Saturday, October 28, 2017

Jack Benny's Halloween Episodes

The cast of The Jack Benny Show
Halloween episodes of television shows have been around since the Fifties. In fact, shows from Happy Days to Community have featured multiple Halloween episodes in their runs. Halloween episodes did not originate with television, but instead in the days of old time radio. Such radio shows as The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, The Aldrich Family, The Baby Snooks Show, Fibber McGee and Molly, The Life of Riley, and Lum and Abner all featured Halloween episodes. Among the all-time champions when it came to Halloween episodes was Jack Benny's show (which for simplicity's sake I'll call by the name it had on television, The Jack Benny Program). The Jack Benny Program featured multiple Halloween episodes over the years. In fact, I am not certain that I have included them here (if anyone knows of any others, please let me know in comments)!

The Jack Benny Program debuted as The Canada Dry Program on May 2 1932. Over the years sponsors would come and go, so that the name would change from time to time (for example, for a while it was The Chevrolet Program and later it was The Jell-o Program Starring Jack Benny). People had been calling it  "The Jack Benny Show" informally for years, and on television it would become The Jack Benny Program. While the show would change name from time to time, its format always remained the same. It centred on Jack Benny, whose character was miserly, vain, and lacking in any talent in playing the violin despite having studied the instrument for years. Other regulars in the cast included his long suffering valet and chauffeur Rochester (played by the great Eddie Anderson), announcer Don Wilson, singer Dennis Day, and Mary Livingstone (Jack's wife on real life, her role on the show varied from episode to episode, from date to love interest).

It was as The Jell-o Show Starring Jack Benny that the show aired what could be considered its first Halloween episode. That having been said, Halloween was not at the centre of "Doc Benny's Minstrels--Romeo and Juliet". Airing on November 1 1937, the episode began with the gang discussing what they had done on Halloween. The episode then shifts to a parody of Romeo and Juliet. Although not nearly as politically incorrect as some of what appeared on radio shows in the Thirties, "Doc Benny's Minstrels--Rome and Juliet" is sadly an example of minstrelry in Old Time Radio, toned down though it may be from other possible examples from Old Time Radio. 

What most would probably consider the first true Halloween episode of The Jack Benny Program was  "Jack Throws a Halloween Party" aired on October 30 1938. The episode centred on Jack watching over Rochester's preparations for the party, with Jack consistently insisting that Rochester not make the portions of food too large. This backfires on Jack when the guests arrive and find that there is very little food. They ultimately seize the turkey Jack had been saving for Thanksgiving and cook that.

The following year saw another Halloween episode, "Masquerade Party", which aired on October 29 1939. This party turns out no better than the previous year's party. Singer Dennis Day's mother Lucretia insists on helping in the kitchen. In turn, as a joke, Mary Livingstone convinces Jack that Dennis's mother is plotting to poison him. Rochester keeps trying to spike the punch. In the end, Jack's polar bear Carmichael gets loose. 

A third Halloween episode of The Jack Benny Program aired on November 3 1940. On "Jack's Halloween Party" Jack threw yet another Halloween party. The cast wore various costumes. For example, Jack dressed as a hula girl while Mary Livingstone borrowed some of Jack's old vaudeville clothes.

The next Halloween episode would air the following year, on November 2 1941. "Halloween Celebration" would not see Jack and the gang holding a party, but instead would seem them going out to play Halloween pranks. Unfortunately for Jack, he makes the mistake of breaking one of the windows in the house of the episode's big name guest star, Basil Rathbone.

The Jack Benny Program would not have a Halloween episode in 1942. The November 31 1943 episode, "Just Before Air Time" acknowledges that it is Halloween, but much of the episode is centred on Rochester coming to the show with his niece Butterfly (played by Butterfly McQueen) and Jack being interviewed by  International News Service reported Ed Goetz (played by Frank Nelson) about a trip he is supposed to be taking overseas.

The next few years would see no Halloween episodes on The Jack Benny Program, but one of the all time classics would air on November 2 1947. "Dark Passage" was a parody of the classic film noir of the same name. Don Wilson's introduction acknowledged that Halloween was that past Friday.

On October 31 1948 another one of the all time classic Halloween episodes of The Jack Benny Program aired.  "Jack Goes Trick or Treating with the Beavers" involved Jack going trick or treating with the Beverly Hills Beavers (a group similar to the Boy Scouts). The Beavers visited the homes of Mary Livingstone, Dennis Day, bandleader Phil Harris, and Don Wilson. Here it must be pointed out that "Jack Goes Trick or Treating with the Beavers" is one of the earliest references to trick-or-treating in popular culture. Trick-or-treating emerged in western Canada in the Twenties and spread from the western United States to the East Coast in the Thirties. It was in the mid to late Forties that the new custom was finally acknowledged by many radio shows.

The Jack Benny Program would go another few years without a Halloween episode. Part of the October 28 1951 episode, "Jack Loses His Song", involved Jack going to a Halloween party held by Mr. Kitzel (played by Artie Auerbach). Mr. Kitzel cannot afford to go trick-or-treating in Beverly Hills, as it turns out his trick-or-treating haul from last year actually put him in a higher tax bracket!

The final Halloween episode of The Jack Benny Program aired on October 31 1954, although it wasn't so much a Halloween episode as a post-Halloween episode. "The Sportsmen Are Fired" was a remake of the November 3 1946 episode "Jack Tries to Break His Contract with the Sportsmen Quartet". "The Sportsmen Are Fired" begin with Jack and Rochester cleaning up after Halloween. Among other things, pranksters moved Jack's bathtub to his porch and moved his porch to Pasadena. Pranksters also stole the wheels to Dennis's bicycle, which is why he is late to work. Ultimately, the episode centres on Jack wanting to fire the Sportsmen (the singing group on the show).

The radio version of The Jack Benny Program ended its run in 1955. It was in 1950 that the television version began its run as a regularly scheduled program. Strangely enough given the number of Halloween episodes done on the radio show, the television show never featured an episode centred on the holiday. One can only guess that much of went on in the Halloween episodes of the radio show (such as Jack's polar bear Carmichael getting loose) would have been difficult to execute on television.

Regardless, the Halloween episodes of Jack Benny's radio shows would be among the best the show had to offer. They gave the cast a chance to interact in situations and settings that they would not usually have been in.

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