Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The 80th Anniversary of The Jack Benny Program

It was 80 years ago today that The Jack Benny Program, colloquially known as The Jack Benny Show, debuted on radio on the NBC Blue network under the title The Canada Dry Program.  It would go onto become one of the best known comedy series of all time. Indeed, between its run on radio and its run on television, The Jack Benny Program would run 33 years.

At the centre of The Jack Benny Program was Jack Benny himself. Jack Benny was born  Benjamin Kubelsky in Chicago on 14 Feburary 1894. His parents, both immigrants to the United States (his father was from Poland, while his mother was from Lithuania) had high hopes for young Benjamin. He was only six when he began studying the violin; his parents hoped that one day could become a great classical violinist. Contrary to the portrayal on his television show, Benjamin Kubelsky was indeed a very good violinist. When he was 14 not only was he playing the instrument in the high school orchestra, but in local dance bands as well. By age 17 he was playing violin in vaudeville theatres. Indeed, he was good enough that Minnie Marx, mother and manager of The Marx Brothers, wanted to hire him as their permanent accompanist. Young Benjamin's parents vetoed the idea, as they did not want him travelling on the road.

It was in 1912 that Benjamin Kebelsky formed a musical duo with vaudeville performer Cora Salisbury. It would be this act that would ultimately lead to young Benjamin adopting the stage name by which he would become famous. Famous composer and violinist Jan Kubelík worried that the young vaudeville violinist could damage his reputation due to the similarities of their last names. Benjamin Kebelsky then adopted the stage name "Ben K. Benny." After serving in the U.S. Navy during World War I, Ben K. Benny returned to performing. It was after the war that he would once more be forced to change his stage name. Famous jazz violinist Ben Bernie thought the stage name "Ben K. Benny" was too similar to his own and threatened to sue. Ben E. Benny then became Jack Benny.

It was in 1922 that Jack Benny joined Zeppo Marx at a Passover feast. It was there that he met Sadie Marks. Miss Marks would sometimes take part in Jack's routines, although she did not seriously consider a career in entertainment. The two were married in 1927. She would eventually become Jack's collaborator after the debut of The Jack Benny Program.  An early episode of the show called for a character named "Mary Livingstone," who was supposed to be Jack Benny's biggest fan. The actress to perform the role did not show up, so Jack simply called his wife and asked her to do the part. Mary Livingstone was only meant to appear for that one episode, but NBC Blue received so much mail that the character became a permanent part of the show. Sadie Marks then became Mary Livingstone.

In 1929 Irving Thalberg, MGM's head of production, watched Jack Benny at the Orpheum Theatre in Los Angeles, California at the behest of Jack's agent Sam Lyons. He made his film debut in The Hollywood Revue of 1929. Unfortunately, Jack's early film career would not be a roaring success and MGM eventually released him from his contract. While Jack Benny would go onto make movies, it was only after radio made him a star.

It was on 29 March 1932 that Jack Benny made a guest appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show (related only to the later TV Show of the same name in that it shared the same host).  The guest spot proved successful enough that on 6 Apirl 1932 NBC's Commercial Program Department held an audition for Jack Benny with the advertising agency N. W. Ayer and its client Canada Dry. Both N. W. Ayer and Canada Dry liked Jack Benny, so that on 2 May 1932 The Canada Dry Program made its debut. In its early days The Jack Benny Program would change sponsors and even networks. On 30 October 1932 The Canada Dry Program moved to CBS, where it remained until 26 January 1933. On 17 March 1933 The Jack Benny Program returned as The Chevrolet Program on NBC, lasting until 1 April 1934. While Jack Benny would remain with NBC for the next several years, he would continue to change sponsors. From 1934 to 1942 The Jack Benny Program was The Jell-O Program Starring Jack Benny and then The Grape Nuts Flakes Program Starring Jack Benny, the sponsor in both instances being General Foods. In 1944 American Tobacco Company became the show's sponsor, so that its name became The Lucky Strike Program Starring Jack Benny. Of course, eventually the practice of including a sponsor's name in the title of radio and television would die out, so that the show would become The Jack Benny Program. As it is, it has been informally called The Jack Benny Show for years.

Regardless of its sponsor or its title, The Jack Benny Show would prove to be one of the most successful radio shows of all time. Originally the show was a sketch comedy program with musical interludes, but it evolved into its familiar sitcom format in only a few years of its debut. While on the show, Jack Benny played "Jack Benny," his character was nothing like him in real life. In his years in vaudeville and over the years on radio, Jack Benny developed the role of a skinflint who was self absorbed, self congratulatory, and incredibly vain. He would continue to insist that he was only 39, even when it was obvious he was older. And despite years of practice, he played the violin horribly. Many running jokes dealt with Jack Benny's penny pinching. He continued to drive an ancient Maxwell because he refused to buy a new car. His safe was equipped with numerous different alarms.

Jack Benny also had a long running on air "feud" with fellow comedian Fred Allen. For literally years the two would exchange barbs on their respective shows. The feud would spill over into shows on which they guest starred and even into movies on which they appeared. Although the insults Jack Benny and Fred Allen delivered each other could be extreme, in fact the two were very close friends.

Here it must be pointed out that while Jack Benny was the star of The Jack Benny Program, the show had one of the best and largest ensembles in the history of radio or television. Jack's wife, Mary Livingstone, formed a part of the ensemble from the earliest years. While Mary was Jack's wife in real life, on the show her status with Jack was a bit more amorphous. While she was sometimes Jack's date and even a love interest on the show, Mary was never his steady girlfriend. Played as "dumb" in her first appearance, Mary would become a wisecracking foil to Jack Benny, with Jack more often than not the target of her jokes. Don Wilson was the show's announcer, abut whose weight Jack often joked. Dennis Day was the show's singer. His character was perpetually in his twenties and rather naive.

While Mary Livingstone, Don Wilson, and Dennis Day appeared in most of the episodes of The Jack Benny Program at its height, the show also boasted a number of performers in recurring roles. Perhaps the most notable was voice artist Mel Blanc. Mel Blanc played Jack's long suffering violin teacher Professor Pierre LeBlanc, Chuck the Plumber, the voice of Jack's parrot Polly, and assorted other characters. He even provided the sounds of Jack's old Maxwell automobile! Character actor Frank Nelson appeared on the show as various hotel clerks, waiters, store clerks, and so on. When Jack would try to get the attention of one of the characters played by Frank Nelson, he would invariably reply "Yeeeeeeeeesssss?" Frank Nelson would play the same role on many other shows, from I Love Lucy to Sanford & Son. Sheldon Leonard played "The Tout,"  a racetrack tout who would give Jack unsolicited advice on every subject under the sun except horse racing.

There were several other recurring characters on The Jack Benny Show throughout the years, but by far the most popular character on the show was one of the regulars. Indeed, Jack Benny's valet, chauffeur, and butler Rochester, played by the great Eddie Anderson, may well have been more popular than Jack Benny himself.  Eddie Anderson first appeared on the show on 28 March 1937 in a guest appearance as Pullman porter. Audience response to Eddie Anderson resulted in his return to the show until he was cast as Rochester Van Jones, Jack Benny's valet, butler, and chauffeur. Eddie Anderson then became the first African American to have a regular role on a radio show.

In Rochester's earliest appearances the character was a bit of a stereotype, but over the years any humour based on Rochester's race disappeared from the show. This was a conscious choice on the part of Jack Benny and his writing staff, who during World War II came to feel that racial humour was more offensive than funny. Indeed, Rochester became less a stereotypical black servant and more the archetypal servant who is smarter than his employer, not unlike Jeeves or Ruggles. Rochester was easily the smartest character on the show besides Mary Livingstone and he often outwitted Jack Benny. Although Jack Benny was Rochester's employer, the two treated each other as equals.  In this respect the evolution of Rochester can be considered an important turning point in the portrayal of African Americans in American mass media. 

Indeed, both Jack Benny and Eddie Anderson, close friends in real life, would do a good deal to ease race relations in the United States. Jack Benny would even fight segregation on behalf of Eddie Anderson. When Eddie Anderson was denied a room in a hotel in St. Joseph, Missouri at which Jack Benny's cast and crew had planned to stay, Jack Benny told them, "If he doesn't stay, neither then do I." The hotel relented and gave Eddie Anderson a room. The South was not the only place where racism against Eddie Anderson took place. Once in New York, a couple at a hotel at which the cast and crew were staying complained about being in the same  hotel as Eddie Anderson. The hotel manager tried to convince Eddie Anderson to move to another hotel. The show's producer and Mary Livngstone's brother, Hilliard Marks told the manager that Eddie Anderson would be happy to move to another hotel. The following day the entire cast and crew, 44 people in all, checked out of the hotel. Ultimately, Eddie Anderson and Jack Benny were more than a successful comedy team, they were also very close friends. Indeed, Eddie Anderson cried openly at Jack Benny's funeral.

It was in 1948 that CBS founder and  head William S. Paley made a talent raid on rival NBC that Time referred to as "Paley's Comet (a name it has been known by ever since)." In the raid William S. Paley not only took Frank Sinatra and ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy Charlie McCarthy, but arguably NBC's biggest star as well, Jack Benny. It was on 2 January 1949 that The Jack Benny Program aired on CBS in nearly fifteen years. It would be on CBS that Jack Benny would make his television debut in specials aired in 1949. It was on 28 October 1950 that The Jack Benny Program debuted as a regularly scheduled television show. The television version of The Jack Benny Program differed very little from the radio version, with the cast and the format of the show transferred the new medium largely intact.

Indeed, one tradition that the television show carried over from the radio show was that of guest appearances by some rather big name stars in the entertainment world. The radio show had featured guest appearances by such performers as Ingrid BergmanGeorge Burns, Ronald Colman, Tony Curtis Deanna Durbin, Boris Karloff, Danny Kaye, Groucho Marx, Vincent Price, Frank Sinatra, Barbara Stanwyck, and many others.  On the television show appeared such performers as Lucille Ball; Bobby Darin; Connie Francis' Bob Hope; Peter, Paul, and Mary; Robert Wagner; and many others  Ronald Colman & wife, Benita played Jack Benny's long suffering neighbours on both the radio show and the TV show.

The Jack Benny Program remained on CBS until 1964, when it moved to NBC to run for one more season. It was during the 1964-1965 season that Jack Benny decided to end the show. While it still did well in the ratings, Jack had tired of the weekly grind of a television programme. Jack Benny would continue to appear in specials aired on NBC, as well as make appearances on various television shows. It was on 26 December 1974 that Jack Benny died from pancreatic cancer. Jack Benny's last appearance on television was on The Dean Martin Celebrity Roast for Lucille Ball. It aired on 7 February 1975, a few weeks after his death.

The Jack Benny Program ran on radio from 1932 to 1955 for a total of 23 years. It ran on television from 1950 to 1965 for a total of 15 years. When it ended its television run in 1965, The Jack Benny Program was still receiving good ratings. It is quite possible that The Jack Benny Show was not simply one of the most successful sitcoms of all time, but that it is the most successful sitcom of all time.

Much of the reason for the success of The Jack Benny Program was the fact that it was very much a character driven show. Much like Jack Benny's routines, the humour on the show did not derive only from jokes or gags, but largely from the characters themselves. Indeed, unlike some early situation comedies, the plots on The Jack Benny Program largely emerged from the characters. At the centre of it all was the character of Jack Benny, the vain, self aggrandising, and petty miser who constantly insisted he was 39. In the hands of a lesser talent, Jack Benny's character could have been unlikeable, but Jack made him a sympathetic character with whom the audience could identify. Indeed, unlike many performers, Jack Benny was never afraid to get jokes at his character's expense. In fact, it was more often the norm on the show, with Mary, Rochester, Don, and even Dennis getting the best of Jack.

Jack's ensemble (they played much too big a role to simply be called a "supporting cast") could well have been one of the best in sitcoms. Although Rochester started out as something of a stereotype, he developed into a much more complicated character. Rochester often turned his sardonic wit on Jack and outsmarted him on several occasions. Mary Livingstone also differed from many female characters on sitcoms of the time, her wisecracks often deflating Jack's ego. Don Wilson was perfect as the show's announcer, not only because of his great voice, but because he was also a great character. What is particularly amazing about The Jack Benny Program is that not only were the lead characters three dimensional, but so were nearly all of the recurring characters. Indeed, Mel Blanc and Sheldon Leonard created some of the most memorable characters in sitcom history on the show.

Given how long ago The Jack Benny Program debuted and how long it ran, it is often easy to forget how revolutionary the show was. The Jack Benny Program was one of the earliest sitcoms and as a result helped develop the format. As pointed out above, the show was largely character driven show. This was a sharp break from many early sitcoms that were more plot driven. Its rather large ensemble cast was another way in which The Jack Benny Program was innovative. While many radio shows, even in the Thirties, had ensembles, few had as large a cast of regular and recurring characters. In this respect The Jack Benny Show was a forerunner of such television shows as The Andy Griffith Show, Cheers, 30 Rock, and Community with similarly large ensemble casts.

The Jack Benny Program was also innovative in terms of race in American mass media. As mentioned above, it was the first radio show to feature an African American, Eddie Anderson, as a regular cast member. While Rochester began as a bit of a stereotype, he would evolve into a positive character over the years. What is more, over the years Jack Benny would include many African American guest stars, including Louis Armstrong,  The Ink Spots, and others.

Ultimately, it is difficult to overestimate the importance of The Jack Benny Program in the history of radio and television. It was one of the earliest sitcoms and helped define the format. It was also pioneering with regards to race on American radio and televisions shows.  This would perhaps be enough, but it was also one of the funniest situation comedies in the history of American broadcasting. Eighty years after its debut, The Jack Benny Program is still as fresh and funny as when it first aired.

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