Tuesday, August 14, 2007
Jack Benny 1894- 1974
I was one of the lucky ones to grow up with Jack Benny. He was not as famous as he has been in the 1930's - 1950's...He was at the point of time I remember him..legendary!
I was his biggest fan from the early 1960's on. I enjoyed his shows and specials. I loved it when he made cameo appearances on shows on TV. He was perhaps one of the few people on TV I really admired. I still can recall with great clarity the many shows I watched on TV.
Gosh he was on everything..Laugh in, Lucy, The Dean Martin Show, The Smothers Brothers, The Dean Martin Roasts, The Jack Benny Specials, The Johnny Carson Show, and so many others. Today I can see some of these shows on "youtube" Which allows us to see great shows from the past that are just as funny as they were 30-40 years ago.
Of course I was crestfallen when he died in 1974. I remember the day..December 26, 1974. I wrote in my diary that day "We will laugh again, but never so well".
But let's go back a few years when he was the king of the radio and early TV. He made a great name for himself as a comedian. In many ways he was not one, he was a comic actor.
In real life he was a quiet mild mannered man. Sometimes a very moody brooding one. He had for much of his life the strong mood swings. His closest friends were understanding and loved him. For the bad moods were few and far between. For most of the time he was the sweetest and most considerate person you could ever meet.
One of his greatest problems was his great success. He created a character that was nothing like the real Jack Benny. But one that would attract and amuse nearly every person who came into contact with it.
The character Jack Benny was a cheap, arrogant, sneaky, proud, kind'a foolish, an awful violin player, and one to never allow a penny to pass his way without scooping it up.
The real Jack Benny was very much the opposite....He was generous, warm, friendly, very intelligent, a darn good violinist, and the best audience any comedian could ask for. When watching other comedians he would fall on the floor laughing uncontrollably..He was the best audience you could ever have.
But everyone knew about Jack Benny. As many would expect that he would be just like the character that he played on radio , TV, and movies. This caused some very awkward situations.
The real Jack Benny was often the victim of the character Jack Benny. In fact it was a great burden for him as you will see in some of these stories that I will share with you....
Perhaps one of the greatest stories about Benny comes to us from the early 1960's......
He was at an airport and going to do a show. He decided to run to the bathroom before leaving the airport. In those days they charged ten cents to get into a stall. You would put the dime in the slot and then you could get into the stall. Well, he got in and did what he needed to do and then headed off to the waiting taxi.
Once in the taxi he realized that he must of dropped his wallet on the floor in the stall. So he ran back to the airport and got back into the bathroom. He looked around and saw his wallet deep inside the stall.
Then he came to the sad understanding that he did not have a dime on him to get in. So he had to slide under the door on the floor to reach in and grab his wallet.
Just as he was doing that, another fellow walked into the men's room and immediately recognized Benny as he was sliding on the floor to get into the stall! The fellow just looked at Benny and said....basically ..
..It is true what they say about you!...
Try as he may Benny could not convince the fellow and did not have the time to do so either. It was one of the many times that his character preceded him and marked him as a tightwad.
Another time he was at the Hospital for check ups and he had just relieved himself in the bathroom. Just as he walked out the nurse handed him a cup and asked for a sample. He tried!...All he could muster up was a few drops. When he handed the very slightly filled cup back to the nurse she looked at him and said..."You don't give anything away do you?"...
When he would ride in a taxi he would often give good tips to the drivers. One such driver said to Benny after receiving a five dollar tip....(remember this is the 1960's)......"Mr Benny don't spoil the illusion". So Benny asked for the money back. The driver was not that disillusioned.
These issues would haunt him at dinners, theaters, lounges, and sports events. He would often give tons of money to charities and funds.
Jimmy Stewart the great actor had a wonderful story about Jack Benny that was so amazingly funny...First off you have to know that it is not true.... But so fits Benny's character...Here is Stewart's cute story about Benny....
You know I owe a lot to this great generous man sitting here. You may not know this but Jack Benny saved my life once.
One Christmas when I first came to Hollywood I needed a blood transfusion and Jack donated his blood for me. And I was thinking as I was starting to get his blood, I will have to get him a gift in the order of fifty dollars when I get out of here. After I was half filled with his blood I said well maybe a Twenty five dollar gift would be just fine. By the time it was all over I decided a Christmas card would be just fine!
That was the image!
Perhaps one of his greatest loves was the violin. He was nothing like the mindless, useless, pathetic violin player that he portrayed. He was quite a violinist.
I got the chance to ask one of his violin partners about Benny's playing. That was the great violinist Isaac Stern who I spent time with in December of 2000. I asked him what it was like to play with Benny?
He said that it was an experience and that while Benny did not have the power in his bowing, he was far better than made out to be. That is not to say he was good, said Stern. But he was very good for what he was and how old he was.
It was Stern and Benny who did several concerts at Carnegie Hall to raise money for the august institution to preserve it from the wreckers ball. Most of the work was done by Stern, but there was quite a bit of help from Benny.
Benny would in time raise for Symphonies around the world an amazing two million dollars. While never charging a cent for his services.
Benny did own a real Stradivarius violin and did practice 2 to 3 hours a day! When on stage he played dreadfully, but when on the concert stage he played as well as he could. Often it was amazing, sometimes it was filled with mistakes here and there. But the audience expected him to be lousy. So there was never a problem when it came to his fiddling. Today his violins are part of the collection of L.A. Symphony Orchestra.
Where ever he went he was mobbed by people. He understood it was fine and part of his responsibility as a performing artist. His daughter recalled how he would just be very calm and spend time with fans. He was never pushy or rude. But always a gentleman.
He was a big fan of Chicken Fried Steak. It was something that most fancy places would not have. So he was always delighted to find a roadside dive or diner that had it. It was one of his great delights.
I had never had it. So recently I went to dive type restaurant that had it and ordered it. I will never do so again. It was just as you would imagine it..Steak covered with greasy batter like on fried chicken. I am glad I had the experience and was thinking of him as I ordered it. But I had indigestion for a day after.
Lastly, Benny had a problem from the time of the early 1930's that no matter where he went he was recognized and followed. In 1972 he played a concert with the Jerusalem Symphonic Orchestra under the baton of Zubin Mehta.
One day while having some free time he left the hotel and walked around Israel. No one knew him, and as he returned back he said to Zubin ...Basically saying that it was nice to be an average person for a while. It was something he had never experienced for nearly 40 years...and he enjoyed it.
If you get the chance read about him. He was such a groundbreaking artist in so many ways. The idea of the stand up comedian is his development. The wonderful style and stare was amazing. He taught Johnny Carson how to handle an audience and in Carson's style you always saw the touch that was Benny's. His legacy is one of laughter. Even the comedian Benny Hill used that famous name in tribute to the great innovator.
In Benny's own words about why he was so successful and people associated and understood him so....He said that "They (the people) are educated to understand my character, and therefore they can find the humor in just about everything that I do".
I must say that I feel sorry for people today who do not recall him or understand this comic genius.
But every great performer has his time...I cannot imagine Benny today in this age of Mad TV, Red Neck Humor, or even Saturday night live. I do not think that the audience is comically educated enough to enjoy such humor anymore.
Today it is fast, furious, and in your face.
The days of building up to joke for 10 minutes are of the past.....Our understanding of humor is like our cooking....It has reached the age of the microwave. It has to be fast. If it takes too long we loose interest.
I still don't mind waiting....and I am happy I am old enough to have seen the great days of comedy. And seeing the great acts in their later years. It was a time much unlike now. Think of it between 1960-1970 all the great shows on TV. It was perhaps the last gasp of Vaudeville. And all the great performers who had worked in many cases most of the 20th century had their twilight on TV. Jack Benny was no exception. His career started in 1909, and ended 65 years later. He started in Vaudeville and left us doing Laugh In, Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett, The Lucy Show, The Smothers Brothers, The Dean Martin Show, The Jackie Gleason Show, The Ed Sullivan Show, and so many others and specials. What a way to go...On the top!