Waukegan Online Diary

Thursday, June 6

Arrived in Waukegan.  Saw a copy of a big article in the Waukegan News-Sun tacked on the wall of the Ramada.  Saw the statue in person for the first time.  I have to say I'm very impressed.  The statue is lovely, and captures Jack well.  The base has a variety of different etchings of related people and items (a violin, Mary, a pair of glasses, Jack's vault lock, etc.).  It's on a beautiful granite base with "Jack Benny" engraved on it.  The park itself is also lovely, and the period-style streetlights make it very bright after dark.  The Genesee marquee (diagonally across the street) was also brightly lit, which did my heart good (remembering when there was question as to whether it should be torn down).  Had dinner with the sculptor, Erik Blome, who is a well-spoken and insightful gentleman.

The NPR focus on the Benny statue is going to be on the Chicago NPR affiliate (WBEZ, 91.5) at 10:00AM on a show called "848".  

Tomorrow brings photographs at the statue in the morning, then setup and rehearsal for the recreation, and the Benny Benefit dinner in the evening, with Eddie Carroll's one-man show.  Must find good, strong coffee in the morning.

Friday, June 7

Today started with a gathering of some of the key people at the statue around 10AM.  I got there early and walked around the pathways, looking at the names of various people who sponsored bricks (including some of our own members).  Met up with our sound effects man (Charlie Willer), the Direction of Public Relations for the City of Waukegan (David Motley), and then Eddie Carroll and his wife came driving by us.  Charlie asked Eddie if he could take a photo of him with the statue, and Eddie climbed all the way up on the base so that he was standing right next to it.  Eddie removed his glasses and mirrored the statue's pose.  I involuntarily drew in a sharp breath, as the startling likeness sent shivers down my spine.

We all walked over to the Genesee Theatre, and Peggy Kolber was kind enough to let us in.  The renovation is fully underway.  The work crews had been peeling the paint from the lobby walls and cleaning the silver leaf of the ornamentation with wax.  A large chain hung from a ring in the ceiling where a large chandelier had once graced the entrance.  There are mixed stories, varying from mysterious to tragic, about how the original chandelier disappeared.  However, they had now ordered a Baccarat crystal chandelier.  Its weight was two tons, so the chain was for the stress test of the ceiling to insure no unfortunate accidents!  The seats are still out of the theatre itself.  We walked down the aisle and up on the stage, where we surveyed the fly cables, light board, and general layout.  The ETA for completion is Fall 2003.

Afterwards, we walked up to the City Planning Commission, where the original Genesee organ was on display.  Steve and Peggy Kolber, along with everyone there, were very kind and helpful to us.  We also got the chance to meet the Mayor of Waukegan, Richard Hyde, along with Laini Zinn, one of the originators of the Benny statue effort.

Sound effects setup and rehearsal took up a good portion of the afternoon.  The cast is very enthusiastic, and getting everyone in the same room for the first time really pulled together the team dynamic.  We did two run-throughs, and everyone did very well.  Charlie Willer has done an unbelievable job of pulling together all the sound effects equipment.


A short break and then on to the Benny Bash annual benefit dinner for the Jack Benny Center for the Arts.  The feature attraction was an abbreviated version of Eddie Carroll's one-man Benny show.  As an introduction, some videos of outtakes from Jack's TV shows were shown.  At some point, I turned around and looked out toward the foyer.  I could see a person's silhouette, which gave me a small gasp as it looked exactly like Jack Benny in one of his famous poses.  Of course, it was Eddie awaiting his opening cue.  He even worked my name into one of the jokes, which gave me quite a surprise.  An excellent show enjoyed by all, and received a standing ovation.

Tomorrow is the big day, starting with final run-throughs at 8AM.  Now approaching 2AM.  Must find more good, strong coffee in the morning.

Saturday, June 8

The fateful day has come at last!  An early morning with an 8AM rehearsal.  Eddie did not attend this rehearsal, but after 15 years of doing a Jack Benny one-man show and two run-throughs with our cast, he certainly didn't need it.  Thanks to long-time IJBFC member Hal (a.k.a. "Humphrey") Bogart for standing in as Jack Benny.  The CD of piano accompaniment for our  Dennis' "Clancy Lowered the Boom" developed technical problems on Friday, and he opted to do it a capella.  I should note that our Dennis learned to sing from Perry Como (another story), and it shows.

At 10:00 after two run-throughs, we called it good and disassembled all the sound effects equipment (no small task), carried it all down to our vehicles, and transported the show to the downtown stage.  The blocks around Genesee and Clayton had been closed to traffic, and 20' by 40' stages were set up across Genesee on the south side of the intersection (our stage), and Clayton on the West side.  This put the statue between the two stages;  it was covered with a magnificent royal purple satin, which shined in the morning light.  The weather could not have been better--warm with skies as blue as Jack's eyes.  We proceeded to scope out the space and set up shop.

As we worked, some of the media arrived.  A local cable producer set up his camera, and Chicago Land Television (CLTV - affiliated with WGN and other Chicago area stations) asked to interview me.  By 12:00, the sound effects were set, the microphones and audio connections were done, and sound checks completed.  We all had been sweating it out, and ran back to the hotel to clean up and change into more formal wear for the performance.  We reconvened at 12:45 in a downtown restaurant that served as a green room.

Bill DeVore, a Waukegan media personality and entertainer, emceed the show.  He introduced Chuck Schaden, a legend of Chicago radio and the host for 30+ years of "Those Were the Days", a show devoted to old radio.  Chuck kicked off his broadcast, and segued into a Jack Benny program that was to be played on air.  The entire event would be recorded and edited down for broadcast at a later date, probably next February.  Bill then introduced me, and I talked with the crowd about the Benny show and hoped to educate any "newbies" about the characters.  Our sound effects man helped with a demonstration of various techniques, including the squeaking of a ship and the sound of Don Wilson falling overboard.  I then introduced the cast in this order:

Sound effects and Mel Blanc    Charlie Willer
Rochester Van Jones                Dan Leff
Don Wilson                              Bill Powers
Phil Harris                                Eric Brolund
Dennis Day                              Tom Trethewey
Mary Livingstone                     Maria Scarvelis

"and the star of our show, the one and only...MR JACK BENNY."

Eddie Carroll then strolled out to center stage.  He interspersed jokes from his one-man show with comments about Jack's history and connection to Waukegan.  I've heard many people say how eerie it is to watch him work because he has the Jack Benny persona down so perfectly.  I never completely believed it until finally working with him.  In fact, an audience member familiar first-hand with Jack Benny's work was moved to tears by his convincing performance.  I also must note that he was always a complete professional in working with the cast, providing valuable coaching, and although he has ten times more years in show business than all of us put together, he treated us as equals. 

Eddie then segued into the radio show recreation.  Energy was high, and you could feel the electricity in the air on stage.  Everyone gave a fantastic performance.  Just one flub, when Phil called for an 11-gun salute (one of only two recorded sound effects) to welcome El Supremo on board Captain Horatio Hornblower's ship, he got a rousing chorus of "Rule Britannia" instead.  We all cracked up and Eddie immediately jumped in with ad libs, and it felt as though we had just created another "chiss sweeze" or "Drear Pooson" moment.  I'm sure Gene Twombley (one of Jack's sound men) was laughing at us, somewhere!  It ended up being handled so well that several people thought it was an intentional gaff;  it ended up giving us some of the biggest laughs in the whole production.

Afterwards, Eddie stepped out of character to bring several people up in front of the statue.  These included the Mayor, a State Senator, Laini Zinn, myself, and two of Jack's grandchildren: Maria Rudolph and Joanna Meiseles.  A bronze plaque listing the major contributors (including the IJBFC, which really took my breath away) was read.  Then the rope tying the satin was pulled, and all the people who had been introduced reached forward to pull the glistening material off the statue.  The crowd applauded enthusiastically, and pressed forward to shake hands and have their picture taken with Eddie and the statue.

After talking with various people and meeting several members of the IJBFC, I went back to the green room and had lunch with the cast.  Eddie stayed with the crowd, shaking hands, signing autographs, and posing for pictures.  At 3:10, I went over to Chuck Schaden's tent.  Eddie was at the microphone, trying to talk above a very loud (and very good) performance of "Johnny Comes Marching Home Again" by the Waukegan Symphony Orchestra.  Chuck then interviewed me for a few minutes.  It was a real pleasure to finally meet him.

Eddie and I went back to the restaurant.  The cast passed around scripts and we all signed them.  Charlie had retrieved a tape of the performance, and we sat down and listened to it.  We were finally able to hear how we sounded (it's almost impossible to know that when you're performing, because you're concentrating on the task at hand), and we laughed at the show, ourselves, and the ad libs all over again.

Someone suggested that we take a cast picture, so we stood for a few in the restaurant.  One person had a camera without a flash, so we had to go outside.  We debated about the best setting, and decided to walk back down in front of the statue to pose.  After many people decided to snap our picture, Eddie's wife, Carolyn, said, "OK, let's take a crazy one."  In a fit of spontaneity, I climbed up on the granite base and stood next to the statue.  After a fall a couple years ago that almost broke my nose, I had developed a minor fear of falling.  So here I was, on a small patch of granite about four feet above Waukegan pavement.  I put my hand around the back of Jack's leg to brace myself.  Fortunately, Carolyn quickly stepped forward and told me to move my hand, as it looked like I was getting VERY personal with Jack!!!  I finally got comfortable enough to let go and strike the classic Benny pose, and was snapped by about 10 cameras.  Eddie was also persuaded to climb up on the base and do the pose.  Can't wait to see those pictures.

It was getting toward 5:00 and we finished disassembling and packing the equipment.  The cast went back to the hotel to relax and change, and I stayed downtown to talk with the two unsung heroes of the day, David Motley and Kelly Link from the Public Relations and Special Events department of the City of Waukegan.  Every event has someone who is the mortar between the bricks, the one who holds everything together, and David, Kelly, and Claudia Petrusky of the Jack Benny Center for the Arts were just that.  Tom Gillette, Director of the Waukegan Municipal Band was kind enough to give me a lift back to the hotel.

I arrived just in time for the 7:00 gathering in the lounge.  Bill Powers generously bought the first round, and afterwards the group of about 30 people went to the restaurant.  The youngest attendee was about 10 years old (there were at least 3 under 20), and the oldest was in their 80s.  Although Eddie and Carolyn Carroll had originally intended to join us for just one drink, they graciously stayed through the whole evening and enthralled everyone with stories about Jack and other celebrities, plus a discussion of the challenges of perfecting and performing Jack's character.  He commented that he hadn't intended to stay with the crowd so long that afternoon, but if people are enthusiastic and interested, it is worth it to be able to create more positive feelings around the image of Jack Benny.

Three of the grandchildren (Maria, Joanna, and Bobby Blumofe who had arrived after the festivities) joined us for dessert.  We rearranged the tables to accommodate them.  The conversation continued with plenty of stories, trivia, and reminiscences.  Several members commented that they sometimes feel a little isolated as Jack Benny fans, but it was wonderful to be with a large group of people where you can discuss Benny trivia and tell stories...and everyone "gets it."

The evening ended about 11:00.  Most of the recreation cast decided that we wanted one more opportunity to discuss the events, so we went back to the rehearsal room to chat over some beverages and potato chips.  A good time was had by all.

Sunday, June 9

Several members went to the Museum of Broadcast Communications in downtown Chicago in the afternoon.  It's a great place in the Chicago Cultural Center, which I recommend to anyone visiting the area.  It includes a replica of Jack Benny's vault, which has a motion sensor that sets off the alarm when you go through the door.  Here's the ironic thing...I saw several people go in and out and set off the alarm each time, and someone said, "Go in Laura, and set off the alarm."  I walked in...and no alarm.  I moved around, and nothing.  The person who sent me in had a very confused look.  I walked out...and no alarm.  I said, "You see, I know the password."

Many goodbyes, well-wishes, and looking forward to the opportunity to see each other again.  It will be good to get home (and sleep for about a week...writing this on the plane), but this weekend was definitely the IJBFC's proudest moment.