Note: It seems natural and obvious to use Jack’s stories as the ultimate authority on what happened when, who was there, and who said what. However, this is not always the case. With “The Rosary” incident at the Great Lakes Naval Station, Jack says it was Pat O’Brien who whispered in his ear. However, Pat O’Brien stated that although he was stationed at the same base at the same time as Jack, he never met him until years later. The memory plays tricks on all of us, and it is difficult–if not impossible–to tell what REALLY happened. The narrative below attempts to present the most accurate portrait based on the information available.
1894 - 1919: The Early Years
On February 14, 1894, the world got its first look at a legend. About a year after their marriage, Meyer and Emma Kubelsky left their home in Waukegan, Illinois. Emma believed that “it was an honor to be born in a big city”; at Chicago’s Mercy Hospital, she gave birth to their first child, Benjamin.
One of the earliest notable moments in Benjamin Kubelsky’s life was a demonstration of his musical aptitude. He began one-fingering melodies played by Emma on the family piano, the only dowry that her parents could afford to provide the young couple. The violin was a popular instrument for Jewish children to study at the time, and Benjamin was presented with a half-size version for his sixth birthday. He began to take lessons twice a week with Professor Harlow, who charged 50 cents per lesson. Emma gave birth to their second child, Florence, on September 12, 1900.
Benjamin progressed quickly, and started taking weekly violin lessons from Dr. Hugo Kortschalk at the Chicago Musical College in 1902. His daily routine included practicing from 4 to 6 P.M. by the front parlor window of the family’s home at 224 South Genesee Street in Waukegan. However, the view of Lake Michigan often had greater attraction for Benjamin than the practicing.
By the time he entered ninth grade at Central High School, Benjamin had secured a job as a violinist in the pit orchestra of the Barrison Theatre, the local vaudeville house, just a couple blocks north of his home. After flunking every class that year, he dropped out of school. In 1911, a relatively new act played the theatre: the Marx Brothers. Their mother, Minnie Palmer, was impressed by Benjamin’s playing and loud laughter at the brothers’ onstage antics. She offered him the chance to tour with them, for full room, board, travel expenses, and $7.50 a week. Benjamin’s parents would not consider the possibility of their 17-year-old son going on such a boondoggle, and he stayed home.
The pianist for the theatre was a middle-aged woman named Cora Salisbury, who had previously performed in vaudeville. The Barrison closed by 1912, and Benjamin and Cora teamed up as a vaudeville duo. Their billing was “Salisbury and Kubelsky: From Grand Opera to Ragtime.” However, violinist Jan Kubelik took issue with the name, claiming to be infringing on his name recognition. Benjamin changed his stage name to Ben K. Benny, and the act became “Salisbury and Benny.” By 1913, Cora was forced to retire from the act to care for her ailing mother back in Waukegan.
At this point, Benjamin met pianist Lyman Woods in Chicago. The previous act was adapted into “Bennie and Woods: From Grand Opera to Ragtime,” the spelling of his stage name being changed to be “classier.” The duo enjoyed success, and in 1917, was booked to perform at the famous Palace Theatre in New York. As fate would have it, their act did not rise to the level demanded by Palace audiences. Soon after, the act broke up and Benjamin returned home due to Emma’s battle with breast cancer. In November of 1917, Emma lost that battle.
The U.S. had entered World War I. Benjamin enlisted in the Navy, and was assigned to the Great Lakes Naval Station in Waukegan. Because of his vaudeville experience, he continued using the violin to entertain his fellow servicemen. At one point he was playing “The Rosary” to a group the men, who were not particularly appreciative of the classical music. Benjamin’s friend, Pat O’Brien (later known as an actor in his own right, and some sources say this was actually Benjamin’s friend, David Wolff), walked on stage and whispered, “For heaven’s sake, Ben, put down the damn fiddle and talk to ’em.” Benjamin stopped playing, turned to the audience, and ad libbed the following joke: “I was having an argument with Pat O’Brien this morning…about the Irish Navy. You see, I claim the Swiss Navy is bigger than the Irish Navy and the Jewish Navy is bigger than both of them put together.” It got a tremendous audience response.
Shortly afterwards, Benjamin was selected to play the two-line comedic part of Issy There, the Admiral’s Disorderly, in The Great Lakes Revue, a benefit for the Navy Relief Society and the Lying-In Hospital, for the wives and mothers of enlisted men at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station. His performance was so good that the part was expanded. The part kept being expanded until by the time that the play was to debut, he was one of the major players. The audience reaction was excellent, inspiring The Great Lakes Recruit reviewer to write, “Too much credit cannot be given to Benny Kubelsky, who played the orderly role. He is a laugh provoker who caused many to return to their homes still holding their sides. It’s a delicate part to play, too. Yet there was nothing amateurish about the acting of this sailor who claims Waukegan for his home. He is a comedian of merit, whose clean, wholesome comedy is natural.”
Thus Benjamin Kubelsky began his career in comedy.
1919 - 1931: Vaudeville
After bravely protecting the shores of Lake Michigan during World War I, Benjamin turned his attentions back to the stage. He had teamed successfully with Zez Confrey (a rag pianist and later author of standards such as “Kitten on the Keys”) in The Great Lakes Revue, but Uncle Sam chose not to release them at the same time. So Benjamin decided to embark on a solo act. “Ben K. Benny: Fiddle Funology” hit the boards of the Western Vaudeville Circuit in 1919 with an act comprised of violin music, singing, and jokes.
Eventually, performer and violinist Ben Bernie took exception to the name Ben K. Benny, claiming it was too close to his own. So Benjamin was again faced with the need to change his name. There are several stories of the influences on this decision. One is that the sailors called each other “Jack” as a generic term, akin to “fella” or “dude”, so that was selected. An elaboration is the story that Jack himself tells. He was having dinner with Benny Rubin during the time he was looking for a new name, and a couple former Great Lakes sailors approached and greeted him as “Jack”. Rubin then suggested that he use “Jack” as his new first name. Still another story indicates that he took the first name from Jack Osterman, a vaudeville comedian whose style he partially borrowed for his own. In any event, by 1921 Benjamin had eliminated the singing and most of the violin playing, developed his delivery, and now billed himself as “Jack Benny: Aristocrat of Humor”.
Around Passover of 1921, Jack Benny and the Marx Brothers were playing in a Vancouver, British Columbia vaudeville house. Jack was particularly good friends with Zeppo Marx. Zeppo was invited to attend a Seder (the ritual Passover dinner) at the house of a local Jewish family named Marks (sources conflict as to whether the family was a distant Marx cousin or no relation), at 1649 Nelson Street. It was common for local families of similar ethnic background to host vaudeville performers, especially those with dietary restrictions such as keeping kosher. Zeppo encouraged Jack to accompany him, not revealing to Jack that it was actually a family Seder.
Jack and Zeppo met the family’s daughters, Ethel (also known as Babe) and Sadye Marks. Sadye was only 14 years old at the time, and Jack was 27. How they felt about each other initially varies depending on who is telling the story, but it was not love at first sight, and it was outright dislike by the end of the evening. So much so that Sadye and three of her friends went to the Orpheum Theatre the next day and sat in the front row, either staring blankly at Jack through his entire act and not laughing or heckling him (again, depending upon the source).
In 1922, Jack’s friend George Burns had met Gracie Allen and decided to start a new act. After one of their performances, Jack, George, Gracie, and Gracie’s roommates went to dinner. It was here that Jack met Mary Kelly, a beautiful blonde Roman Catholic from Chicago. Jack was popular with the ladies because of his good looks and non-aggressive style, and no less so with Mary. The next four years saw a continuing romance between Jack and Mary Kelly, despite the traveling demands of the vaudeville circuit. Some sources say that Mary unexpectedly telegrammed Jack that she had married another man, which ended the relationship. Other sources say that Jack’s Orthodox Jewish father would not bless a marriage outside the faith, although it is more likely that it was Mary Kelly’s family (including her brother, a Priest) who were adverse to such a joining. Jack relates stories of Mary’s wildly varying emotions, ranging from wanting to get married to breaking off the relationship multiple times within the span of a day or two. Whatever the cause, Jack and Mary ended their relationship by 1926 and she soon was married to another man.
During this romance, Jack was playing the San Francisco Pantages Theatre in 1924. He was leaving the theatre one night and was met by a young woman backstage. She started to introduce herself, but Jack simply ignored her as a “Stage Door Janie”. The young woman was Sadye Marks.
Over the years, the improvements to his act eventually moved Jack from the second spot on the bill (during which people were still filing to their seats) to his name on marquees and the next-to-closing spot, which were reserved for starring performers. His salary was now $350-450 a week; not the top in vaudeville, but still respectable. He started to buy jokes from writers rather than inventing (and occasionally stealing) the act himself. It was around this time that he began his relationship with Al Boasberg (who was also writing for the Marx Brothers) and Harry Conn.
In 1926, Jack was playing the Orpheum Theatre in Los Angeles. Again, sources vary widely about the exact events that led to a fateful reunion. Al Bernovici (or Bernivici) was doing an act called “The Bernovici Brothers” and had married Ethel (“Babe”) Marks from Vancouver. By this time, the rest of the Marks family had moved to Los Angeles. The Bernovici Brothers may have been on the same bill, or Jack ran into Ethel outside the theatre, or Ethel went to see Jack’s act. In any event, Jack ended up at dinner with Al Bernovici, Ethel Marks, and her younger sister, Sadye. Jack did not make the connection with the Seder in Vancouver five years earlier, or the young woman at the stage door of the Pantages Theatre. While Jack maintains that he was now smitten with her (“love at third sight”) and stared at her through dinner, Sadye maintains that he completely ignored her that night.
The next day, Sadye was working at the hosiery counter of the May Company. The generally-accepted story is that Jack approached her and said, “Pardon me, miss, can you tell me where the men’s room is?” To this, she snapped, “Ask the floorwalker!” However, other sources say that Sadye was proudly telling her friends at the May Company that she had dined with known vaudevillian Benny, but they didn’t believe her until he showed up that afternoon and asked her to dinner. Jack himself tells of going to her counter and buying hosiery endlessly just to be able to talk with her.
At some point, Sadye softened to Jack. She tells the story of persuading her steady boyfriend, Eddie Brand, to attend one of Jack’s performances. Jack addressed some comments from the stage directly to her, which angered Eddie enough to leave without Sadye. After the show, Sadye approached Jack and said that she didn’t have any money to get home, having been abandoned by her date. Jack gave her a few dollars and she left. This was likely the time when he started buying hosiery at Sadye’s counter. On his last night in Los Angeles, Jack took Sadye to the Coconut Grove and the Ambassador Hotel. Jack then went back on tour, but maintained contact with Sadye.
By late 1926, Jack was almost 33 and part of the Shuberts’ The Great Temptations, drawing $600 a week. Fate would connect him with Babe Marks again in Chicago, and she told Jack of her sister’s plan to marry a rich man she’d known in Vancouver. Babe called her sister and then handed the phone to Jack. He told her “You’re too young to get married,” and persuaded her to come to Chicago to think it over and talk with them. The talking led to meeting Jack’s father, and then to a marriage proposal. Per Jack, 20-year-old Sadye queried about his comment that she was too young to get married. He responded, “To him maybe, but not to me.”
On Friday, January 14, 1927 in the Clayton Hotel in Waukegan, Illinois, Jack and Sadye were married in an Orthodox Jewish ceremony. It was attended by Jack’s father, Jack’s sister Florence, Sadye’s sister Babe and her husband, Al Bernovici, Jack’s longtime friend Julius Sinykin, Assistant State’s Attorney Sidney Bloch, and Rabbi Farber. When Jack stomped on the glass at the end of the ceremony, Sadye fainted.
Jack had been doing jokes for years about having a dumb girlfriend. But later in 1927 he secured an actress to double with him as a dumb character called Marie Marsh. Eventually the actress either took ill or was cut to save money, and Jack asked Sadye if she would do the role. They started in Seattle and played the West Coast to enthusiastic audience response. By the time they reached the Orpheum in Los Angeles, the actress returned. After the first performance, the theatre manager took Jack aside and asked how it was possible that such a terrible actress had gotten such great reviews up the coast. As in the stock vaudeville joke, Jack informed him that was no actress, that was my wife. The manager insisted that the actress be released and that Sadye continue to play the role, which she did. In early 1928, both Jack and Sadye appeared in the now-lost Vitaphone short “Bright Moments”.
But Jack’s act was changing. He started doing mostly solo work, and acting as a Master of Ceremonies to shows that included his longer act. His delivery and pacing were being honed, and audiences loved it. In 1929, Irving Thalberg (the “boy genius” of MGM who was responsible for many classics, including the Marx Brothers’ “A Night at the Opera” and “A Day at the Races”) signed Jack to a five-year contract at MGM for $850 a week.
Jack costarred as a theatre director in Chasing Rainbows and then played the Master of Ceremonies in an all-star production called Hollywood Revue of 1929. The latter included Joan Crawford, Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton, Lionel Barrymore, and many other stars, as well as Cliff Edwards (“Ukulele Ike”, and later Disney’s Jiminy Cricket) debuting a song called “Singing in the Rain”. Jack’s salary was then raised to $1000 a week. However, MGM provided no more scripts for Jack.
In late 1929, Earl Carroll offered Jack a co-starring role in his new edition of the Vanities, a show similar in some ways to Ziegfeld’s Follies but decidedly raunchier. However, Thalberg would not release Jack from his contract. Jack secured small work at other studios, emceeing The Song Writers’ Revue (a 2-reeler) for Metro Movietone and playing the title role in The Medicine Man for Columbia in 1930. Jack finally got a release from MGM, and he and Sadye returned to New York to accept Earl Carroll’s offer of the Vanities and $1500 a week.
Jack and Sadye lived at 55 Central Park West, in the immediate vicinity of a number of other comedians and comedic couples such as George Burns and Gracie Allen, Fred Allen and Portland Hoffa, Eddie and Ida Cantor, and others. While the critics derided the Vanities for its off-color humor, Jack was received warmly. After 247 performances and near the end of 1931, the show was ready to go on the road. But Jack wanted to try his hand at something new…radio.
1932 - 1948: Radio
On March 29, 1932, Jack Benny appeared on a fifteen-minute radio program hosted by a Broadway columnist for The New York Daily News named Ed Sullivan. At least a portion of his monologue was provided by one of his vaudeville writers (and co-author of Chasing Rainbows), Al Boasberg. His first line was “This is Jack Benny talking. There will now be a slight pause while everyone says, ‘Who cares?'”
Douglas Coulter of N. W. Ayer, the advertising account executive for Canada Dry, heard and liked Jack’s performance. Jack was signed to be the emcee of The Canada Dry Ginger Ale Program, on CBS at 8:00PM on Mondays and Thursdays. George Burns recommended that Jack use comedy writer Harry Conn to provide him with new jokes for each program. The program featured bandleader George Olsen and his wife, Ethel Shutta (Shoo-TAY), providing music interspersed with Jack’s commentary and commercials. By the end of 1932, radio editors voted him “Most Popular Comedian on the Air” against competition that included Eddie Cantor, Ed Wynn, Fred Allen, Burns and Allen, Al Jolson, Jack Pearl (Baron Munchausen), and the Marx Brothers.
Al Boasberg continued as a gag writer in addition to Harry Conn. The two wrote separately, although the latter was much more vocal about being Jack Benny’s writer. A critical Conn contribution was the part of a girl from Plainfield, New Jersey. As Sadye had demonstrated a good comedic timing sense during their vaudeville days, Jack asked her to play this brief role on the July 27, 1932 program. The audience reaction was immediate and positive, and she was introduced as regular cast member Mary Livingstone over the next few weeks. It was a role that became so inseparable from her that she signed autographs with the new name, and eventually changed it legally.
Although there was some gentle fun poked at the product from the very first show, the brass at Canada Dry was not amused. On one show, Jack read a “telegram” from a North African Canada Dry Sales Manager: “I was driving across the Sahara Desert when I came across a party of people who had been stranded in the desert for thirty days without a drop of water, and they were ready to perish from lack of liquid. I gave each of them a glass of Canada Dry Ginger Ale, and not one of them said it was a bad drink.”
Canada Dry’s last show with Jack was on January 26, 1933. But with his new-found popularity, Jack was soon signed by General Motors. The Chevrolet Program began on Friday, March 3, 1933, at 10:00PM on NBC Red, with Frank Black’s orchestra and singer James Milton. Jack Benny was now 39 years old. The format of the program continued to evolve, with less music and a sketch in the second half of the show. The program moved to Sundays at 10:00PM on October 1, 1933. However, GM President William Knudsen didn’t find Jack funny and dropped the show on April 1, 1934.
General Tire immediately picked up sponsorship on Friday, April 6, 1934, added bandleader Don Bester and vocalist Frank Parker, plus announcer Don Wilson. While the series was short-lived, both Sam Hearn (Schlepperman) and Frank Nelson (“Yesssss”…although the bit was developed later) made their first appearances on the General Tire show.
Another person debuted in Jack and Mary’s life in June of 1934, with the adoption of two-week-old Joan Naomi. They had arranged to adopt an unborn child, but when the mother was late in delivering, Mary went to the adoption agency and saw Joan. By the time the original child had been born, Jack and Mary had already fallen in love with their new blonde, blue-eyed girl.
Yet another person came back to Jack from his past in 1934. When auditioning actresses to play a mediocre girl trio, a heavy-set blonde, slightly unkempt woman tried out for one of the parts. Jack did not initially recognize her as Mary Kelly, and was shocked that this once lovely and vivacious woman had been so ravaged in eight years. She pleaded with Jack for the part, as she was divorced and needed the money. He conceded and included her occasionally on the show, but was always pained by people laughing at her because of her appearance.
By summer, General Foods had taken notice of Jack’s work. Knox had the monopoly on the gelatin market, and General Foods was in search of someone to pitch their relatively unsuccessful Jell-O product. They contracted with Jack for thirteen weeks, and slotted him to begin Sunday, October 14, 1934, at 7:00PM on the NBC Blue network. By the end of the 1934-35 season, Jack’s ratings were third of all shows, handily beating Ed Wynn, Fred Allen, Bing Crosby, and radio veterans Amos n Andy.
On November 3, 1935, Kenny Baker joined the cast replacing the immensely popular Frank Parker and a short-lived Michael Bartlett. He developed the role of the “timid tenor”, a naive, silly young fellow with a beautiful voice. Women of all ages took to him, and he developed a following on his own merits. The show of May 24, 1936 is the last one that Jack broadcast as a New York resident, moving the program permanently to Los Angeles except for occasional remote broadcasts.
Harry Conn continued as Jack’s writer, but became increasingly disgruntled that he wasn’t receiving enough money for his efforts. He saw Jack’s father in Miami Beach, and informed him that without his writing, Jack would be nothing. Jack and Mary arrived at a party, Mary sporting a new fur coat; Conn’s wife declared, “My husband’s brains paid for that coat!” Conn finally demanded that he be paid a salary equal to Jack’s, which Jack refused but countered with a substantial raise. Conn broke off contact and left town, providing no script for the June 7, 1936 program.
Phil Baker loaned Sam Perrin and Arthur Phillips to Jack on the preceding Thursday to write the missing script. Jack summarily fired Conn, and teamed Perrin and Phillips with Hugh Wedlock and Howard Snyder to finish the last two weeks of the season. Sam Perrin would continue to write for Jack, periodically at first, for nearly 40 years.
The 1936-37 season was a pivotal time for the Benny show, with Ed Beloin (recommended by Fred Allen) and Bill Morrow joining as head writers; they would continue in that capacity for seven years. Phil Harris and Andy Devine also joined at the start of the season. Al Boasberg provided additional jokes until his unexpected death in 1937. The story goes that the last line Boasberg ever wrote was for Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, who first appeared as a train porter on March 28, 1937. The audience reaction to Rochester was so positive that the character reappeared, and Jack eventually hired him away from the railroad to be his butler.
Jack and Fred Allen had been friends for years, and had a healthy professional respect for each other’s comedic talents. Morrow and Beloin were in full swing of developing and refining the character-based humor of Jack’s program, while Fred Allen relied a great deal on his own writing, topical commentary, unusual guests, and unbridled ad libbing. Jack almost always stuck to the script, whereas Allen could talk without a script for long periods of time. Both had kidded the other on their show, with Jack doing a send-up of Allen in a skit entitled “Clown Hall Tonight” on April 5, 1936. By the end of 1936, Jack’s program was number 2 overall in the ratings, while Allen’s was losing its audience.
It was during an unscripted 15-minute segment of Allen’s Town Hall Tonight called “The Town Hall Varieties” on December 30, 1936 that a young man named Stuart Canin appeared. He was a 10-year-old violinist who played Shubert’s “The Bee” (not to be confused with “The Flight of the Bumblebee”) masterfully. On the East Coast version of the program, Allen commented, “A little fella in the fifth grade at school and already he plays better than Jack Benny.” Since the segment was unscripted and no copies of the West Coast broadcast have been found, we cannot be certain exactly what was said on the show that Jack would have heard. But it was enough to inspire Jack to spend much of the first half of January 10, 1937 show panning Fred Allen. This started a heated comedic feud that would last, more or less, until Allen’s death 20 years later. During that time, Jack and Fred always remained each other’s friend and admirer.
Also in 1937, the Bennys hired architect Carlton Burgess to design and build a house for them at 1002 North Roxbury. At this time, a running gag on the Benny program was the “Buck Benny” sketches where Jack played a Western-style sheriff. On the I-beams above the living room and in the foundation, the workers painted the names of Jell-O’s six delicious flavors (strawberry, raspberry, cherry, orange, lemon, and lime) as well as the major Buck Benny characters and actors. Those words remain there to this day, although hidden by the ceiling and floor.
In 1938, George Burns and Gracie Allen were having dinner with a man named Albert Chaperau and his wife at “21” (per George’s own memoirs). His wife was sporting a very wide diamond bracelet. As a small child, Gracie had pulled a boiling pot off the stove, and it had left permanent burn marks on her arm. Because of this, she always wore long-sleeve blouses. On seeing this diamond bracelet, George realized that wearing that, Gracie could go out with a shorter-sleeve dress and hide her scar. Chaperau offered to sell George the bracelet for $2000, and George accepted.
Burns’ own version of the story is in some disagreement with contemporaneous information now available (including FBI files). At some point, George introduced Jack to Chaperau, and Jack also purchased jewelry for Mary from Chaperau. When Chaperau was arrested on smuggling charges, investigators traced items to Jack and George, who were then charged with possession of smuggled property. George pled guilty to the charge, and received a fine of $15,000 and a one-year-and-one-day suspended sentence. During the trial, Jack was mercilessly reprimanded by the prosecuting attorney, John Cahill, even to the point of Cahill yelling at him to “sit up straight.” Jack initially pled innocent, but changed his plea to guilty shortly before sentencing. He received a fine of $10,000 and a one-year-and-one-day suspended sentence.
Throughout this time, Jack appeared in a variety of movies: Transatlantic Merry-Go-Round (1934), Broadway Melody of 1936 (1935), It’s In the Air (1935), The Big Broadcast of 1937 (1936), College Holiday (1936), Artists and Models (1937), Artists and Models Abroad (1938), and Man About Town (1939) which debuted at the Genesee Theatre in Waukegan. The entire radio program and movie cast (including Dorothy Lamour) was transported there for the June 25, 1939 debut, and was one of the largest gatherings ever in Jack’s home town.
The regular cast now included Jack, Mary, Rochester, Kenny Baker, Phil Harris, and Don Wilson. At the end of the 1939 season, Kenny Baker left the show (again, reasons conflict depending on the source). Mary heard an air check recording of a young tenor from New York, and suggested that they audition him. The young man sang a few songs, and then was told to take a break. After a bit, Jack took the studio microphone and said, “Oh Dennis,” to which the young man responded, “Yes, please?” With these words, Dennis Day broke up Jack, the cast and crew, and began a career with Jack that would last for almost 35 years.
While Jack’s radio program continued its successful run, Jack also made some of his most memorable movies: Buck Benny Rides Again (1940) – perhaps the best movie representations of a radio program, Love Thy Neighbor (1940) – a screen elaboration of his feud with Fred Allen, Charley’s Aunt (1941) – another screen remake of the stage play featuring Jack in drag, and To Be Or Not to Be (1942).
Ernst Lubitsch, the master behind many movies including Ninotchka (Greta Garbo’s last triumph), had written To Be or Not To Be specifically with Jack in mind for the lead male. Carole Lombard was cast as his leading lady, some say at Jack’s insistence. The chemistry was exquisite, and the movie was unparalleled in Jack’s career. On December 7, 1941, America found itself at war and the company was still shooting the film. Jack broadcast his radio program that night as usual, with only two interruptions for news bulletins during the musical numbers. America’s involvement made the movie story about the Polish underground fighting the Nazis was now even more timely, and the cast celebrated the movie’s shooting completion on Christmas Eve.
On January 12, 1942, Carole Lombard left on a tour to promote war bond sales, and the film was in final editing. While returning home late in the evening on Friday, January 16, Jack and Mary saw the headline in Saturday’s paper, announcing that Carole Lombard had been killed in a plane crash. She had taken an earlier flight in order to get home to her husband, Clark Gable. Jack was devastated beyond words, wanting to go to the crash site but knowing that it would make no difference. The Benny program of January 18 was cancelled and replaced with a half hour of music and Dennis’ singing.
To Be Or Not to Be debuted quietly on March 6, 1942, played down by the studio due to Lombard’s tragic and untimely death. Meyer Kubelsky and Jack’s sister, Florence, attended a showing of it in Miami Beach. When Jack appeared at the beginning in Nazi uniform and saluted Hitler, Meyer immediately stormed out of the theatre. After avoiding Jack’s attempts to contact him for a few weeks, he finally answered the phone. When Jack said, “This is Jack, your son,” Meyer responded, “You’re no son of mine!” After bending Jack’s ear for supporting Hitler, Jack persuaded him to go back and watch further to see that his character is actually making fun of the Nazis. Finally Meyer calmed down, and went on to see To Be Or Not to Be 46 times.
On February 22, 1942, the Benny program started doing shows from military camps and bases. The format of the shows was decidedly different, with the characters playing much more to the audience than in the regular shows. Initial locations were close enough to Los Angeles to enable the cast to be close to home (San Francisco, San Diego, Santa Ana, etc.) and intersperse camp and regular shows.
By the end of the 1941-42 season, sugar was being rationed. General Foods wasn’t able to keep Jell-O on the shelves, and chose to switch Jack to Grape Nuts and Grape Nuts Flakes. During the summers, Jack toured in Europe and the Pacific USO shows with Larry Adler, Martha Tilton, Ingrid Bergman, and others. Jack also made more movies: George Washington Slept Here (1942), and The Meanest Man in the World (1943).
Writer Bill Morrow went into the service at the end of the 1942-43 season, and Ed Beloin decided to try his hand at movie writing. During the summer, Jack and business manager (and Babe Marks’ second husband) Myrt Blum hired the team of George Balzer, Sam Perrin, Milt Josefsberg, John Tackaberry, and Cy Howard. Howard left the team after 13 weeks to go into movies, but the rest of the team stayed on for the next 12 years (and some until Jack’s death years later). By the end of the season. Jack had offers from several other sponsors and broadcast his last show for Grape Nuts on June 4, 1944. The Lucky Strike Program debuted on October 1, 1944.
Jack made one more starring appearance in a film: The Horn Blows at Midnight (1945), a quirky fantasy about an angel sent to destroy the world with a trumpet blast at midnight. The movie had a limited run and received mixed reviews, but was eventually enshrined forever as a “stinker” by the continual ribbing it was given on the Benny show. Ironically, it was recreated (and somewhat revised) on The Ford Theatre of March 4, 1949 with great success.
In 1946, Jack approached Taft Schreiber, a Vice President at MCA. Lew Wasserman and MCA had recently done an excellent deal for moving Amos and Andy to CBS, and Jack’s latest contract with the American Tobacco Company was less than lucrative. In June, 1947, MCA created Amusement Enterprises, Inc., for production of the Benny show and other properties. Jack would own 60%, Myrt Blum 30%, and the other 10% belonging to Jack’s lawyer and accountant. Schreiber then renegotiated with American Tobacco for Jack to receive $10,000 per show and Amusement Enterprises to receive $27,500 per show. Amusement Enterprises also produced a show starring a then-unknown, Jack Paar, as the Benny 1948 summer replacement.
By November of 1948, CBS made Jack a lucrative offer of $2.4 Million for Amusement Enterprises. NBC countered, sending a contingent of three lawyers to negotiate with Jack. NBC made the mistake of including John Cahill in that contingent, the man who had verbally assaulted Jack during his smuggling trial. Privately, Jack said, “Even if they gave me a better offer, I’d still turn them down.”
The IRS prosecuted Jack for filing the profit as a capital gain, rather than straight income. The court ultimately ruled in favor of Jack, and this became a landmark case for future celebrities who owned their own production companies.
On December 26, 1948, Jack broadcast his last show for NBC, and on January 2, 1949, his first show for CBS since the Canada Dry series. It was a highly unusual move to make such a change in the middle of the season, but it precipitated the move of other shows such as Burns and Allen, Red Skelton, and Bing Crosby. CBS’ philosophy was that there was a new medium on the horizon, and they would have the stars to succeed when television became a reality.
1949 - 1964: Television
On May 8, 1949, Jack did a test program for television at CBS Radio Studio A. Guests included Isaac Stern, Lum and Abner (Jack was a friend of Chet Lauck, who played the role of Lum Edwards), the Andrews Sisters, Rochester, and others. Unfortunately, it seems that any recording of this program has been lost to the ages. However, it was clear that Jack would be able to transfer his comedic talents to the small screen.
While still maintaining the radio program, Jack traveled to New York to do his first television shows on October 28, 1950. His first line was: “I’d give a million dollars to know what I look like!” The first show (and likely subsequent ones) was shown live to the East Coast, and broadcast at a later date for Western viewers due to the lack of coast-to-coast television transmission facilities. The 1950 show ran 45 minutes, as Jack thought that half an hour was too short and an hour was too long. Subsequent shows were half-hours, and aired on January 28, April 5, and May 20, 1951. Early guests included Dinah Shore, Ken Murray, Frank Sinatra, Claudette Colbert, and Ben Hogan.
On November 4, 1951, Jack broadcast his first show from the new CBS Television City in Los Angeles. The budget for radio had been reduced, and the shows began to reflect it. Guest stars went from people such as Ronald and Benita Colman, Tyrone Power, and Gene Kelly appearing each week or every other week, to stars appearing once every month or two, and often friends of Jack who would appear for reduced or no salary. On June 1, 1952, Phil Harris broadcast his last regular show with Jack. Sources vary on why he left, but Phil himself said that he had just “had enough”, didn’t want to go into television, and preferred to concentrate on helping Alice raise the family. He was the first member of the well-recognized Benny cast to leave, after being on the program for 16 years.
However in some ways, Mary can be considered the first to have “left” the program. In 1948, Jack had started transcribing his radio show. At the end of that season, Mary had talked with Jack about leaving the program due to the overwhelming stage fright she had developed over the years. However, she was persuaded to continue with the program by recording her lines at home, with either her brother (Hilliard Marks, also the show’s producer) or George Balzer giving her the cue lines. Another woman stood in for her during the actual performance (these stand-ins included daughter Joan Benny, the script secretary Jeanette Eyemann, or occasionally an unknown actress), and Mary’s lines edited in at a later time. Ironically, on a couple of occasions the stand-in would fluff a line and get a good audience reaction, requiring Mary to fluff the same line intentionally in her home recording. Mary was not eager to follow the program to television, although filming of the show persuaded her to appear on selected appearances through the mid-50s.
While doubling between radio and television, the writers started creating running gags for the radio show. One of the most long-lived was born on September 30, 1951 when Jack “wrote” the song When You Say I Beg Your Pardon, Then I’ll Come Back to You. His trying to get the song published or performed by a notable celebrity ran until the end of the television series, with it being performed by people ranging from Frank Sinatra to Lawrence Welk to Peter, Paul, and Mary. Other running and reused gags include Mel Blanc delivering “cimeron rolls” and a few versions of the Beverly Hills Beavers (a fictitious Boy Scout-type group that Jack led) performing their version of Jack’s show. To handle the extra writing, Hal Goldman and Al Gordon were added to the writing staff.
Also, many scripts were reused between radio and television. Jack dreamed he was married to Mary with Joan as their daughter on both radio and television. He also had visits from the IRS confirming that he spent only $17 on entertainment in a year, with the agents confirming such with the Colmans on radio and Mr. and Mrs. Jimmy Stewart on television. Jack was awakened by a DJ at 4AM and hit the jackpot in Las Vegas on both media.
The television shows fit two basic styles: the “in one” (theatre term referring to an act done at the front of the stage before a closed curtain) and the situation comedy. “In one” shows would start with Jack’s monologue (something he had discarded in radio years prior), the introduction of a guest and banter with Jack (and possibly a musical performance or two if they had that capability), and a skit in the second half. Situation comedy shows would have Jack, often at home, dealing with various storylines and surrounded by Rochester, Don Wilson, Mary, Dennis Day, Frank Nelson (“yessss?”), Mr. Kitzel, and various other characters. These shows more closely mirrored the format that had become so familiar on radio. On some occasions, the first half would be “in one” and the “skit” would be a situation comedy.
Around 1952, Jack began to rediscover his love of the violin. He took his practicing seriously this time, working for hours in the bathroom adjoining his bedroom. He began giving benefit concerts with a combination of monologue and serious concert work, starting with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Jack had long made comedy of his mediocre violin playing, but he was now playing Mendelssohn and Rimsky-Korsakov as opposed to “The Glow Worm” and “Love in Bloom”. Isaac Stern became his informal manager, connecting symphony orchestras with him. When Jack once wondered aloud at why a symphony orchestra would want to hire him over Isaac Stern, Stern replied, “We real important violinists can only get $5.50 a ticket–but somebody as rotten as you–for you, they can charge a hundred dollars a ticket!” Jack also had a running joke that at most concerts, the expensive seats are down front. In his, the cheap seats were down front, and got more expensive the further away you sat. “For $200, you don’t have to come at all!”
By 1953, it was clear that the golden age of radio was over. Jack began doing his television programs every three weeks for the 1953-54 season, and every two weeks for 1954-55. The radio program featured several reruns during the 1954-55 season. On May 22, 1955, Jack’s last regular radio program was aired. There was no major fanfare in the show–it was simply another Jack Benny program, with Mel Blanc clowning as Twombley, the sound effects man (undoubtedly a reference to sound man Gene Twombley, husband of Bea Benadaret who was also a semi-regular on the Benny program). Jack’s radio programs would continue to be rebroadcast as “The Best of Benny” from October 28, 1956 to June 1, 1958.
On March 9, 1954 at the Beverly Hills Hotel, Joan Benny married Seth Baker after a whirlwind courtship. They settled in an apartment in New York, and on July 16, 1955, presented Jack and Mary with their first grandchild, a boy named Michael. As fate would have it, the marriage dissolved shortly after Michael’s arrival. Joan moved back home to North Roxbury, and gave the Bennys the opportunity to dote on their grandson at every opportunity. In March of 1956, Joan married Buddy Rudolph. Buddy formally adopted Michael, and Joan gave birth to a girl, Maria, in 1957. Again, fate would see the marriage end in 1959.
On October 2, 1956, Jack reached one of the pinnacles of his symphony career, playing a benefit to save a financially-troubled Carnegie Hall. $50,000 was raised, and Jack’s performance received a positive review (from a comedic standpoint) by New York Times music critic Harold C. Schonberg. He is often misquoted (and actually improved upon) as having said, “Last night at Carnegie Hall, Jack Benny played Mendelssohn. Mendelssohn lost.”
Jack’s television program continued airing every two weeks, featuring a variety of plots and skits including: a spoof of “You Bet Your Life” with Groucho Marx, Jack instructing a very young Johnny Carson on comedy, Jack standing in for Fred Astaire with Ginger Rogers, and spoofing “The Honeymooners” with Audrey Meadows. In 1957, Jack won an Emmy for “Best continuing performance [male] in a series by a comedian, singer, host, dancer, MS, announcer, narrator, panelist, or any person who essentially plays himself”. In 1958, the show took the Emmy for Best Comedy Series.
On March 18, 1959, Jack’s first special–The Jack Benny Hour–was aired. It featured guest stars Mitzi Gaynor, Bob Hope, Senor Wences, and the Marquis Chimps in their first of several performances with Jack. Jack did three specials in 1959, and another in 1960.
At the start of the 1959 season, CBS moved Jack’s television program from its Sunday at 7:30PM timeslot (originally geared to follow Jack’s radio program at 7PM), to Sunday at 10PM. The second show of the season featured a guest appearance by former President Harry Truman, who was also a friend of Jack’s. In October of 1960, Jack began doing a weekly television program and moved to Sunday at 9:30PM. During the 1961-62 season, Jack’s program was opposite the second half of Bonanza, an hour-long western shows with growing popularity. Jack decided to watch it one week, and ended up missing his own program. Jack noted, “If I myself get so absorbed in Bonanza that I forget my own program, what chance have I got with the millions of other viewers?”
In September, 1962, Jack’s program moved to Tuesday at 9:30. It was the first time in 28 years that his program had not graced the Sunday night lineup. The guest stars were still top-notch, including Sammy Davis, Jr., Phil Silvers, Raymond Burr, Rod Serling, Connie Francis, Frankie Avalon, and others. Carol Burnett teamed with Jack for an unforgettable Tarzan skit. The show held 12th place in the ratings, then slipped to 14th in 1963.
In 1963, Joan married Bob Blumofe at the Roxbury home. Joan and Bob had a son, Bobby, on June 23, 1964, and a daughter, Joanna, on June 29, 1965.
At the end of the 1963-64 season, CBS elected not to renew Jack’s contract. He signed a one-year contract with NBC, which slated the show for Fridays at 9:30PM. However, the show was opposite the new Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., a spin-off of The Andy Griffith Show. Gomer Pyle was a surprise hit, and Jack’s program was unable to make the top 15 in the ratings. A violinist in his late 20s appeared on the show of February 12, 1965; a young man named Stuart Canin, who had been partially responsible for the start of the Benny-Allen feud almost 30 years earlier. On April 16, 1965, the Smothers Brothers guested on Jack’s last regular television program; Jack was 71 years old. The fall of 1965 brought the first season without a Jack Benny Program in 33 years.
1965-1974: Comedian Emeritus
Jack had restarted his hour-long specials in December, 1964 with “Jack Benny’s Christmas Program”. He then followed with a new The Jack Benny Hour in color on November 3, 1965. Guests were Bob Hope, Elke Sommer, Walt Disney, and the Beach Boys. He continued doing specials for NBC, averaging one per year. He kept up a regular stint of guest shots on various shows, such as The Tonight Show, Merv Griffin, and teaming with George Burns for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.
In 1965, Mary decided that she and Jack did not need the large (approximately 9,000 square feet) Roxbury House. After almost 30 years in the residence, they moved to a penthouse (ironically, on the 39th floor) in Century Towers at Century City. However, it never suited them. Soon thereafter, they purchased a house at 10231 Charing Cross Road, not far from the original Roxbury house.
Though in his seventies, he continued a hefty schedule of performing and globe-trotting. Jack also continued his symphony benefits, eventually raising almost $6 million for orchestras around the world. He played various hotels in Las Vegas, and appeared around the world for a variety of performances and benefits. In his show at the Montreal Expo ’67, he included his grandson, Michael.
Jack’s universally-recognizable character was borrowed by multiple advertisers. In 1968, he pitched for Texaco with an ad campaign featuring him saying, “I’ll try a gallon” (a reference to his now-legendary stinginess, indicating that he wouldn’t try a whole tank of gas) and station signs imploring him to “Fill It Up, Jack”. Jack also was contracted by the American Republic Life Insurance Company as the center of a plan called Americare 39: Life Insurance at Jack Benny Prices. A large mailing package contained several glossy marketing pieces featuring Jack, 39 reasons that people should consider Americare 39, and a vinyl sound sheet with Jack promoting the plan. Also released was a brown plastic safe with Jack’s face on the dial, promoted as “Jack Benny’s vault”.
In spite of the fact that Jack–on stage–seemed 20 years younger than his actual age, offstage people could see the years starting to wear on him. Some recalled him looking “small” or “fragile” in the dressing room, and having some difficulty moving or walking. He once commented upon receiving an award, “I don’t deserve this award. But I have arthritis, and I don’t deserve that, either.” However, when the curtain went up and the orchestra began to play “Love in Bloom”, Jack straightened his shoulders and strode out onto the stage with ease.
Jack had a history of hypochondria; when he complained of abdominal pains in 1974, few close to him paid much attention to it. His special “Jack Benny’s Second Farewell Special” aired on January 24 of that year, and despite his 80 years, his schedule didn’t slow. He appeared in a benefit with the Waukegan Symphony Orchestra on April 20, and was later cast opposite Walter Matthau for the movie of Neil Simon’s play, The Sunshine Boys. Plans were in the works for “Jack Benny’s Third Farewell Special” (or “Jack Benny’s Special Special”), to be aired in February, 1975.
But the pain continued, and worsened. Jack was in and out of the hospital for tests, which revealed little. On November 17, he was inducted into the Television Advertising Bureau’s “Hall of Fame”, receiving a plaque and telling jokes for 20 minutes despite the continuing pain. On December 8, he was scheduled to receive the Louella Parsons Award from the Hollywood Women’s Press Club. By this time, Jack was in such pain that he was forced to leave the event early and have George Burns stand in for him. Doctors administered an increasing amount of sedatives. On December 18, Jack conferenced with writer Hugh Wedlock and manager Irving Fein about his upcoming television special, but was unable to get through his monologue due to the medication. On December 20, Jack was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
Pancreatic cancer was called “the silent killer” due to its tendency to remain undiagnosed until it was too late. All the doctors could do was keep Jack sedated, and he eventually lapsed into a coma. A press release of Jack’s condition on December 25 brought a galaxy of Hollywood talent to the Benny home, along with expressions of concern from around the globe. In the last minutes of December 26, Jack Benny quietly passed away.
At his funeral on December 29, over a thousand people attended the service at Hillside Memorial Park. Jack had stood on these grounds 23 years earlier, delivering the speech at the unveiling of the Jolson memorial. Now Bob Hope delivered a moving eulogy for the man who was almost universally loved. He was laid to rest in the mausoleum’s Hall of Graciousness in a black Italian marble sarcophagus. His epitaph: “A Gentle Man”.
After his death, a red rose began appearing daily at the Benny home. At first Mary was too deep in grief, but later she asked the florist. It seems that on one of Jack’s frequent purchases of flowers, he had paused at the door. “If anything should happen to me,” said Jack, “I want you to send my Doll a red rose every day.” This wish was granted, and Mary received a long-stemmed red rose every day until June 30, 1983, when she finally rejoined the man who had loved her so much.