (or his predecessor, Kenny Baker – no relation to the actor who was R2-D2 on Star Wars), then the situation comedy bit, often a parody of a current movie or a mini-play. On those rare occasions the show format varied, it was usually in the form of a domestic sitcom, portraying something that was supposed to have happened in the past week, or trying to prepare for the show the audience was then hearing.

One famous aspect of Jack's show was the rivalry between himself and Fred Allen. I believe it started with Fred making a joke on his show about something that was mentioned on Jack's previous show (I know one episode had it as Fred doubting Jack could play “Flight of the Bumblebee” on the violin, Wikipedia says it started when a child prodigy played on Allen's show, and Allen said “a certain alleged violinist” should hide in shame over his poor playing), and Jack reacted in the following week's episode. Fred's jokes would often be about the same character foibles that Jack's cast members would joke about, while Jack would often make fun of Fred's age, as well as his nasal voice (Jack could do a pretty fair imitation of Fred Allen). This led to each of them appearing on each other's programs, and there was even a boxing match held between them (not that it was taken seriously at all). Rochester even guested on at least one episode of Allen's program. The pair co-starred in a few movies together.

Jack remains one of my favorite comedians of all time, and The Jack Benny Program, whatever it was called over the years, one of my favorite radio shows. An impressive number of the episodes are available for download on the internet, although the sound quality is rather poor on the earliest ones. That's not necessarily a bad thing, as the earliest episodes are not nearly as funny as the later ones, as the show's format and characters got more settled in place. While the show never hit the number one spot on radio, I still consider it to be one of the all-time great shows of Old Time Radio. If you've never heard the show, I recommend you check it out, you'll be in for a treat!

You can download episodes at http://otr.net/?p=jbny and http://archive.org/details/JackBenny1 – there are over 600 episodes on the first site, and about 143 at the latter. 

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