Friday, October 12, 2012

Old Time Radio: The Jack Benny Show

A few months ago I got tired of my usual radio station and started going through the dial. I stumbled across some swing and stayed on the station. When I came back from the kitchen 10 minutes later, I heard the voice of jimmy Stewart and sat on my bed to listen. The announcer on he show said Stewart was doing a version of his movie bend in river. It was really funny and I just had to stick around and find out what I was listening to. It was an episode of the Jack Benny Program on WBAI's Golden Age of Radio program (7-9pm for the New Yorkers that want to listen).

I haven't been able to tune in many Sundays but I went on a search and started listening to more episodes through a podcast. I can now say I'm obsessed with Jack Benny. His radio show, which ran for about 30 years was witty. I can see why people tuned in every week. After a while jack, Mary, Phil and the whole gang start to feel like family.



Jack Benny (born Benjamin Kubelsky) started his career as a vaudeville performer and in 1932 got the job hosting the Canada Dry Ginger Ale  program. In that very first episode he jokes, "I really don't know why I'm here. I'm supposed to be a sort of master of ceremonies and tell you all the things that are going to happen, which would happen anyway. I must introduce the different artists, who could easily introduce themselves, and also tell you about the Canada Dry made-to-order, which is a waste of time because you already know all about it. So ladies and gentlemen, a master of ceremonies is really a fellow who is unemployed and gets paid for it." His self-deprecating humor won him an audience and soon the show became The Jack Benny Program (sponsored by Canada Dry Ginger Ale).

Even as film was taking off, Benny stuck to his vaudeville roots. Part of that tradition is the minstrel show and the use of stock characters like the greedy Jew. Schlepperman (voiced by Sam Hearn) is a recurring character, the heavily-accented guy who runs all sorts of odd businesses to make a quick buck In one episode Schlep, as he's affectionately called, opens a Chinese restaurant--and serves herring (I had no idea the Jews and Chinese food thing went back so long).

Rochester is a character that appears a few years into the show. He's Jack's black butler, a good time guy who, duh, spends his wages on dice and swipes jacks suits. But even Rochester, who thank God was played by Eddie Anderson, an actual black actor unlike Amos and Andy who were white actors, got in plenty of jokes at Jack's expense. According to black-face.com, Anderson was the highest paid black actor in Hollywood in 1942 at $100,000 year. I can't say I object to all the racially-charged humor. I was tickled by a joke on an early Easter episode: "I went up to Harlem to find some colored eggs."

Benny's personae was, oddly, the butt of a lot of the shows jokes. He was a cheapskate and a bit of a social climber, who was constantly in competition with fellow radio comedian Fred Allen. Benny's bandleader teased him about not being able to get women and the terrible movies he made. In real life, Benny's movies did really well and he was actually quite chummy with the guest stars (like Jimmy Stewart and Robert Taylor) that made fun of him on the show. True, He wasn't much of a ladies man, but maybe that was because he was married to his costar Mary Livingstone, pronounced Livingston. Mary ribbed Jack mercilessly, sang a song here and there, and read hilariously bad poetry on air. Sadly, Sadie Marks, the actress who later changed her name legally to Mary Livingstone because of her character's popularity, was so painfully shy she couldn't enjoy her success. Her stage fright was so severe (the shows were recorded in front of live audiences) they started recording her lines ahead of time.

Benny assembled a great cast of comedians and singer/comedians who went on to be radio and film stars in their own right. The show ran for more than 30 years and even made the transition to television. I've found about 150 episodes of the show on iTunes and I've listened to 70 because they're really quite funny. Listen for yourself at archives.org.


3 comments:

  1. Thanks for educating me. I am now interested on learning more about Benny. I love learning about topics like this.

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  2. What a wealth of information! I've heard of Jack Benny for years but didn't know too much about him or his show. Now I do!
    Marissa

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  3. From the time imagination was king! Loved the background info and the shows. Thanks for the reminder.

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Thanks so much for your comments!