Q: When and where was Jack Benny born?
A: February 14, 1894 in Chicago, Illinois. His parents lived in Waukegan, Illinois, thus his claim to it as his hometown.
Q: What was Jack Benny’s real name? How did he come to be Jack Benny?
A: He was born Benjamin Kubelsky. He initially performed in vaudeville as a violinist under his real name, but violinist Jan Kubelik requested that he change it. He then switched to Ben Benny (or Ben K. Benny, or Ben K. Bennie), and used it with partners Cora Salisbury (Salisbury and Benny) and Lyman Woods (Bennie and Woods: From Grand Opera to Ragtime). Bandleader (and violinist) Ben Bernie took issue with that name.
The last name of Benny was taken from his then-stage name. There are two stories about the first name of Jack. The first one says that he took it from Jack Osterman, a vaudeville comedian that he admired. The second is reported in his autobiography, that it was a nickname that all sailors called each other during his time in the Navy during World War I. He and Benny Rubin were approached by two sailors Jack had known in the Navy, and they called each other “Jack.” It was at that time that he was looking for a new stage name, and having heard the exchange, Benny Rubin suggested “Jack Benny.”
Q: Where did Jack Benny live?
A: Jack’s original family house was at 224 South Genessee Street, Waukegan, Illinois over a haberdashery in Waukegan. The building was demolished in 1993, and was a vacant lot as of 1995. He did live in New York while the radio program was done there, but I do not have an exact address. The house that is most associated with him is 1002 North Roxbury, Beverly Hills, California. This home was built for him in 1937 when the program was moving from the New York to Los Angeles studios, and he lived there until 1965. At this time, Mary suggested that the family move to a penthouse apartment in Century City, a few miles south of the Roxbury house. Later they moved to the house at 10231 Charing Cross Road, Los Angeles. Jack lived there until his death in 1974, and Mary until her death in 1983.
The Roxbury house is still standing and can be easily seen from the street. The Charing Cross Road house was demolished around 1988, and a new mansion built on the same property; it is gated and is not open to the public.
Q: How did Jack Benny start in comedy?
A: Jack was playing “The Rosary” on the violin to a group of servicemen, who were not particularly appreciative of the classical music. Jack’s friend, Pat O’Brien (later known as an actor in his own right), walked on stage and whispered, “For heaven’s sake, Ben, put down the damn fiddle and talk to ’em,” in Jack’s ear. Jack 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, Jack was selected to play a small comedic part in a play that was to be performed for the servicemen. Jack’s 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. He found that he liked the audience reactions to his comedy, and used it in his vaudeville routine. Eventually he eliminated the violin playing and became a monologist.
Q: How did Jack Benny start using those famous hand gestures?
A: There are three stories about Jack’s hand gestures, particularly about his hand on his cheek. The first is that Jack went on stage without his violin for the first time, and he didn’t know what to do with his hands. So he started gesturing and visually punctuating his lines, which developed into the variety of hand gestures. This is in fact not true, as George Burns recalled that pushed Jack to leave the violin behind. When Jack went out on stage, he didn’t know what to do with his hands, so he borrowed a violin from the orchestra, and finished his monologue without ever playing it.
The second story is that Jack and Mary had recently been married. Jack was a handsome young man who, like many vaudevillians, had women in many cities on the circuit. A phone call came to his dressing room from a local girl wanting to seem him that night. With embarrassment and in front of Mary, he told her that he couldn’t see her. Mary approached him angrily after he hung up, and scratched her fingernails down the side of his face. When Jack went on stage shortly thereafter, he needed to cover up the now-red scars, so he held his hand on his cheek.
The third story (and most likely) has Jack and Mary in his vaudeville dressing room shortly after marriage. He previously kidded around with the chorus girls, and they had a fondness for him. One exploded into his room, one breast exposed and painted with lipstick to look like a pig, and yelled “Oink! Oink!” Mary was seated behind the door, and the chorus girl didn’t see her initially. Jack turned around in shock and embarrassment, seeing both the chorus girl and his angry wife. Surprised that Jack didn’t burst out laughing, the chorus girl looked around and saw Mary glaring at her. She made a hasty retreat, Mary then scratched her fingernails down Jack’s cheek, and Jack covered them up onstage with his hand.
Q: How did Jack meet Mary?
A: 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 (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 to a wild party, 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 Sadie Marks. Sadie 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 Mary 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).
Five years later, Sadie was working at the May Company in Los Angeles. Jack was in the store, and saw her. The reasons again vary as to why he did this, but Jack said loudly to her, “Pardon me, miss, but where’s the men’s room?” She snapped back, “Ask the floorwalker!” It wasn’t a particularly witty exchange, but it became the source of a permanent legend. Sadie Marks went on to marry Jack Benny, performed with him occasionally in vaudeville, and later became better-known as Mary Livingstone from her radio character. On the radio show, Jack would often kid Mary about finding her at the May Company. On 10-31-1954, a television episode of “The Jack Benny Program” aired entitled “How Jack Met Mary.” It featured a skit of Jack going into the May Company, meeting and wooing Mary over the hosiery counter. Because of these references, many people believed that Jack actually did find Mary at the May Company, but such is not the case.
Q: When did Jack and Mary get married?
A: January 14, 1927 in Julius Sinykin’s apartment in the Clayton Hotel, Waukegan, Illinois. It was attended by Jack’s father (his mother had passed away by then), Jack’s sister Florence and her husband Leonard, Mary’s sister Babe and her husband Al Bernovici, Jack’s longtime friend Julius Sinykin, Assistant State’s Attorney Sidney Block, and Dr. Farber (who officiated).
Q: Was Jack Benny really cheap?
A: No. Jack Benny was known as one of the most generous men in Hollywood, regularly making charitable contributions to a variety of funds. At one time, he gave $1 million to an actor’s retirement home. He commented once that being cheap had cost him a bundle, as he found that he always had to overtip waiters to compensate for his stingy image.
As far as how his character came to be cheap, he had a variety of jokes in vaudeville. His first cheap joke was, “I took my girl to dinner, and she laughed so hard at one of my jokes that she dropped her tray.” These jokes played well with the audience, and he continued to expand on them as his character became known for being close with the dollar (and every other monetary denomination).
Q: Did Jack Benny really play the violin that badly?
A: There are a variety of observations on this topic. Jack did study violin and perform in vaudeville for a time as a pure violinist. However, he enjoyed performing more than practicing, so never became the Mischa Elman (a Jewish violin virtuoso in the early part of the century) that his parents had wanted.
Jack said that if he tried to play badly, it wouldn’t be funny. He claimed that he would try to play as well as possible, but create comedy in his missing the mark. Later in life he found the discipline for regular practice (for sometimes hours at a stretch), but Mary found the noise so unpleasant that she would make him practice in a far corner of their upstairs floor. Jack also used a wolf mute (heavy lead) to quiet the sound of his practicing. His daughter, Joan, also maintains that her father’s practicing was fairly unpleasant. On the other hand, I have heard several other people say that Jack played reasonably well.
Yet Jack helped raise nearly $6 million for symphonies all over by performing as a guest soloist for benefit concerts. Very few recordings exist today of his concert performances, so it is difficult to gauge the level of his playing in these circumstances. One would think that if he was doing nothing but scratch out wrong notes, people would be unwilling to sit through a full concert of it.
My suggestion is to listen to some of his performances and decide for yourself. Try the movie “Hollywood Canteen”, or some of the television shows with Gisele MacKenzie or Toni Marcus. Pick up a violin yourself for a few minutes and see what you can do with it. Once you have an appreciation for the precision required by a violin, you may feel a little differently about what Jack—although not a virtuoso—could do with it.
Q: Why did Jack Benny always claim he was 39?
A: Jack claimed on one of the radio shows to be 36. It got a laugh, so they continued using it. Later he became 37, then 38, then 39. There were plans to have a big production for Jack’s 40th birthday show, but people started contacting him that he shouldn’t turn 40, as it was too big of a milestone. Thus on the 2-14-54 program, they celebrate Jack’s 40th birthday. Toward the end of the show, Jack gets a telegram from his sister, Florence, saying that Jack was actually born a year later than originally thought, making him…39. Jack phones home to Rochester, and asks him to get out his birth certificate. He asks him what is written in the spot that says “Date of Birth.” Rochester replies, “A hole.” “A hole?” exclaims Jack. “Yeah Boss, we erased it once too often!”
Jack also put it more simply in later years, saying that they stopped at 39 because it’s a funny number–40 isn’t.
Q: What was the story about Jack Benny being caught for smuggling?
A: Here is the story based on George Burns’ recounting of it. In 1938, George Burns and Gracie Allen were having dinner with a man named Albert Chapereau and his wife at “21.” 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. Chapereau offered to sell George the bracelet for $2000, and George accepted.
George told Jack about the purchase. Mary then asked Jack to buy her a diamond pin from Chapereau, and Jack did so for $350. Shortly thereafter, Chapereau’s German maid informed the Customs Bureau of his smuggling activities, as she was angry over some anti-Nazi remarks he had made. Two of the goods were traced to George and Jack, and they were 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. Jack pled innocent to the charge but was found guilty, and received a fine of $10,000 and a one-year-and-one-day suspended sentence.
Q: When did Jack Benny debut on radio?
A: Jack first appeared on radio on Ed Sullivan’s New York interview program on March 29, 1932. His first line was, “This is Jack Benny talking. There will now be a slight pause while you say, ‘Who cares?'”
Q: When was Jack Benny’s first and last radio show?
A: Jack’s first radio show was “The Canada Dry Ginger Ale Program” on May 2, 1932. His last radio show was “The Jack Benny Program” (for Lucky Strike) May 22, 1955. There seem to be two versions of the latter show available, as I have heard one with Mary’s lines dubbed in, and one with another actress (unidentified) playing Mary.
Q: When was Jack Benny’s first and last television show?
A: His first show was October 28, 1950, and his last was April 16, 1965 (reruns continued until September 10, 1965).
Q: When was Jack Benny’s first and last television special?
A: His first special (i.e., non-regular series show) was March 18, 1959, with guests Mitzi Gaynor, Bob Hope, and Senor Wences; the title is unknown. His last special was January 24, 1974, “Jack Benny’s Second Farewell Special.” Guest stars were George Burns, Johnny Carson, Redd Foxx, and Dinah Shore.
Q: How many movies did Jack Benny make?
A: Jack Benny made 32 movies, 7 of which were cameo roles.
Q: When and where did Jack Benny die?
A: 11:52 P.M. on December 26, 1974 in his bedroom at home at 10231 Charing Cross Road, Los Angeles, California.
Q: Where is Jack Benny buried?
A: Jack Benny is buried in the mausoleum at Hillside Cemetery, 6001 Centinela Boulevard, Los Angeles, California. He is in the area called “Graciousness”. Go in the front door of the mausoleum (behind Al Jolson’s sarcophagus), turn right, go down the hall, turn left, and he and Mary are in the large black Italian marble sarcophagus at the end of that hall. While you’re there, you may also want to visit Eddie and Ida Cantor (a few steps to the left of Jack), Ben Blue (cremains in the columbarium to the right of Jack and around the corner), and George Jessell (in the courtyard to your left…look up). Jack’s epitaph is brief and fitting: “A Gentle Man.”
Q: Where can I get copies of “The Jack Benny Program” on radio?
A: If you are a member of the IJBFC, we have a tape library of well over 400 hours of Jack Benny programs, appearances, tributes, and related interviews. You can also trade tapes with other members through our Tape Trading List. There are a number of CDs available that have upwards of 100 programs per CD; I have seen them mainly on Ebay, but haven’t actively sought them myself. There are also a several companies that distribute old radio programs on CD or cassette. You can also download MP3s of Jack Benny programs from various sites. Please see our links page for more information.
Q: Where can I get copies of “The Jack Benny Program” on video?
A: If you are a member of the IJBFC, we have a an extensive video library. There are several companies that have a few of the shows in their archives, and tapes show up regularly on Ebay. Please see our Tape Trading List and our links page for more information.
Q: Where can I get copies of Jack’s movies on video?
A: Not all of Jack’s movies have been released on video, but some of the best ones are. Specifically (in chronological order):
- Broadway Melody of 1936 (1935)
- To Be or Not to Be (1942) – Without question, Jack’s best movie
- George Washington Slept Here (1942) – Probably Jack’s second best movie
- Casablanca (1942) – Cameo appearance, non-speaking, crowd shot
- Hollywood Canteen (1944) – Guest appearance
- The Horn Blows at Midnight (1945)
- Without Reservations (1946) – Cameo appearance
- The Great Lover (1949) – Cameo appearance
- It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) – Cameo appearance
- A Guide for the Married Man (1967) – Cameo appearance
Q: Where can I get a copy of the Si-Sy Mexican routine?
A: Click here to see a list of all the dates of the radio performances of this routine. Then click here to see information on getting shows from our audio library.
Q: I want to trade Jack Benny recordings. What can I do?
A: If you are a member of the IJBFC, you can be included on our Tape Trading List. This list includes people who are interested in trading audio and/or video tapes.
Q: What books are available on Jack Benny?
A: There are five books that are devoted solely to Jack Benny and his work. They are:
- The Jack Benny Show – by Milt Josefsberg
- Jack Benny: An Intimate Biography – by Irving Fein
- Jack Benny – by Mary Livingstone, Hilliard Marks, and Marcia Borie
- Sunday Nights at Seven – by Jack Benny and Joan Benny
- Jack Benny: the Radio and Television Work – by the Museum of Television and Radio
The first four are officially out of print, but they are fairly readily available through used book stores and Ebay. The last can be ordered directly from the Museum of Television and Radio. Please see our links page for more information.
Q: Where can I get photos, lobby cards, magazines, and other material featuring Jack Benny?
A: The quest for Jack Benny paper material has been a difficult one in times before Ebay. You can find lots of things on personalities like the Beatles, Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, and others, but asking a dealer if he or she has anything on Jack Benny will always get you an odd look (and often a bad Jack Benny impersonation). The best option I’ve found recently is Ebay. A lot of what is being offered are copies of the radio and television shows, but you’ll find 8×10 glossies and more interesting items if you look a little more.
Q: I have an idea for a show/movie about Jack Benny, or want to use his image or recordings. How can I get in touch with the estate?
A: Send an E-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org, and we can relay your information to the executors of the estate. You can also send any non-electronic materials to us at: P.O. Box 11288, Piedmont, CA 94611, USA. The IJBFC makes no commitments on behalf of the estate, its executors, or the heirs of Jack Benny; and accepts no responsibility for the materials relayed to the estate or its executors.
Q: When was the International Jack Benny Fan Club® started and by whom?
A: The International Jack Benny Fan Club® was officially founded on January 1, 1980 by Laura Lee (now Laura Leff) in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She was ten years old at the time.
Q: How did you get interested in Jack Benny at such a young age?
A: My mother loved to tell the story about how, when I was three years old, she sat me in front of the television to watch “Jack Benny’s Second Farewell Special” (his last television special). “Watch this, Laura, he’s a very famous comedian,” she said. I watched for a few minutes, and then ran out of the room bored.
One of the cartoons that I would watch as a youngster was the 1948 Warner Brothers’ “The Mouse That Jack Built.” This was supposed to be the first of a series where the Jack Benny program characters were portrayed as mice, but no others were made. This cute cartoon featured Jack, Mary, Rochester, and Don; it is Mary’s birthday and Jack is taking her out for dinner. Even a mouse-sized vault with the guard Ed is shown. It ends with a live action shot of Jack Benny waking up in a chair, and commenting on his dream, “Imagine that…Mary and me, two little mice trapped inside a cat.” At this point, you hear a scratchy violin playing, and the camera cuts to a cat asleep on the floor. Two cartoon mice climb out of the mouth (both in costume and one carrying a violin case), and run across the floor into a mouse hole. The cartoon ends with Jack doing a famous look into the camera.
I always enjoyed that cartoon, and around the time that cable was first installed, a Detroit station started carrying many of the classic comedy shows of the 50s. Jack Benny aired on Tuesday nights, so I became familiar with his television shows. Somehow I met several people (a couple even my own age) who also liked Jack Benny. I was talking on the phone with an adult friend in California who was also a Benny fan, and I joked that, “I know so many people who like Jack Benny that I should start a Jack Benny Fan Club.” She responded, “Well, it’s better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.” That line started me on a path that would change my life forever.